How do individuals shape their views on same-sex rights?

Policymakers and the outcomes they produce can play a powerful role in shaping public opinion on questions of same-sex rights. AAP/Alan Porritt

Both sides in Australia’s ongoing same-sex marriage debate have argued that their position more accurately reflects public opinion. Advocates of legalising same-sex marriage point to recent nationwide surveys showing broad public support. Its opponents claim to represent a silent majority of voters.

But how do members of the public shape their views on same-sex marriage?

What previous research suggests

Research has suggested that a variety of factors affect an individual’s decision to tolerate or reject same-sex unions and relationships.

Followers of modernisation theory suggest that economic modernisation produces a move toward greater self-expression. This displaces “traditional” values in favour of those that celebrate individual freedom. They argue that this, in turn, creates a “rising tide” of tolerance, where the scope of civil liberties expands to encompass once-marginalised groups – including gays and lesbians.

Other research shows the pivotal role that religious institutions play in shaping how followers view members of the LGBTI community – and how LGBTI individuals within those congregations view themselves.

While both of these arguments hold value, recent evidence also points to another explanation. Government policies regulating sexuality play a significant role in shaping citizens’ attitudes about sexual orientation and same-sex relationships.

One prominent example of this occurred in Uganda. The debate over its Anti-Homosexuality Act – which was introduced in 2009, passed in 2013 and declared unconstitutional in 2014 – received international attention. It implemented harsher punishments for acts of homosexuality, which were already criminalised. Early drafts would have authorised capital punishment for repeat offenders.

Proponents appealed to the public by framing the measure as a matter of state security and nationalism. They argued that it represented a means of defending Uganda against a Western agenda that sought to weaken the country’s African values by promoting homosexuality.

Reports from Uganda while the bill was under debate suggest that this rhetoric had a strong impact on the public. A prominent homosexual activist was beaten to death in 2011 after being identified as a “top homo” by a national tabloid. Polls conducted in 2012 showed a 95% public approval rating for the bill. And while it was annulled on a technicality, many of its provisions have resurfaced in a new bill.

The increasing role of governments

Uganda may represent an extreme case. But it is not unique.

I designed and conducted an analysis of the relationship between government policies on sexuality and citizens’ attitudes about same-sex relationships. The results, published in 2014, show that policymakers are more than just conduits for public opinion on the subject of sexuality. Rather, policymakers and the outcomes they produce can play a powerful role in shaping public opinion on questions of LGBTI rights.

According to my study, there is a statistically significant relationship between the attitudes of governments and their citizens towards same-sex relationships. This bolsters the claim that progressive LGBTI rights policies produce citizens with more tolerant attitudes.

This relationship is also noticeable even when a variety of other relevant factors are controlled for – including the respondent’s age, gender and religious views, the country’s level of modernisation, and the degree to which the respondent values individual freedom.

My source data was the World Values Survey. In its 2005-2009 release, it polled more than 29,000 individuals in 37 countries, asking a variety of questions including an assessment of respondents’ views on homosexuality, based on a ten-point scale (ten being the most positive). Survey respondents also answered questions about their personal values and religious beliefs. This allowed me to assess how these factors related to their views on homosexuality.

More importantly for my analysis, I also assessed whether each respondent lived in a country with progressive policies on LGBTI rights. This allowed me to test the relationship between government policies and individual views.

While a statistical study such as this, with thousands of observations from dozens of countries, provides limited insight into the deeper context within any one country, the US may be a case that shows this dynamic at work. While polls show that public support for same-sex marriage has been on the rise over the past 20 years, the single largest year-on-year jump came in 2011.

This was the year in which the government’s controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy – which prevented open service by gay and lesbian military personnel – was formally lifted. 2011 was also the first year that public support for same-sex marriage in the US surpassed 50%, a benchmark that it has remained at or above ever since.

This example further suggests that high-level policy changes can be one of those factors that nudges individual opinion in a certain direction.

Where next?

There are caveats to this finding. As in the example above, I used government policies on open military service by gays and lesbians as an indicator of government policies toward gays and lesbians, generally.

In the paper, I argue that this is a relevant benchmark because it represents a noticeable signal. Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military indicates that the government trusts them with visible, high-priority roles in safeguarding national security.

The effects of same-sex marriage policies may affect citizens’ attitudes differently. These policies are focused on a private, rather than public, benefit.

Nonetheless, this research has interesting implications for Australia’s debate over same-sex marriage. Australia lifted its ban on military service by openly gay and lesbian soldiers in 1992. In the 2005-2009 World Values Survey, its average response to the question about homosexuality was 5.64.

This result is roughly similar to the average response in Canada (5.70), another English-speaking country which also lifted its restrictions on military service in 1992. Both are significantly higher than the average response in the US (4.57), where restrictions remained in force until 2011.

Yet in recognition of same-sex unions, Australia has fallen behind both countries. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005 and is currently legal in 36 US states.

If policies on same-sex marriage have the same impact as policies on military service, that would mean Australia’s LGBTI community has a great deal at stake in this debate. The impact on public opinion could produce a benefit for all LGBTI individuals, regardless of whether they exercise the right to marry or not.