Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gays Feel More Accepted But Still Stigmatized, Pew Research Center Survey Finds

by Carol Morello - Washington Post - June 13, 2013:

With some trepidation, Tammy Smith returned to her tiny home town in rural Oregon last year, shortly after she was named a brigadier general in the Army reserves.

Folks there had known her as a tomboy active in the Future Farmers of America when she was growing up, and Smith wasn’t sure how they would receive her and her new wife, Tracey Hepner.

But at a reception the town threw for Smith, old men from the Veterans of Foreign Wars post wanted their pictures taken with her, often insisting that Hepner join the photo. One woman gave the couple a wedding present, a small sculpture of two kissing doves that graces their living room in Arlington. The local newspaper called Smith’s promotion one of the most positive news items to hit the town of less than 1,000 people that year.

“There was a sense of pride that Oakland, Oregon, had produced somebody who not only was a general, but someone prominent who is out,” said Smith, 50, the first openly gay officer of flag rank in the military. “It was an amazing and unexpected response.”

The welcoming embrace that Oakland showed Smith and Hepner is becoming increasingly common in the United States. In a new poll by the Pew Research Center released Thursday, nine in 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults said that society had become more accepting of them in the past decade and that they expected it to be even more open to them in the years ahead.

However, only 19 percent said there is “a lot” of acceptance for gays, while 59 percent chose to characterize it more softly, as “some” acceptance, and 21 percent said there was little to none. More than half said they had been subjected to slurs or jokes about gays, and sizeable numbers said they had been rejected by friends or family, threatened with physical attack or made to feel unwelcome at a house of worship.

The Pew survey of 1,197 LGBT adults, exploring many aspects of their lives, is the first of its kind by a major polling organization.

It asked them when they realized they weren’t straight, when they came out to family and close friends, and how they have been stigmatized in society. It also found that only small minorities of gay people have anything positive to say about the military, professional sports leagues or the Republican Party. Compared with the general public, Pew said, gays and lesbians are more liberal, more Democratic, less religious, less happy with their lives, yet more satisfied with the direction the country is headed.

“For the LGBT population, these are the best of times,” said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. “But that does not mean these are easy times or their lives are uncomplicated. Many are still searching for a comfortable, secure place in a society where acceptance is growing but still limited. That is part of the drama of their lives.”

Pew and many of the gay people it polled link much of the growing acceptance to the fact that more people personally know someone who is gay. In an earlier Pew poll of the general public, almost nine in 10 people said they have a gay friend or relative, up from six in 10 only a decade ago.

The gay people polled by Pew said they think lesbians are welcomed more in society than gay men are. One in four said there is a lot of acceptance of lesbians. Just 15 percent characterized it that way for gay men. A third said bisexual women are accepted a lot, compared with just 8 percent of bisexual men. And only 3 percent of those polled said transgender adults meet a lot of acceptance.

One striking finding of the Pew poll is the young age at which many gay people say they realized they weren’t straight.

The median age at which gay men said they had their first inkling was 10, and they knew for sure by 15. For lesbians, the median age when they first thought they might not be straight was 13, and they were certain by 18. The median age when they first divulged their secret to someone was 18 for gay men and 21 for lesbians.

Janelle Thomas remembers feeling “different” when she was in second grade and looked forward to math lessons. In retrospect, she realizes that was because she had a crush on the female math teacher.

She said she had boyfriends in high school in Southern Maryland, but it was only when she went to college and met other lesbians that she realized who she is.

“I got into a very dark place where I didn’t feel I was myself,” said Thomas, now 27 and a Web content coordinator for the federal government who lives in the District with her wife, a D.C. police officer. “It just came to me. Oh, that’s probably what it is. I suddenly felt better.”

Older gays, who came of age in less accepting times, often recall their dawning realization as a time of struggle — with themselves, society at large and those who love them, such as parents and siblings. And they came out later in life. In the Pew survey, two in three gay men and lesbians younger than 30 said they came out to close friends and family before age 20. That was true of less than half those who are 30 to 49 and barely a third of those who are 50 and older.

Matt Cloniger, a 40-year-old government consultant who lives in the District, was confused by his lack of attraction to girls while he was in high school during the 1980s. But as the son of a Pentecostal minister at a time when the AIDS epidemic was depicted as a gay disease, he said he could not acknowledge, even to himself, that he wasn’t straight.

“In wrestling with this attraction I had and all the confusion, there’s many a night I remember sitting in my bedroom praying and crying and begging God to take away these feelings and give me feelings that would be normal or straight,” he said.

He was in college, on a Christian leadership scholarship at Southern Methodist University, before he came to grips with his sexuality and came out to a few co-workers at an off-campus restaurant. His father confronted him after he moved into an apartment with a gay friend, asking him flat out whether he was gay.

Cloniger said that although he has never doubted his parents’ love for him, he knows that his sexuality has caused them agony. The night before his 2008 wedding in San Francisco, Cloniger said, his father called in tears to say he could not attend. Cloniger said his nieces and nephews have never met his husband, and though he has told his brother he is gay, they never discuss it.

A senior warden at St. Thomas Episcopal Church near Dupont Circle, Cloniger said his family has grown more comfortable around him and his husband, but only to a degree.

“It’s certainly hard being comfortable with myself and seeing where my family is,” he said, “going to family reunions where my spouse is not necessarily welcome. My parents have come to love and accept Brett. But with the rest of the family, no one wants to say anything about it.”

In the Pew poll, about seven in 10 gay men and lesbians have told their mothers about their sexuality, and roughly half have told their fathers. But a third haven’t passed the milestone of telling Mom and Dad.

Gary Gates, a Williams Institute demographer of the gay community, said it underscores the stigma still attached to homosexuality.

“There’s definitely this notion that it does get better, and it has gotten better for most people,” he said. “But there are a lot of people who are sufficiently concerned that they don’t feel comfortable coming out.”

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