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Does Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage Decrease Homophobia?

Botswana decriminalized homosexuality and Ecuador just legalized same-sex marriage. Here's how research suggests LGBTQ policy might impact anti-gay bias.
People celebrate after Ecuador's highest court approved same-sex marriage in a landmark ruling, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on June 12th, 2019.

People celebrate after Ecuador's highest court approved same-sex marriage in a landmark ruling, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on June 12th, 2019.

On Wednesday, Ecuador's highest court legalized same-sex marriage. The decision came amid a wave of successes for LGBTQ rights: On Tuesday, Botswana's high court decriminalized homosexuality and, last month, Taiwan became the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

But recognition of same-sex marriage is not equitably distributed across the world. According to the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of the countries that legally recognize same-sex marriage are in Western Europe. In the Asia-Pacific region, only New Zealand, Australia, and Taiwan allow same-sex couples to wed. South Africa remains the only country on the African continent that allows same-sex unions. And in the Americas, only Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Uruguay, and the United States allow same-sex marriage (although some local jurisdictions in Mexico legally recognize gay marriage).

While 2019 has already seen significant victories for LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage remains illegal in most countries around the world: As of May of 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that 29 countries legally recognize gay marriage (that number is now 30 when including Ecuador).

Homophobia remains a pervasive issue in countries across the world, including places where gay marriage is legal. But giving same-sex couples legal recognition—which, in many cases, also allows them to access certain other benefits from the state generally awarded to married couples—may actually be a useful tool to change social attitudes and bias toward queer people.

According to a study published in April of 2019 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, legalizing same-sex marriage reduces anti-gay bias. In order to measure societal attitudes about same-sex marriage, the researchers analyzed the conscious and unconscious thoughts on contemporary issues of roughly one million individuals who visited the Project Implicit website between 2006 and 2016.

The team also analyzed additional data on more than 10,000 respondents on their opinions of gays and lesbians during the American National Elections Studies in 2008, 2012, and 2016, allowing researchers to collect opinions of Americans across the country as same-sex marriage legislation was incrementally introduced.

The researchers found that, although anti-gay bias decreased generally over time, legalization accelerated the reduction: Anti-gay bias decreased twice as fast in areas where same-sex marriage was legalized. The researchers conclude that "government legislation can inform attitudes even on religiously and politically entrenched positions."

However, there are limitations in the ability of policy to change social attitudes. Tom Jacobs, reporting for Pacific Standard on the PNAS study, noted one caveat:

The researchers point to one exception to this trend: States that had not legalized gay marriage, but were forced to do so after the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, experienced "increased anti-gay bias over time." This "backlash" effect apparently reflects the "sense of symbolic threat" to people's lifestyles and values in these socially conservative states.

And while the study suggests that "government legislation can cause changes in the attitudes of its citizens regarding minority groups," in the U.S., the impact of legalizing gay marriage on LGBTQ bias in other countries remains unknown.