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Though Acceptance for Gay Americans Is Growing, Discrimination Persists

June 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new survey by the Pew Research Center offers a complex view of what it's like to be an LGBT American. The survey found that while 92 percent of LGBT Americans say society is more accepting, 53 percent say they still face discrimination. Ray Suarez talks with Paul Taylor, co-author of the survey, and Gary Gates of UCLA.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now a two-part look at issues affecting gays and lesbians, ahead of much-anticipated Supreme Court decisions coming soon on major cases involving same-sex marriage.

Ray Suarez begins our coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: A new survey provides one of the largest and most complex portraits of what life is like today for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans. The sweeping survey conducted by the Pew Research Center spanned topics including political views, social stigmas and the difficulties of coming out.

It finds growing acceptance in the U.S. of the LGBT community; 92 percent of those surveyed said they agreed with that. Yet 53 percent of gay Americans say there is still discrimination. The survey was done just weeks before the Supreme Court decision and was released during Pride Month.

A short time ago, President Obama spoke at a Pride Month event at the White House about those changing attitudes.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: From Minnesota to Maryland, from the United States Senate to the NBA, it’s clear we’re reaching a turning point.

We have — we have become not just more accepting. We have become more loving as a country and as a people. Heart and minds change with time. Laws do, too.

Change like that isn’t something that starts here in Washington, but it’s something that has the power that Washington has a great deal of difficulty resisting over time.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on all this, we turn to Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and co-author of the LGBT survey, and Gary Gates, distinguished scholar at the Williams center at UCLA and co-author of the “Gay and Lesbian Atlas.”

And, Paul Taylor, this is a survey involving a community that’s often the object of research, but rarely the subject of research. Did the LGBT Americans that you spoke to agree with what we just heard the president saying about change being under way?

PAUL TAYLOR, Executive Vice President, Pew Research Center: Yes.

We had, as you said, 90 percent, 93 percent saying society is more accepting now than it was 10 years ago. And then we said about, what 10 years from now? And another 92 percent, 93 percent said it will be more accepting. We take a lot of surveys. We rarely see numbers in the 90s.

You ask people, does your mother love you? Maybe you will get in the 90s. So, this is a nearly universally held belief. It’s an understanding that there has been an extraordinary amount of change in societal attitudes. So that is the good news story.

I said earlier today the LGBT population is living in the best of times, but they are not easy times, and there is another side to the story. And we asked a lot of questions about the experiences they have had, the perceptions of discrimination and stigma, and they’re pretty powerful. And you had a couple of examples of that.

One of the ones that struck me is, even in these more accepting times, in our survey population — we talked to about 1,200 people in this community — only slightly over half said they had told their mother of their sexual orientation, and only about four in 10 said they had told their farther. So that is an illustration of a community that is sort of, at one of the deepest parts of themselves, they’re not yet able or willing or feel comfortable sharing that with the people they’re closest to.

RAY SUAREZ: That idea that “things are better, but” comes through in data point after data point. You ask if people have been subject to slurs or jokes. A simple majority said, yes, at some time, they had been subject to slurs or jokes.

And then you asked, has any of this happened in the past year? And it was about one out of six of LGBT people. Have they been threatened or physically attacked? A much smaller number, so that the kind of resentments that we’re talking about in society rarely take a physical form, but even among that number, 26 percent at some time in their lives, only four percent in the last year or so.

Gary Gates, what does that tell you about the state of LGBT America?

GARY GATES, The Williams Institute, UCLA: Well, I think, as Paul said, I think it says that LGBT Americans are very clear that things have gotten much better.

But they’re not there yet. I think many of them, as Paul mentioned, haven’t come out to their parents. Still, many experience a variety of discrimination, a variety of types of discrimination, including in their churches, in their families, with their friends.

And I think that’s the life — one of the huge contributions of this survey is focusing on that kind of day-to-day existence of LGBT Americans in this time of rapid change.

RAY SUAREZ: Gary, one finding that I found very interesting was the self-reporting among this population that they were much more sympathetic to other people in society who they thought also faced various kinds of discrimination.

GARY GATES: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that explain why gay Americans are so prominent as activists in other people’s fights?

GARY GATES: Well, I think so.

I mean, I think there’s no question that the experience of being stigmatized allows people to understand what that’s like, and then to empathize or relate to other people who have experienced stigma. And I think that is one of the reasons why you see so many LGBT people involved in a variety of activist causes that are not necessarily LGBT-specific.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Taylor, of course, you couldn’t have done this survey without asking about marriage, and an interesting piece of data emerged there, near-universal support of legalization of marriage for gay people, 93 percent.

Yet, four out of 10 say the marriage debate has drawn too much attention from other issues that gay people face. Like what?

PAUL TAYLOR: Like employment rights, like AIDS/HIV programs, like adoption rights. This is a community that has lots of issues. For political, constitutional, legal reasons, we all understand that the same-sex marriage issue has come to — become front and center.

And literally and figuratively, it has become the symbolic issue. And it obviously has very real importance as well. And a majority say, yes, it’s a good thing — 60 percent say it’s a good thing that it is the centerpiece issue, even at the expense of the other issues we care about, but a significant minority says, no, wait a minute, there are a lot of other things on the table.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Gary, when gay people talk about their lives and think about their lives, even though they see marriage as sort of drowning out the other issues, is it a gateway issue, that once you clear this threshold, some of those other things become easier?

GARY GATES: Well, I think in fact many LGBT people believe that’s the case.

But, as Paul pointed out, I think there is a bit of a challenge here from a sizable group of LGBT people who really see, for instance, workplace discrimination as something that they experience at relatively high levels, and that they believe that there should be laws that protect them from that kind of discrimination.

And, you know, and I think these data challenge to us think through all of those issues.

RAY SUAREZ: Leaning forward, did you ask people — well, I guess you asked people, also, to self-report about questions you didn’t ask and got, in your own words, some very touching responses.

PAUL TAYLOR: Yes, this is — we conducted this survey online, which we think was methodologically wise, because it’s a more anonymous way of doing surveys, and part of the issue here is, are you willing to come out in a — to a survey taker?

And that also gave us the ability to put little boxes as people were filling out their forms on their computer, and we asked them for their comments.

RAY SUAREZ: Any one jump out at you?

PAUL TAYLOR: No, but 1,000 jumped out at me.

And I used to be a newspaper reporter. And I kind of know a good quote. There were 1,000 good quotes. These stories are riveting, because the life these folks have led at all ages are fascinating. And the lives of the middle-aged and older survey respondents, who sort of say with regret, you know, I wish I had come out earlier, we track in all of their lives when they came out and how it was, some good, some bad, all fascinating.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Taylor and Gary Gates, gentlemen, thank you both.