Utah: Dead Last for Gay Marriage?

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A data table released by two Columbia University professors has indicated that Utah has been slower to accept the idea of gay marriage than all other states.

The dataset was assembled by Jeff Lax and Justin Phillips and posted on political analysis Web site FiveThirtyEight.com by Columbia statistics and political science professor Andrew Gelman. The two men analyzed responses on national opinion polls about gay rights collected from 1994 through 2009 and made predictions on how support for gay marriage would increase in the future.

“In the past fifteen years, gay marriage ahs increased in popularity in all fifty states,” wrote Gelman in the post, dated June 11. “No news there, but what was a surprise to me is where the largest changes have occurred. The popularity of gay marriage has increased fastest in the states where gay rights were already relatively popular in the 1990s.”

These states, Gelman noted, were California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, where support for gay marriage barely surpassed 30 percent of those surveyed in 1995. In 14 years, Gelman said that support for gay marriage in these six states had jumped by about 20 percent.

“In contrast, support has increased by less than 10 percentage points in the six states that in 1995 were most anti-gay marriage,” Gelman wrote. These states are Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi Oklahoma, and Utah.

After seeing the data table put together by Lax and Phillips, Gelman said he was “stunned” to find that favorable opinion of gay marriage was increasing more slowly in some states rather than moving towards a common number in all states, a statistical observation refered to as regression to the mean.

“But that’s not what’s happening at all,” he said.

To explain the data, Gelman suggested several ideas, including the idea of a tipping point—that is, more gay, lesbian and bisexual people come out as their home states become more accepting of gay rights. And as more gay, lesbian and bisexual people come out, straight society’s acceptance increases as more straights realize they have gay friends, family and colleagues.

”Conversely, in states where gay rights are highly unpopular, gay people will be slower to reveal themselves, and thus the knowing-and-accepting process will go slower,” Gelman observed.

In studies conducted independently by the Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News and statewide gay rights group Equality Utah earlier this year, over 50 percent of Utahns were found to both know someone who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. All three polls also found that a majority of Utahns — in some cases well over 50 percent — supported basic protections for gay and transgender people, including workplace and housing nondiscrimination laws and hospital visitation rights.

Gelman also noted that politics may play a role in the statistics.

“As gay rights become more popular in “blue states” such as New York, Massachusetts, California, etc., it becomes more in the interest of liberal politicians to push the issue,” said Gelman. “Conversely, in states where gay marriage is highly unpopular, it’s in the interest of social conservatives to bring the issue to the forefront of public discussion. So the general public is likely to get the liberal spin on gay rights in liberal states and the conservative spin in conservative states. Perhaps this could help explain the divergence.”

In Utah, often referred to as the most conservative-leaning state in the Union, this latter model would seem to bear out. Nearly every gay-related bill put forward in the past decade, from 2004’s constitutional ban on gay marriage to 2009’s Common Ground Initiative, has been a reaction to legislators’ attempts to curtail legal protections for gay and transgender Utahns. The Common Ground Initiative was a set of four bills that sought to give gay and transgender Utahns such protections as inheritance rights and workplace nondiscrimination protections. Three failed in committee and one, the most controversial bill which sought to strike the constitutional ban on other forms of civil partnerships, was withdrawn by its sponsor to give the other bills a better chance.

Gelman encouraged further study of the questions raised by Lax and Phillips’ findings. On the subject of gay rights he suggested examining such things as survey responders’ age and religion and noting in which groups opinions “are changing the fastest.” He also

“To study the “tipping point” model, we could look at survey data on “Do you know any gay people?” and “How many gay people do you know?” over time and by state,” he said. “To study the role of politics, we could gather data on the involvement of state politicians and political groups on gay issues.”

”I’m sure there are lots of other good ideas we haven’t thought of,” he concluded.

Commenters on the post came up with some possibilities.

“It’s simple social influence,” wrote a poster using the name Jeff Sherman. “Influence spreads through a population exponentially. As the proportion of supporters increases, the numbers of people knowing supporters increases. That’s how social influence spreads. Doesn’t have to be a tipping point — just standard accumulation of influence.”

Poster “nikip5555” also noted that support for gay marriage reflected a shift among gays, lesbians and bisexuals unseen 15 years ago, when the idea of “marriage for same-sex couples [seemed] unachievable.”

“What you’re seeing in the numbers you’re looking at is that lots of people who have always backed gay rights but used to say “why should we give a flip about marriage when job discrimination is still legal,” or “marriage is a heterosexist patriarchial [sic] institution, who needs it,” are now saying “yes, we support gay marriage!” Of course, this doesn’t happen in conservative states where not many folks are concerned about heterosexism … It’s a shift in the priorities and agenda of the “movement”— nothing more — thus it is extremely unlikely to generalize to any other issue.”


A few posters also commented on Utah’s poor performance.

“As long as Mormons dominate the state I’d expect gay marriage to have a tough go there, though I think Mormons are surprisingly tolerant of gays,” wrote “dennisS.”

See the data table at FiveThirtyEight.com.

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