Study Finds Wider View of ‘Family’
September 15, 2010
New York Times
By SAM ROBERTS
A majority of Americans now say their definition of family includes same-sex couples with children, as well as married gay and lesbian couples.
At the same time, most Americans do not consider unmarried cohabiting couples, either heterosexual or same-sex, to be a family — unless they have children.
The findings — part of a survey conducted this year as well as in 2003 and 2006 by Brian Powell, a sociology professor at Indiana University, Bloomington — are reported in a new book, “Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family,” to be published on Wednesday by the Russell Sage Foundation. Since the surveys began, the proportion of people who reported having a gay friend or relative rose 10 percentage points, said Professor Powell, the book’s lead author.
“This is not because more people are gay now than in 2003,” he said. “This indicates a more open social environment in which individuals now feel more comfortable discussing and acknowledging sexuality. Ironically with all the antigay initiatives, all of a sudden people were saying the word ‘gay’ out loud. Just the discussion about it made people more comfortable.”
The book concludes that framing the equality of same-sex couples in terms of “the best interests of the child” might prove to be a more successful political argument than others.
“Neither the numbers from our data nor actual votes on initiatives are anywhere near the sufficient magnitude to support the idea that the public is ready to embrace same sex-couples with open arms,” the authors say. But, likening the resistance to laws and mores against interracial marriage, “we envisage a day in the near future when same-sex families also will gain acceptance by a large plurality of the public.”
The latest telephone survey of 830 people conducted this year found that Americans were almost equally divided on same-sex marriage. “I don’t think people are ready to embrace it, but people are ready to accept it,” Professor Powell said of same-sex marriage.
The survey also found a growing acceptance that genetics, rather than parenting, peers or God’s will, was responsible for sexual orientation.
Since 2003, the survey found a decline of 11 percentage points in the number of people who generally define family as a husband and wife with or without children.
Prof. Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College in Washington, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, a research and advocacy group, said that “Americans seem to be open to seeing same-sex couples with children as families, even while they hesitate to recognize their unions as marriage.”
David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a marriage research and advocacy group, said he was not surprised by the findings. “I like the standard definition of family: two or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption,” Mr. Blankenhorn said. “Keeps it simple and coherent.”
But, he added: “We live in groups, and we need each other. So it’s always a good thing, isn’t it, when any of us truly loves and is loved by another.”
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