Public Attitudes Towards Homosexuality and Gay Rights Across Time and Countries

November 2014

This study examines responses to questions asked on public opinion surveys that measured acceptance of gay men and lesbians and attitudes toward LGBT rights. The analysis is based on responses to 2,000 questions that appeared in hundreds of surveys around the world.

  • Tom W. Smith
    Senior Fellow, NORC at the University of Chicago
  • Jaesok Son
    Research Scientist, NORC at the University of Chicago
  • Jibum Kim
    Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul
Residents in 90% of all surveyed countries have become more accepting of homosexuality over the past 20 years.
Positive attitudes towards homosexuality and gay rights are generally greater among younger adults and women.
Countries rating discrimination as greater tend to express more acceptance and approval than countries reporting less discrimination.


Available evidence indicates that the position of gays and lesbians in societies and the legal status of homosexuality have undergone notable changes in recent decades. In some countries, attitudes have become much more supportive of gay and lesbians rights and more accepting of homosexual behavior. For example, in Great Britain, the percent saying that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender were “always wrong” fell from 64% in 1987 to 22% in 2012 (Park & Rhead 2013) and in the United States approval of gay marriage climbed from 11% in 1988 to 48% in 2012 (Smith & Son 2013).1 Collective behaviors have also changed. For example, the first gay-pride parades were held in the United States in June 1970. These have expanded into mass annual events that attract over a million attendees in a number of countries (Encarnacion 2011; Johnston 2005, 2007). The legal status and rights of gays and lesbians have also expanded. For example, in 2000, the Netherlands became the first country to recognize gay marriage and by 2013, 15 countries plus sections of two other countries had done so (Itaborahy & Zhu 2013, Masci, Sciupac & Lipka 2013).

This research examines changes in public acceptance of homosexuality and gay rights across time and countries. It considers 1) what the trends have been and how changes vary across countries, 2) cross-national differences in support of homosexuality and gay rights and what country-level factors explain the cross-national variation, 3) demographic correlates of support for homosexuality/gay rights, 4) the connection of cohort differences to trends, and 5) the combined role of individual and country-level variables on shaping attitudes towards homosexuality and gay rights.

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Public Attitudes Towards Homosexuality and Gay Rights Across Time and Countries

On trends in the US also see Brewer (2003 & 2008), Loftus (2001), and Smith (2011)