AMERICAN VALUES: VIEWS ON HOMOSEXUALITY
As Tolerance Grows, Acceptance Remains Elusive
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 26, 1998; Page A01
Sixth in a series of occasional articles
Jeff Bittner knows exactly what he thinks of gay men and lesbians. The 46-year-old grocery clerk from Madison, Wis., is certain that homosexuality is a sin -- the Bible and common sense make that clear.
Does that mean we should outlaw homosexuality? Well, no, he says. The last thing we need in America is the government meddling in morality. "I know it's not consistent," said Bittner, shifting awkwardly in his chair. "It's really hard."
For more than two hours, Bittner and nine other Madison-area residents who participated in a focus group assembled by The Washington Post did something that's uncomfortable for most Americans: They talked openly about homosexuals and homosexuality, sometimes with riveting candor.
Bittner and the others were chosen by The Post because, like most Americans, they are uncomfortable with homosexuality. Yet almost all had gone through jarring experiences with gay friends and colleagues. Through those experiences, they worked out the complexities, contradictions and fears that lay just under the surface of their beliefs.
Gay groups often seize on Americans' ambivalence to argue that their resistance to homosexuality is yielding, that these hesitations to judge are the first signs of acceptance. If they just wait out a long and painful period of acclimation, gay rights activists hope, they will be recognized as having the same rights as once-repressed groups such as African Americans and women.
But so far, homosexuality is not fitting neatly into that civil rights model, as a national survey by The Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows. Americans have radically adjusted their moral sensibility in the last 30 years, reserving judgment on people and lifestyles they once readily condemned. A majority now finds divorce, sex before marriage, interracial relationships and single motherhood acceptable.
But one group whose behavior remains firmly outside the bounds of acceptability for a majority of Americans is homosexuals. At best, they relegate homosexuality to an aberration they will merely tolerate. Fifty-seven percent of Americans questioned in the poll say homosexuality is unacceptable. When the term is phrased as "gay sex," 72 percent call it unacceptable.
With the surging importance of moral issues in American politics, attitudes toward homosexuality have the potential to become the next litmus test of a candidate's character, much like abortion. Once on the fringe of public debate, homosexuality is now the focus of heated arguments over gay marriage, gay adoption, gays in the military and equal rights for gay employees.
This year, a record number of openly gay candidates ran for office at the national, state and local levels -- Democrat Tammy Baldwin was elected to represent Madison, the progressive college town where The Post held its focus group. And in New Jersey, an appeals court upheld a gay couple's right to adopt a child.
At the same time, Christian right groups launched a campaign urging homosexuals to change their orientation, and the House voted to reject President Clinton's executive order granting homosexuals protection from discrimination. In an incident that crystallized fears on all sides, college student Matthew Sheppard was murdered because he was gay, police believe.
The contradictions reflect the confusion of many Americans over the issue. Despite the perception often portrayed in the media, most people neither embrace gays nor despise them. The bulk of Americans are, like Bittner, internally divided, positioned somewhere between passive disapproval and grudging, situational tolerance.
From the confusion some clear patterns emerge. In the spirit of fairness, Americans are willing to grant homosexuals basic rights such as freedom from harassment, or the right to earn a living. But they stop short of sanctioning anything that might imply they consider homosexuality the moral equivalent of their own behavior.
In the national poll, 87 percent of respondents said homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, and 68 percent said a person should be allowed to make a speech in favor of gay marriages.
When asked in the national survey if homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal, 55 percent said yes and 34 percent answered no. And when reminded that people could be prosecuted for engaging in these activities in their own homes, more than half of those who first said homosexuality should be illegal changed their minds.
But only 23 percent support gay marriage. "Marriage is between a man and a woman," said Bittner. "You can't just open it up to whatever kind of person you're living with." Or as Dennis Walsh, a 55-year-old Madison bus driver, put it: "Homosexuality and family values just do not go together. They're in a different ballpark."
