Marriage Poll Madness

Much is being made about a newly-released CBS/New York Times poll that now supposedly shows a statistical majority of Americans opposed to same-sex marriage and in favor of a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to a union between one man and one woman.

There is a lot of hubbub around the poll particularly since Massachusetts’ highest court ruled in November that banning same-sex marriage in that state was illegal.

The poll is also getting a lot of attention because the numbers are different than a similar poll conducted in July. The summer poll showed more Americans supporting the notion of same-sex marriage.

In writing about the new poll, a lot of publications, including the venerable New York Times, have overplayed the significance of the numbers.

There’s certainly a lot of information that gay and lesbian activists should gather from the study, and the slide in numbers from those supporting us to those opposing us shouldn’t be pooh-poohed or glossed over.

But in assessing the real value and meaning of the poll, we should keep in mind that famous saying, “Lies, damn lies and statistics.”

First, let’s look at what the numbers say. Then we can try to figure out what those numbers really mean, and why.

According to the poll, 49 percent of respondents said they believed homosexual relations should not be legal, compared to 41 percent who said they thought same-sex relationships should be legal. That’s a flip-flop from the July poll that found 54 percent in favor of giving legal recognition to gay relations, and 39 percent opposed.

On the question of gay marriage, 61 percent of respondents opposed it. Back in the July poll, 55 percent opposed it. In July, 40 percent supported gay marriage, where as in the December poll, 34 percent supported it.

The figures are slightly better for support of civil unions. Of those asked, 54 oppose it, and 39 percent support it.

On the brighter side, most Americans either don’t believe homosexuality is wrong or they don’t care. Of those asked, 49 percent said they thought it was morally wrong, 13 percent said it was OK, and 36 percent didn’t care.

If the poll is correct, it isn’t good news for gays and lesbians who support marriage. It does show a slip in public opinion.

But that’s not surprising. In the past six months, gays and lesbians have won several significant legal battles. The two biggest here in the United States are the Supreme Court ruling that struck down sodomy, and the Massachussetts’ high court ruling saying the ban against gay marriage was unlawful. Furthermore, two provinces in Canada legalized gay and lesbian marriages, a reform on that entire nation may be on the verge.

It’s not surprising that after such major victories for the gay rights movement there would be a so-called “backlash” against us by those who feel threatened of who feel that we are getting “too many” of those “special” rights.

But we should keep cool heads and keep perspective when we look at the numbers.

First, what they really show is that Americans remain very split on the issue of gay and lesbian marriage. Though the numbers have shifted slightly in the past six months, the message that gay and lesbian relationships in general, and marriage in particular, pose a thorny issue is what remains constant. Neither the foes of gay and lesbian marriage, nor the supporters of it, have yet won over Middle America.

Finally, any political campaigner can tell you how famously unreliable polls and statistics are. History is full of politicians who fared well in polls, only to lose at the voting booths. Polls are quick snap shots of the moment, on any given issue. But they are not necessarily good predictors of the future.

There is much in the poll, however, that is useful for gays and lesbians advocating for same-sex marriage. For example, the poll shows that support is strongest among liberals, those under 30, and people who said they knew a gay or lesbian person. The message: Coming out to your friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers is still the most important political act a gay or lesbian person can do.

The poll also showed that those who viewed the issue as primarily a religious one were most likely to be opposed to granting gay and lesbian equal marriage rights. This underscores a critical message that we have to be sending the public: the fight for marriage rights is a legal battle for civil marriage. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious establishments are not being asked to amend their religious beliefs. Although fighting for greater understanding in religion is an important, if different, front we also need to be working on.

Polls like this one—and the numerous ones that undoubtedly lay ahead—can and should be used as guideposts by our movement for tweaking our approach to the public. But polls alone—whether they show we are gaining or losing ground at any particular moment in time—must be kept in proper perspective.

Whatever the numbers are, we should never let them go to our heads.

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