As the U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments over California’s same-sex marriage laws last week, the questions posed by the Justices suggested how far and fast the debate over gay rights had shifted. In 1971, the Supremes unanimously dismissed a same-sex marriage case, during an era when many states still criminalized homosexual sex. This time, even some of the Court’s more conservative judges gave gay marriage opponents a grilling. The changed tone reflects a dramatic evolution in U.S. popular opinion: Support for gay marriage in the U.S. has approximately doubled since 1996, reaching 53 percent in 2011. In this, Americans are hardly exceptional—in fact, compared with a number of other countries, in Europe and Latin America in particular, the U.S. is a laggard when it comes to attitudes toward gay rights. The decline of homophobia is a truly global revolution.
In the mid-1980s, no European country provided legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples. A quarter-century later, 16 countries in the region had same-sex marriage or legal partnership laws in place. Eleven other countries, including Argentina and South Africa, have legalized same-sex marriage. In Mexico and Brazil, gay marriage is legal in at least some states. The countries with larger majorities in favor of gay marriage than in the U.S. include Uruguay, Argentina, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Spain.
All this reflects rapidly changing global attitudes toward same-sex relationships more broadly. According to World Values Survey data, from 1993 to 2006, the proportion of people who thought homosexuality was never justifiable dropped from an average of 59 percent to 34 percent. The U.S. matched the global pattern, with a decline from 54 percent to 33 percent; if anything, acceptance of gay people was slower in the U.S. than many other places. Among the 27 countries asked about the moral status of homosexuality in both 1993 and 2006, the U.S. dropped from 12th most gay-friendly in 1993 to 17th most friendly in 2006.
The World Values Survey data do suggest that Asia and Africa remain more homophobic than the Americas and Europe, but change has been rapid nonetheless. In the 2006 wave of surveys, the majority of Indians and Chinese remained firmly against homosexuality. But the proportion of people who thought homosexuality was never justifiable fell from 93 percent to 64 percent in India from 1993 to 2006 and from 92 percent to 74 percent in China.
By some measures, people have become more accepting of differences in sexual orientation than of differences in religious belief. For example, more than a quarter of Americans and 22 percent of Brazilians suggest they wouldn’t want neighbors who practiced a different religion. But only 2 percent of Americans and 6 percent of Brazilians volunteer that they wouldn’t want to live next door to a homosexual. Across surveyed countries in 2006, 44 percent of people said they wouldn’t want to live next to someone of a different religion, compared with 16 percent who mentioned homosexuals.
Why this incredible evolution in social norms? Cross-country analysis by sociologists Amy Adamczyk and Cassady Pitt suggests that around the world (as in the U.S.) men, the less educated, older, and more religious people are all more likely to have negative attitudes toward homosexuals. Adamczyk and Pitt also suggest that Catholics and Catholic countries are less homophobic than predominantly Protestant or Muslim societies. But none of these factors has changed so fast over the last 20 years to explain the worldwide sea-change in attitudes, which suggests the global trend is driven by something more.
One explanation is that people become more tolerant when they perceive less is at stake. The history of racial discrimination provides a useful example. Only one in five Americans approved of interracial marriages in 1969, and it took until 1997 for approval to breach the 50 percent mark. But today 86 percent of Americans approve. As more and more people encounter a happy, loving interracial or same-sex couple in real life, or even just on television, and realize such people don’t pose any threat to their well-being or way of life, perhaps it becomes considerably easier to accept the idea of equality.
All this is not to say there isn’t a long way to go in the worldwide fight against homophobia. Tom Smith of the University of Chicago reports evidence that discriminatory attitudes may be on the rise in parts of Eastern Europe, and hate crimes remain widespread in the region. A recent Afrobarometer survey in Malawi suggests that 94 percent of the population opposes same-sex marriage. And some African countries have seen campaigns to toughen laws against homosexuality, backed by far-right evangelical organizations in the U.S. Still, the global flow is toward greater inclusion—and perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court will be lifted by the tide.
Kenny is a fellow at the Center for Global Development and the New America Foundation.