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Are we ready for gay marriage?

Posted on 11 August 2011
Tags: gay marriage, ScotCen, Scottish Centre for Social Research, Scottish Social Attitudes, attitudes, civil partnerships, sexuality

Kate and William weren’t the only newly-weds grabbing the headlines this summer. We also saw widespread coverage of the first weddings of same sex couples in New York – the latest and largest US state to introduce Marriage Equality legislation.

On this side of the Atlantic, gay and lesbian couples cannot get married, but they can enter into a civil partnership. The main difference between the two is that marriages can be conducted by religious officers in religious venues; civil partnerships can only be performed by civil registrars in a non-religious setting.

This difference in the options available to gay and straight couples has prompted human rights campaigners to call for the law to be changed (e.g. the Equal Love campaign and the EHRC Scotland’s recent report on Equal Marriage). But some (though not all) religious organisations in the UK remain implacably opposed to any such changes (e.g. recent press release from the Catholic Communications Network on the status of marriage). Only this week a motion on the subject put down in the Scottish Parliament stimulated a fierce political debate on this issue.

So how does the wider public view same sex relationships and gay marriage? A ScotCen report published today uses data from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey to explore attitudes to different groups of people living in Scotland. The issues discussed are wide-ranging – and worth the read! However, it’s particularly striking how far public opinion has moved on same sex relationships over a pretty short period of time.

Simply put, attitudes have become far more liberal.

In 2000, 48% thought same sex relationships were ‘always wrong’ or ‘mostly wrong’. Just 10 years later, only 27% said this.

Opinion on gay marriage has changed too. In 2002, just 41% of people in Scotland agreed that gay or lesbian couples should have the right to marry one another if they want to. By 2010, this figure had increased to 61%. So gay marriage now has the support of a majority of people in Scotland.

But some people are more liberal than others. Unsurprisingly, age matters. Just 13% of people aged 18-34 felt that same sex relationships were ‘always’ or ‘mostly wrong’. This liberal outlook among younger generations is reflected in the Scottish Youth Parliament’s recent adoption of an equal marriage campaign. Even among older age groups though, views have become more liberal. In fact, our research suggests that almost all groups in society have shifted their opinion.

That said, the views of those who are more religious have moved much more slowly than those of their more secular counterparts. In 2010, a majority (57%) of those who attended a religious service once a week still felt that same sex relationships were always or mostly wrong – down just 7 percentage points on the 2005 figure for this group. So their views now particularly stand out when compared to those of the rest of society.

So how are public attitudes likely to play out in the debate about gay marriage over the coming months and years? Given the strength of opposition to gay marriage among some religious people and organisations, religious views are likely to continue to figure prominently in ongoing debate. However, among the public as a whole, as the views of older generations give way to those of younger ones, majority opinion seems likely to continue to move in an even more liberal direction.

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