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Last week, on the heels of Obama’s announcement that he supports gay marriage, NPR interviewed the President of the Pew Research Center, Andrew Kohut, about trends in American support for the issue.  Kohut explained that American opinion has changed dramatically, and unusually, in a very short time.  In 1996, for example, 27% of people supported gay marriage (65% opposed).  This “really didn’t change very much” for a while.  In 2004, when Republicans mobilized the issue to get conservatives to the polls, 60% still opposed it.  But today, in the space of less than a decade, we have more people supporting gay marriage than opposing it.  Some polls show the majority of Americans believe that we should have the right to marry someone of the same sex.

This trend is driven, in part, by young people replacing the old, but focusing on this overshadows the fact that essentially all Americans — of every stripe — show higher support for gay marriage than they did a decade ago.  Both men and women and people of all races, political affiliations, religions, and ages are showing increased support for gay marriage.  This is a real, remarkable, and rare shift in opinion:

Opinion by age:
Opinion by religion:
Opinion by political party:
Opinion by political orientation:
Opinion by race:
Opinion by gender:
Via Montclair SocioBlog.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

A different version of this post was originally published at Timeline.

To get some perspective on the long term trend in divorce, we need to check some common assumptions. Most importantly, we have to shake the idea that the trend is just moving in one direction, tracking a predictable course from “olden days” to “nowadays.”

It’s so common to think of society developing in on direction over time that people rarely realize they are doing it. Regardless of political persuasion, people tend to collapse history into then versus now whether they’re using specific dates and facts or just imagining the sweep of history.

In reality, sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not true that society has a direction of change over a long time period. Some social trends are pretty clear, such as population growth, longevity, wealth, or the expansion of education. But when you look more closely, and narrow the focus to the last century or so, it turns out that even the trends that are following some path of progress aren’t moving linearly, and the fluctuations can be the big story.

Demography provides many such examples. For example, although it’s certainly true that Americans have fewer children now than they did a century ago, the Baby Boom – that huge spike in birth rates from 1946 to 1964 – was such a massive disruption that in some ways it is the big story of the century. Divorce is another.

The most popular false assumption about divorce – sort of like crime or child abuse – is that it’s always getting worse (which isn’t true of crime or child abuse, either). In the broadest sense, yes, there is more divorce nowadays than there was in the olden days, but the trend is complicated and has probably reversed.

It turns out, however, that the story of divorce rates is ridiculously complicated. For one thing, there is no central data source that simply counts all divorces. The National Center for Health Statistics used to divorces from states, but now six states don’t feel like cooperating anymore, including, unbelievably, California. Even where divorces are counted, key information may not be available, such as the people’s age or how long they were married (or, now that there is gay divorce, their genders). Fortunately, the Census Bureau (for now) does a giant sample survey, the American Community Survey, which gives us great data on divorce patterns, but they only started collecting that information in 2008.

The way demographers ask the question is also different from what the public wants to know. The typical concerned citizen (or honeymooner) wants to know: what are the odds that I (or someone else getting married today) will end up divorced? Science can guess, but it’s impossible to give a definitive answer, because we can’t actually predict human behavior. Still, we can help.

The short answer is that divorce is more common than it was a 75 years ago, but less common than it was at the peak in 1979. Here’s the trend in what we call the “refined” divorce rate – the number of divorces each year for every thousand married women in the country:

The figure uses the federal tally from states from 1940 to 1997, leaves out the period when there was no national collection, and then picks up again when the American Community Survey started asking about divorce.

So the long term upward trend is complicated by a huge spike from soldiers returning home at the end of World War II (a divorce boom, to go with the Baby Boom), a steep increase in the sixties and seventies, and then a downward glide to the present.

How is it possible that divorce has been declining for more than three decades? Part of it is a function of the aging population. As demographers Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles have argued, old people divorce less, and the married population is older now than it was in 1979, because the giant Baby Boom is now mostly in its sixties and people are getting married at older ages. This is tricky, though, because although older people still divorce less, the divorce rates for older people (50+) have doubled in the last two decades. Baby Boomers especially like to get divorced and remarried once their kids are out of the house.

But there is a real divorce decline, too, and this is promising about the future, because it’s concentrated among young people – their chances of divorcing have fallen over the last decade. So, although in my own research I’ve estimated that estimated that 53% of couples marrying today will get divorced, that is probably skewed by all the older people still pulling up the rates. Typical Americans getting married in their late 20s today probably have a less than even chance of getting divorced. The divorce will probably keep falling.

