The U.S. has caught up to California on views of LGBTQ+ rights, poll shows


As the state with the largest LGBTQ+ population, and one that’s been shaped by the liberal politics of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California has long been at the forefront of progressive policies and popular support for the rights of transgender residents and the cultural acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.

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But the rest of the country has largely caught up with residents of the Golden State on backing LGBTQ+ Americans, a new survey conducted for The Times finds.

The poll, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and paid for by the California Endowment, followed up on a groundbreaking nationwide survey The Times did nearly 40 years ago, at a time when the emergence of HIV and AIDS led to massive discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.

At that time, more than 40% of Los Angeles and San Francisco residents said nothing was wrong with lesbian and gay people living as they chose, but a large majority of Americans overall saw homosexuality as morally wrong. Same-sex marriage was a radical idea that didn’t even come to mind for pollsters. The notion of gender identity was far from mainstream.

It’s a far different picture today.

The new survey, which asked questions of 1,624 adults nationwide with separate samples of California residents and LGBTQ+ people, found that Californians tended to be a few points more favorable than the national population toward LGBTQ+ people and causes, but the gap was fairly narrow.

Among the findings:

  • Equal shares of Californians and Americans overall — 72% — said they knew someone who was lesbian or gay. Smaller shares, also statistically equal between California and the U.S. as a whole, said they knew someone who was bisexual or transgender.
  • Similarly, statistically equal numbers of Californians, 72%, and Americans overall, 71%, approved of the legality of same-sex marriage.
  • Californians were slightly more likely than the general population — 70% versus 64% — to say sexual relations between adults of the same sex is “not an issue.”
  • Californians were, to a small degree, more likely than Americans overall to believe LGBTQ+ people were “born that way” as opposed to believing sexual and gender identities were “influenced by society” or a “lifestyle choice.”
  • Californians were just as likely as adults in the rest of the nation to say that finding out their child was transgender or nonbinary would make them “very upset.” About a quarter of U.S. and California adults said that.

“In the past four decades, the attitudes of the country as a whole have come pretty close to matching those in California on a number of issues,” said NORC senior research director Dan Malato, comparing results from the 1985 survey with this year’s polling.

Malato said the polling data did not pinpoint the reasons for the shift, but he suggested the fact that more people openly identify as LGBTQ+ today may play a role.

“More people say they know a gay or lesbian person now than in 1985, and we also see separately that there is a correlation between knowing an LGBTQ person more broadly and being more accepting,” Malato said.

As more people have openly identified as LGBTQ+, the community has also gained more legal rights and protections, such as same-sex marriage, the ability to adopt children, and state and local nondiscrimination laws, all of which have increased visibility. California, which was once ahead of much of the nation on these matters, no longer stands out.

Still, in California and the rest of the country, older, Republican and religious Americans — particularly Protestants — were less likely to support civil rights for LGBTQ+ people and more likely to think their conduct was immoral.

Nik Catello, a 64-year-old from Huntington Beach who responded to the survey and agreed to a follow-up interview, said his “traditional biblical views” influenced his take on LGBTQ+ people.

“We live in a free country,” said Catello, a Republican who is an independent filmmaker. “Everyone can do what they want, but you can’t say being gay or transgender is morally correct.”

“If you want to live with somebody who is the same sex or try to change your gender, you can do that, but it doesn’t mean the law has to bend to your will. We can’t force these ideas on everyone,” Catello said.

A woman dressed in a white sweater smiles while sitting at a table outside.

Christine Huynh, a participant in the Los Angeles Times poll, lives in San Gabriel.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Christine Huynh, a 34-year-old who also participated in the poll and lives in the San Gabriel Valley, held opposite views.

“We’re becoming more and more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, even in the time since I went to college, and that is a good thing, not a bad thing,” said Huynh, a Democrat who is an occupational therapist.

“I think any pushback you see from people is just them being afraid of change,” Huynh said. “It’s the same kind of pushback you saw in other fights for civil rights, over race and the rights of Black people or women’s rights. We look back in history now and we see the resistance was about fear.”

Across the board, the poll found that younger generations were more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ and see such identities as worthy of legal protections and cultural support.

Michelle Chan, a 24-year-old respondent who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is queer, said the political debates that have engulfed the nation over LGBTQ+-themed books in schools and state-level laws about transgender minors were disappointing.

“People are just trying to live, be themselves and learn about each other,” she said. “Why try to stop that?”

That perspective could also be seen in the survey results. Nearly equal shares of Californians and Americans overall — more than 7 in 10 — said elected officials were “mostly using debates over transgender and nonbinary people to distract attention from more pressing priorities.”

Compared with other similar polls that have taken the pulse of Americans on LGBTQ+ issues, The Times survey found significant jumps over time in acceptance of lesbian and gay people and, to a lesser degree, bisexual and transgender individuals.

In 2000, when the Public Policy Institute of California polled state residents on legalizing same-sex marriage, only 38% were in support while 55% were opposed.

By 2014, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, views in California had flipped. A PPIC survey that year found that a majority of state residents — 56% — supported legalization while 36% were against it. Last year, the polling organization found that 75% of likely voters in California supported enshrining the right to same-sex marriage in the state’s Constitution, including 46% of Republicans.

Compare that with a Gallup survey in 2000, which found only 34% of Americans supported legalizing same-sex marriage. That percentage gradually caught up to the level of support in California by 2014, when 55% of Americans told Gallup they supported same-sex marriage.

By the time Gallup asked the same question last May, support was up to 71%.

NORC conducted this poll in January using its AmeriSpeak panel, a probability-based panel designed to reflect U.S. households overall. The poll surveyed 1,624 adults — including 775 Californians and 313 LGBTQ+ people — and was weighted to match benchmarks for age, gender, census division, race and ethnicity, and education. It had an estimated margin of error of 3.8 percentage points for the full sample.



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