Their answers to most questions were qualified, measured, adjusted. In each, they displayed a struggle with modern pressures to change. They were accustomed to seeing gay characters in sitcoms and movies, and they had absorbed corporate credos of tolerance at work. But many of them resisted becoming the diversity trainer's ideal image: the open-minded, multicultural American of the future.
Their level of discomfort with this new acceptance of gays seemed to depend on how intimately it affected them and their children. Some kinds of jobs should be off-limits to gays and lesbians, they said. And the longer they talked, the longer their list of forbidden jobs grew.
Should homosexuals be hired to teach in elementary schools? Probably not, the group agreed. "Who's keeping track of what they're teaching their children -- our children?" said Charlene Kaltenberg, a 69-year-old grandmother. Baby-sitter or scoutmaster? Absolutely not, they said. Then the list expanded to include jobs that didn't involve close contact with young people.
"I think there's certain bounds," Walsh said. "Flipping burgers, big deal, but you're going to be the head of a construction crew and you're looking to hire a guy, it'd be kind of tough getting this crew to take orders from a guy if he's really outright, flaming [homosexual]. That would be kind of tough, I would think, and it's not really fair that the government can make an employer hire this guy, when it's just going to be troubles all down the road."
In judging Tammy Baldwin, their new representative, most members of the focus group agreed they could tolerate her homosexuality as long as she remained discrete about it. Walsh voted for Baldwin because he's a Democrat, even though he was uncomfortable with her sexuality. He would continue to support her, he said, as long as she didn't flaunt it. "What somebody does in their bedroom is their own business," Walsh said. "But we don't need parades. We don't need it thrown in our face."
Their attitudes might suggest a certain alienation from homosexuals. Yet surprisingly, in a group of people chosen for their disapproval, almost all had gone through agonizing experiences with gay family members, friends or colleagues. With each experience, their moral absolutes were confounded by real life.
The older people in the focus group said they did not know any homosexuals and still spoke about them with some dread. Kaltenberg, the grandmother, remembers a boy from her youth who everyone called a "mama's boy" but said that's the closest she's come to knowing a gay person. Joanne Trainer, a 63-year-old housewife, recalled hearing about a case of a homosexual who became a pedophile and fears that progression may be inevitable.
Ron Jacobsen, 28, was raised in a small town of 800 people in rural Wisconsin. He grew up steeped in the deep suspicion of his elders but said exposure to gay colleagues has banished his fear. When he went to college and then moved to Madison, he met more people who were openly gay and "got more of an open view." When a gay man at his gym propositioned him in the steam room, he responded with good humor. "My girlfriend wouldn't appreciate that," he told him.
When it comes to dealing with colleagues, Jacobsen's sense of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior fluctuates. One man at work showed him a picture of a girl on his desk and asked Jacobsen whether he thought she was cute. Jacobsen said sure, and the guy said it was him, dressed in drag. Jacobsen wasn't a bit angry at being duped. "You had to know the guy," he said.
Office parties require their own set of standards. It's fine if a gay colleague shows up with his partner, he said. Is it fine if they dance? "Slow dance or fast dance?" Jacobsen laughed. On second thought, even slow dancing was okay, "if he didn't ask me to dance."
Todd Dunn's distaste for homosexuals was reinforced after he was propositioned "rudely" on three separate occasions this fall while collecting acorns in a public park. But the 32-year-old's image of gay men has been tempered by what he sees in his family. At first he had a hard time accepting the fact that his wife's brother is gay, especially because the man's lover is a priest. But after a few visits, Dunn got used to it. "I guess if they started kissing or something like that, that would kind of make me sick, to tell you the truth." Dunn said. "But they don't."
Jeff Bittner's contacts with gay and lesbian colleagues have been more anguished. As a devout Christian, he feels he has a duty to tell a sinner "what you're doing is not right. That's love," he said. "To not do that is hate."
