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Does coming out matter?: a new Harris poll suggests that knowing people who are gay makes little difference in whether one supports gay rights.


One of the basic tenets of faith for gay activists has been that coming out; helps convince people of the need for gay rights. If only they know who we are, the argument goes, they can't help but support us. But a recent survey conducted by a respected polling firm suggests that that belief may be misplaced. According to the poll, people with gay friends or relatives are no more likely to support gay rights laws as people who have no gay acquaintances at all.

Louis Harris and Associates Inc. questioned 623 adults between July 17 and July 19. A modest majority (52%-41%) said they favor "laws that make it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians." Among those surveyed, 37% reported having "close friends or relatives" who are lesbian or gay.

But; the real shock in the polling results lay in the details. "Surprisingly, perhaps those who have gay or lesbian close friends or relatives are no more supportive of antidiscrimination laws than those who do not (53%-42% compared to 51%-40%)," wrote Humphrey Taylor, chairman and CEO of Louis Harris and Associates, in material accompanying the poll results. The margin of error was +4%.

Does this shoot down the theory that coming out is the best weapon against; antigay bigotry? Not really, say political and gay fights experts. They argue that the Harris Poll, published August 19, is just one of many surveys. And most of those polls show that to know gay people is, if not to love them, to at least be more likely to support their basic rights.

A pamphlet published by the Washington, D.C.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force calls coming out the most effective way for gay people to challenge and change homophobic attitudes. When nongays discover that someone they love or respect is gay, often they reexamine the beliefs they once held about the lives and rights of gay people, the brochure asserts.

So what happened at Harris?

"This poll is clearly an anomaly," says Wayne Besen, associate communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying group in Washington, D.C. "It goes against most polls out there. I think we all know from personal experience that coming out definitely changes people's attitudes and negative perceptions about gay people. It's as obvious as knowing that eating brownies on Sunday will probably make you gain weight."

Besen says if more polls were to replicate the finding that friends and relatives of gays are no more likely than others to support gay rights laws, "then we would have to take a hard look at it. For now, there's not much concern."

The poll results contradict nearly all surveys on the subject for nearly 20 years. One problem with the survey is the number of respondents who report having gay friends or relatives: 230. "It's fairly small. I'd worry about instability," says Bill Schneider, a senior political analyst for CNN and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "I wouldn't want to reach any firm conclusions from this."

Schneider, an expert on polls, says the results "aren't consistent with other polls. Knowing someone who is openly gay creates a much more sympathetic attitude in support of gay rights. It has a very powerful effect." He says polls show this "almost across the board."

Even David Krane, executive vice president of Louis Harris and Associates, expresses caution about the number of survey respondents with gay friends and family: "You have to be a little careful on sample size any time you start breaking things down to various components."

"I'd probably prefer a larger sample," says Krane, "if the purpose were just to question people who knew gay people. But we have every reason to feel this poll is representative of the entire country."

Rebecca Isaacs, NGLTF's political director, says she isn't worried about the Harris findings; she discounts the poll's results. "I looked at their study and put it up against opinion polls that are much bigger. I don't think this study is the be-all and end-all," argues Isaacs, who says she respects Harris polling. "It's too small. And I wonder about the way the questions were asked."

Lumping friends and relatives together in the same category, notes Isaacs, could skew results. "We choose our friends, and in general we support them in what they do and who they are," she says. "That isn't necessarily true with relatives."

"Over the past 20 years we have seen a whole series of changes in attitudes toward gays in housing, employment, even the military," she adds. "There's been a real trend toward support. Why? More people are aware of the issues."

The poll did offer activists some hope. "There is also good news," notes Schneider. "Because whether or not they know someone gay, a majority of people support antidiscrimination laws." Indeed, the poll showed a 2-to-1 preference (41%-23%) for Democratic Party policies toward gays over Republican policies. And despite what some party leaders say, rank-and-file Republicans are just as likely to support antidiscrimination laws (50%) as Democrats (52%).

So far no one on the far right has seen fit to make political hay of the Harris findings. And neither Isaacs nor Besen thinks the Right will.

"I don't think this poll can be used against us," says Besen. "It won't affect our strategy for generating support for equality laws. The polls we have taken show people have evolved to support equality laws and not think it's OK for gay people to be fired, for example."

Besides, activists contend, the benefits of coming out go far beyond any poll results. Candace Gingrich, associate manager of the National Coming Out Project and Newt Gingrich's half sister, believes being open about sexuality is important to personal happiness. "It's a question of being honest and free," she says. "That may sound trivial, but hiding any part of your life eats away at you." And how did her own coming-out affect the speaker of the House, with whom she's not close? "I wish I knew what personal effect it's had," she says. "I know that, politically, he opposes gay fights legislation."

Kirby is a New York City-based writer and a regular contributor to The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Author:Kirby, David
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 13, 1998
Previous Article:The dying game: to save their careers, gay and lesbian celebrities stayed mum to the end. But in the end, it didn't matter.
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