Americans have grown more accepting of homosexuality in recent decades. But that clear trend has obscured other fascinating shifts in perceptions and attitudes.
For one thing, Americans tend to greatly overestimate the percentage of the population that identifies as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. And this misperception has only grown over the decades.
Those findings come from a newly published study, which finds attitudes toward gay rights, like those on so many other subjects, are increasingly intertwined with our political identities.
"Politicization of gay-related issues is stronger than ever, even with—or perhaps because of—the tremendous political and policy gains made in recent decades by the LGBT movement," University of Kansas political scientists Donald Haider-Markel and Mark Joslyn write in the Journal of Homosexuality.
The researchers compared data from two large surveys: one conducted by Gallup in 1977, and another conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in late 2013. Participants in each were asked to give their "best guess" of how many Americans are gay or lesbians.
Those taking the older survey chose between 10 categories from "zero to 9 percent" to "90 to 100 percent," while those taking the newer survey gave a numerical percentage.
In addition, both surveys asked about support for then-current gay-rights topics, including "homosexual relations being legal" in 1977, gay marriage in 2013, and equal rights in employment and child adoption in both.
The study's first finding is that "the public tends to consistently overestimate the size of the gay and lesbian population." The average guess in 1977 was between 10 and 19 percent; in 2013, it had increased to 23 percent.
Gallup reported in 2015 that 3.8 percent of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
Interestingly, "Members of groups that would be most likely to perceive gays as threatening, such as Republicans and the religious, were no more likely to provide higher estimates of the gay population than were members of other groups," the researchers report.
That said, the belief that gays make up a large share of the population does seem to influence people's views on policy issues. In the 2013 survey, "higher estimates of the gay population are associated with less support for equality," the researchers write. This was not true in the 1977 survey.
Specifically, in 2013, those making higher population estimates were less likely to support legal employment protections and same-sex marriage. They were also "more likely to indicate that people are gay or lesbian because of upbringing or environmental factors."
The results suggest that both "estimates of the gay population and attributions for homosexuality have become politicized (over the last few decades) in the same way gay-related policy issues have become politicized," the researchers conclude.
Does this mean that, if Americans—and members of the religious right in particular—were better informed on the actual size of the gay population, they may feel less threatened, and be more supportive of public policies aimed at ensuring equal rights?
It's certainly possible. There is some evidence that giving conservatives factual information about climate change can shift attitudes on that topic.
Perhaps it's time to insert some demographic information between the zingers on Will and Grace.