Rather than a conservative turn toward family values, I think this represents an improving quality of marriages. When marriage is voluntary – when people really choose to get married instead of simply marching into it under pressure to conform – one hopes they would be making better choices, and the data support that. Further, as marriage has become more rare, it has also become more select. Despite more than a decade of futile marriage promotion efforts by the federal government, marriage is still moving up the income scale. The people getting married today are more privileged than they used to be: more highly educated (both partners), and more stably situated. All that bodes well for the survival of their marriages, but doesn’t help the people left out of the institution. If less divorce just means only perfect couples are getting married, that’s merely another indicator of rising inequality.

Putting this trend back in that long term context, we should also ask whether falling divorce rates – which run counter to the common assumption that everything modern in family life is about the destruction of the nuclear family – are always a good thing. Most people getting married would like to think they’ll stay together for the long haul. But what is the right amount of divorce for a society to have? It seems like an odd question, but divorce really isn’t like crime or child abuse. You want some divorces, because otherwise it means people are stuck in bad marriages. If you have no divorce that means even abusive marriages can’t break up. If you have a moderate amount, it means pretty bad marriages can break up but people don’t treat it lightly. And if you have tons of divorce it means people are just dropping each other willy-nilly. When you put it that way, moderate sounds best. No one has been able to put numbers to those levels, but it’s still good to ask. Even as we shouldn’t assume families are always falling apart more than they used to, we should consider the pros and cons of divorce, rather than insisting more is always worse.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Legal status of same-sex marriage in the U.S.:

The social psychology of same-sex marriage:

Politicians on same-sex marriage:


Changing public opinion on same-sex marriage:


The movement for same-sex marriage:

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

We’ve seen a real shift in support for the issue and acceptance of homosexuality in general.  Since 2011, the majority of Americans are in favor of extending marriage to same-sex couples and the trend has continued.

What is behind that change?  The Pew Research Center asked 1,501 respondents whether they’d changed their minds about same-sex marriage and why.  Here’s what they found.

The overall trend towards increasing support is clear in the data.  Fourteen percent of Americans say that they used to oppose same-sex marriage, but they now support it.  Only 2% changed their mind in the other direction.


People offered a range of reasons for why they changed their minds.  The most common response involved coming into contact with someone that they learned was homosexual.  A third of respondents said that knowing a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person was influential in making them rethink their position on gay marriage.  This is consistent with the Contact Hypothesis, the idea that (positive) experiences with someone we fear or dislike will result in changes of opinion.


As you can see, lots of other reasons were common too.  A quarter of people said that they, well, “evolved”:  they grew up, thought about it more, or more clearly.  Nearly as many said that they were simply changing with the times or that a belief that everyone should be free to do what they want was more important than restricting the right to marry.

I thought that the 5% that said they’d changed their minds for religious reasons were especially interesting.  Support for same-sex marriage is rising in every demographic, even among the religious.  Following up on this, Pew offers an additional peek into the minds of believers.  The table below shows that 37% of the religious  both believe that same-sex marriage is compatible with their belief and support it, but an additional 28% who think marriage rights would violate their religious belief are in favor of extending those rights nonetheless.



While we’ve been following the trend lines for several years, it’s really interesting to learn what’s behind the change in opinion about same-sex marriage.  Contact with actual gay people — and probably lovable gay and lesbian celebrities like Ellen and Neil Patrick Harris — appears to be changing minds. But the overall trend reflects real shifts in American values about being “open,” valuing “freedom” and “choice,” extending “rights,” and accepting that this is the way it is, even if one personally doesn’t like it.

Cross-posted at BlogHer and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

Last month Jet — a magazine marketed to African-American population — featured their first gay male couple in their wedding announcements.  The announcement may be a sign that African-American attitudes towards gay marriage may be turning around.  While the group has typically endorsed gay marriage at lower rates than White Americans, the gap between Blacks and Whites has been narrowing.

The Pew Research Center reports that the percent of Whites opposed to gay marriage dropped from 51% in 2008 to 41% in 2012.  Among Blacks, the percent in opposition dropped from 63% to 49%.  African-Americans and Whites are now separated by eight percentage points instead of twelve.

