Gays See U.S. Society Accepting as Many Keep Parents in Dark

Almost all gay U.S. adults say that society is more tolerant than ever of their sexual orientation, even as almost 40 percent have kept it hidden from their own fathers, a poll found.

The survey released today by the Pew Research Center is the most comprehensive study of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults taken since 2007, when same-sex marriage was legal only in Massachusetts, according to the group. Paul Taylor, one of its lead authors, said the insight will help inform debate as lawmakers confront the issue and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on it for the first time.

“For the LGBT population, these are the best of times, but it doesn’t mean they are easy times or that their lives aren’t complicated,” Taylor, executive vice president at Pew, said by telephone from Washington, where the organization is based. “Many are still searching for a comfortable, secure place in society, where acceptance is growing but still limited.”

While a majority of respondents said they still face discrimination, the past decade has brought more change to the gay community and its place in society than any other. In 2003, gays couldn’t marry anywhere in the U.S. Now same-sex marriage is legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia, and supported by 51 percent of the general public. That’s up from 35 percent in 2001, according to Pew. Gays can serve openly in the military, and in many places same-sex couples raising children are no longer an anomaly.

Slurs, Jokes

Ninety-two percent of respondents said society accepts them more today than 10 years ago, and the same share said that trend will continue in the next decade, the poll found. Seven in 10 attributed the change to more individuals knowing someone who is gay. In a Pew poll of the general public released last week, about 87 percent of respondents said they did.

One in five said the there is “a lot” of acceptance of them in the U.S. today, and just over half said much discrimination remains. Almost 60 percent reported being subject to slurs or jokes based on their sexual orientation, while smaller percentages said they had been rejected by a friend or family member, were threatened or physically attacked, or been made to feel unwelcome at a place of worship or business.

Telling Dad

Coming out to parents was difficult, most said. Thirty-four percent still had not done so to their mothers, and 39 percent to fathers. There was an eight-year gap between the median age at which respondents first felt they may be something other than heterosexual, age 12, and when they first shared the revelation with a close friend or family member, age 20.

Tony Vedda, 53, said he first felt he was different from his two straight older brothers when he was in high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Friends were supportive, though he held off from telling his father until he was almost 30.

“I thought, well, he’s getting older, I don’t want him to die not knowing who I am,” said Vedda, who presides over the GLBT Chamber of Commerce in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “I didn’t want to say the word ‘gay’ because I was afraid after he heard that, he wouldn’t hear anything else.”

His father, Angelo, first took the news “rough,” Vedda said. Yet within a few years, it made their relationship better.

“It just took a little time for him to understand,” he said.

Having Children

The Pew sample size of 1,197 was large enough to distinguish differences among subgroups, Taylor said. More than 70 percent of gay men and lesbians said most people close to them knew their sexual orientation, while just 28 percent of bisexuals said the same. About half of lesbians had or wanted children, while only 30 percent of gay men said that.

Gay men were less likely to be in committed relationships than lesbians, and non-whites more likely than whites to say their sexual orientation was very important to their overall identity, the poll found.

Sixteen percent of respondents -- mostly bisexuals in opposite-sex relationships -- were married, compared with about half of the general population. Almost 40 percent said the focus on legalizing same-sex marriage had distracted too much from other issues important to the gay community. Ensuring equal employment rights ranked as the top policy priority, with marriage rights second.

The study found that, contrary to a common stereotype, gays tend to have lower household incomes than the general public. Taylor said that may be because openly gay people are younger and less often live with a spouse or partner in a dual-income household.

A plurality of the survey’s respondents, 40 percent, said they were bisexual. Gay men made up 36 percent, lesbians 19 percent and transgenders 5 percent. Those numbers don’t necessarily reflect the actual composition of the LGBT community at large, which has been estimated to make up 3.5 percent to 5 percent of the general population, Pew said.

The poll was conducted online from April 11 to April 29. Using the Internet rather than phone calls is likely to yield more honest answers, Pew said. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

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