The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where acceptance of homosexuality has and has not changed around the world

There has been much to do about the pace by which public opinion toward homosexuality has changed in the United States. Yet, as the graph above shows, the United States is by no means unique on this score and has changed less rapidly than several other countries.

Since 1981, the World Values Survey has asked respondents in each of its waves to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 whether homosexuality is “justifiable,” where 1 means “never” and 10 “always.” It is the only survey question for which we have consistent data over a long period for many countries, although not all countries were surveyed in every wave. Moreover, cross-country variation in average scores on this question closely track support for gay marriage (see here and here).

In the graph, dots with darker colors represent more recent surveys. For most countries, the darker dots are to the right (greater average acceptance) of most or all of the lighter dots. This means that most countries are moving toward greater acceptance. But there is a lot of variation.

Change in the United States lags a bit behind Argentina and Chile and is comparable to what transpired in Brazil and Mexico. Yet there are also countries in the Americas that remain much more conservative.

Europe shows even more variation. Many countries in Western and Northern Europe have extremely high levels of public acceptance even though they started from very low scores in the 1980s. Southern Europe and Ireland have similarly seen a large transformation, roughly comparable to that in the United States, with Spain as an outlier.

Yet, in many Eastern European countries public acceptance of homosexuality remains very low. Remember, an average score near one means that almost an entire survey sample says that homosexuality is never acceptable. Countries like Albania, Macedonia, and Lithuania hover around that level.

Other parts of the world reveal similar patterns, although survey coverage is even sparser there. Countries that had low to moderate levels of acceptance two decades ago have by and large moved toward greater acceptance. But there are still many extremely conservative countries where public acceptance is almost completely absent, and there is little evidence of any change.

The United States is right in the middle of a group of (mostly) advanced industrialized democracies where acceptance of homosexuality continues to grow. This creates conflict not just with domestic conservative opposition groups but also with reasonably large number of countries where conservative values on this issue remain dominant.

This plays itself out in many arenas. For example, Russia attempted a sort of global culture warfare last month when it sought to curb same sex partner rights at the United Nations. The State Department recently appointed its first special envoy for LGBT persons, recognizing not only the issue as important to the United States but also as a source of tension in diplomatic relations with others. There is little evidence in the survey trends that this is likely to change any time soon.