The data above was collected in April of 2012.  In May, Obama announced that he supported gay marriage.  It remains to be seen whether Obama’s modeling of a pro-gay stance will influence the opinions of the African-American community further.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Over the past couple of years, the U.S. appears to have finally reached a tipping point regarding attitudes toward same-sex marriage. In polls from a variety of organizations over the last two years, more people supported same-sex marriage than opposed it, and in some polls an outright majority expressed support for marriage equality.

Data from the Pew Research Center poll provide more evidence for this fairly rapid shift in public attitudes:

However, those attitudes vary widely by region. Looking more closely at the Pew data, we see that support is highest in New England, where over 60% of those surveyed in 2012 favored making same-sex marriages legal, but most regions of the U.S. now show more support than opposition. In fact, only in the South Atlantic and South Central states did more respondents oppose marriage equality than support it. The South Central region was least supportive, with 56% of respondents opposing same-sex marriage:

Support for same-sex marriage has grown in ever region over the past 10 years. A decade ago, supporting same-sex marriage was clearly a minority opinion across the U.S.:


As the Pew Center post points out, it’s not that attitudes in the South aren’t changing, but they’re only now approaching where the rest of the country was on the issue a decade ago.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Earlier this month, voters in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington faced ballot measures on same-sex marriage. The measures in Maryland and Washington sought to repeal same-sex marriage rights passed by their legislatures, while Minnesotans voted on whether to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution — and rejected the change. These three unsuccessful measures were part of a long history of anti-gay ballot measures dating back to 1974, which I document in my book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box. Meanwhile, in Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot.

In all four states, the campaigns to ban same-sex marriage developed political ads that suggest that same-sex marriage is a threat to individual religious freedom. One ad about a Gallaudet diversity officer whose job was temporarily suspended due to her support for a referendum on same-sex marriage was initially aired in Maryland before being pulled for copyright restrictions by Gallaudet University. This and similar ads warned voters that individuals who do not support same-sex marriage will be fined, imprisoned, or ostracized for their religious beliefs:


These ads draw from a documentary series called Speechless: Silencing the Christians, created by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, founder and president of the American Family Association, a national organization that has worked for decades to restrict same-sex marriage and other rights for LGBT individuals. The 13-episode series was produced in 2008 and published as a book in 2009:

This discourse of religious freedom relies on civil rights language rather than morality. It focuses on the ability of individuals to live lives of faith in the world and make decisions in all aspects of their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs.

This understanding of religious freedom has more in common with arguments about civil rights than ones about religious morality. Rather than arguing about a particular moral perspective (e.g., the immorality of homosexuality), religious freedom rests on an argument that all individuals should have the freedom to make decisions based on their religion and should not be obstructed in their daily lives in doing so. The ads present Christians as embattled victims of intolerance for their religious views.

The political ads also use many of the zero-sum arguments about civil rights that have been documented by scholars since the 1960s, with gains for one group seen as a loss for another group. For example,  a gain for African Americans through desegregation was constructed by some white citizens as an equally dramatic loss for themselves.

Thus, these political ads, which seem to emerge out of the individual politics of each ballot measure, are connected to a larger argument about same-sex marriage and a long history of arguments about civil rights.


Amy L. Stone is an associate professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation released the results of a survey of 3,130 adults about their position on same-sex marriage. The survey found that just over half of all adults and registered voters thought same-sex couples should be able to get married:

Unsurprisingly, this varies greatly by political affiliation, with Democrats and Republicans mirroring each other — 2/3rds of Democrats support same-sex marriages, while the same proportion of Republicans oppose it. Well over half of Independents also agree that same-sex marriage should be legal:

You can also see the results by party clusters — that is, different groups within the parties (the Post unfortunately doesn’t describe the clusters). Urban liberals were most supportive (93%), while those identifying with the Tea Party were least (6%):

These numbers tell us a lot about why the Democratic party appears to be on the verge of adopting a platform that explicitly includes marital equality as a goal. This position is unlikely to alienate many people within the party or Independents who might lean Democratic, since only a small minority of both groups “strongly” oppose same-sex marriage. We’re at a point where a major political party can make the calculation that openly stating they support allowing gay and lesbian couples to get married helps its political chances more than it potentially hurts them.

Via the New Civil Rights Movement.