In grounding his views in religion, Bittner is hardly unique. Most Americans who find homosexuality unacceptable say they object on religious grounds. Nearly three in four born-again Christians and half of all Catholics say homosexuality is unacceptable, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey and other national polls.
Still, Bittner feels uncomfortable confronting col leagues at work, or casual acquaintances. "I believe it's wrong to just sit back and say nothing, 'Just do it,' " he said. "But it depends on the situation, on my relationship with that person. If it's someone I don't know, I wouldn't bring it up."
Several in the group said they at one time thought homosexuality was a choice, and a sinful one, but then met gay people who convinced them they were born that way. The older people were more apt to hold firm to the belief that it represents a choice. "There are some that are born with the tendency to be [homosexuals]," said Kaltenberg. "But I think most of them today are because that's what they want. It's a choice."
Nationally, the poll found, a third of all Americans believe homosexuality is a choice; just as many believe people are born straight or gay, and the rest say sexual orientation is based on the experiences a person has growing up or say they aren't sure.
Whether people believe homosexuality is a choice heavily influences their views on how society should treat gays and lesbians. Those who believe homosexuals choose their sexual orientation are far less tolerant of gays and lesbians and more likely to conclude homosexuality should be illegal than those who think sexual orientation is not a matter of personal choice, the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey found.
Robert King told the group an intimate story about his wife's family. Shortly before Christmas six years ago, King said his mother-in-law told her husband of 22 years that she was a lesbian. She had recently met another woman "and found an attraction," King recalled. Her revelation devastated the family. "It was a very, very tough time for my spouse" and an even tougher time for her high-school aged brother, King said.
Even now, King seems uncertain whether his mother-in-law was a lesbian who suffered with her secret for more than two decades, or whether she simply changed her mind about her sexual orientation. He used to believe people chose to be gay. Now he's not so sure. "She said she always had feelings, even when she got married, and she knew she wanted children," he said.
But, in the end, King decided it didn't matter. He helped his wife work through her anger and accept her mother for who she was. He admitted his mother-in-law's "timing was pretty bad," but rejected a suggestion that what she did was selfish. "If she wouldn't have come out of the closet and showed her true feelings, she herself would be living in misery," King said.
Many acknowledged that experiences like King's had made them more likely to tolerate homosexuals, but several said they weren't entirely thrilled about their change of heart.
"I know my views have changed dramatically," Dunn said. "I'm totally tolerant of them now. I don't agree with it at all, but I'm not going to judge them. You know, who am I to judge them, right?"
Dunn said that his personal transformation from hostility to tolerance has left him uneasy, and he joined other members of the group in questioning whether society hasn't gone too far in accepting gays.
Dunn said he doesn't want his young children "exposed to some of the things that I've been exposed to." He also worried that if homosexuality becomes accepted as normal and "it's out there everywhere, and, all of a sudden my kids decide, 'Gee, that's a neat lifestyle. I think I want to do that,' I don't think I'd be very comfortable with that at all."
At their most anxious moments, many saw the future as a choice between a stable, God-fearing society or a morally chaotic, tolerant one. In this calculation, increased tolerance of homosexuality will be matched by rising intolerance of Americans with religious or moral objections to homosexuality. They fear they will be shut out of the debate over the proper place of homosexuality in society. Ironically, although their views represented the majority in America, many felt beleaguered.
Some in this group even wondered if people like themselves wouldn't one day be persecuted for their personal beliefs and lifestyles, just as homosexuals once were publicly humiliated and punished for their sexual orientation. This fear, they predicted, would make them reluctant to cede any more ground to gay groups.
"I think we're looking forward to a time of incredible intolerance, hatred, bigotry, whatever your mind can imagine that to lead to," said John Ruck, "and I think that it's going to hit anybody who has a faith, anybody who's willing to make a stand, anybody who's willing to say, 'Hey, this is wrong.' "
Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company