ATTITUDES TOWARD GAYS….On a personal level, support for gay rights is grounded in a respect for basic human decency. As a campaign issue, however, it’s grounded in practical politics: how do most Americans actually feel about the various issues surrounding gay rights? And how should the issues be framed for maximum impact?

My personal thoughts on this haven’t changed since I was a teenager, but my personal thoughts don’t mean a thing since my views are highly atypical. Rather, what got me thinking about this as a campaign issue was reading some polling results a few months ago about various gay rights issues, specifically this report by Kathryn Bowman of AEI, summarizing attitudes toward gays over the past three decades.

There’s good news and bad news here, but mostly good news, I think, so here’s a quick summary. As a baseline for comparison, 37% of Americans today believe that premarital sex is wrong. Compare this to the following gay rights issues:

  • The baseline attitude toward homosexuality ? is it wrong? ? has improved dramatically. In 1973, 80% thought it was always or almost always wrong. Today that number is 64% and other polls put it at around 55%. Still a majority, but declining steadily.

  • Should it be legal? Those saying yes has gone up from 43% in 1977 to 52% in 2002.

  • Employment: 86% think gays should have equal employment opportunities. 72% think they should be eligible for the military. 63% think they are OK as high school teachers.

  • Marriage: only about a third approve of gay marriage, but nearly half approve of civil union.

  • Benefits: 62% think gay spouses should be allowed to inherit, 64% think Social Security benefits should be paid to gay spouses, and 58% approve of health benefits for gay spouses.

  • Nearly half think gay couples should be able to adopt.

Bottom line: attitudes have improved enough that there’s probably a decent sized segment of moderate Bush supporters who might think less of him if he could be painted as intolerant ? or even merely insufficiently supportive ? toward gays. It’s true that there is still widespread personal discomfort with gay relationships, but it’s also pretty obvious that large majorities oppose discrimination against gays and basically feel that attitudes like Santorum’s belong to a bygone era. It would be fascinating to compare the poll numbers above with similar surveys about civil rights from the early 60s, an era that turned out to be ripe for legislative change.

POSTSCRIPT: I know that Andrew Sullivan is not exactly a prototypical voter, but when he says this…

It is hard to express fully the sheer discouragement of this past week, capped simply by a calculated and contemptuously terse political gesture by a president I had come to trust. It makes me question whether that trust is well founded. And whether hope for a more inclusive future among conservatives is simply quixotic.

…it’s hard not to believe that there are some fence-sitting moderate voters for whom this could be an issue that nudges them toward a Democratic candidate.

(Can I just ask, though, what the hell has Sullivan been thinking? Whatever else you think of him, he’s a very smart, very politically astute person, so what could possibly have led him to believe that George Bush might actually be willing to take any kind of electoral risk to support gays? 9/11 must have really addled his brain for him not to understand something this basic and this obvious. I almost feel sorry for the guy.)

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