The issue of same-sex marriage continues to demand media attention in the United States, as its legal status is questioned by politicians, lawyers, and judges and Americans’ attitudes regarding the issue continue to inch toward approval. While researchers have noted significant changes in Americans’ attitudes regarding same-sex marriage, now with a slim majority in favor of it, one question has been raised but until now left unanswered: are Americans’ attitudes affected by the rhetoric used in the debate over same-sex marriage? One study’s results suggest that they aren’t.
Indiana University sociologists Aaron J. Ponce, Oren Pizmony-Levy, Hubert Izienicki, and I, investigated the effect of different frames on a nationally-representative sample’s support for marriage between two people of the same sex. Specifically, we compared the effects of what we called supporter frames – those who advocate for same-sex marriage – “gay activists,” “civil rights activists,” and a neutral category of “some people,” and of subject frames – those receiving the right to marry – “homosexual couples” and “same-sex couples.” Each respondent was randomly assigned to receive one supporter frame (gay activists versus civil rights activists versus some people) and one subject frame (same-sex couples versus homosexual couples).
We found that the wording used had no effect once we accounted for the effects of sociodemographic variables (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, education, political affiliation, religion, age, marital status). Thus, the specific language used by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-same-sex marriage organization, and the Family Research Council, a group that opposes it, may not be as effective in changing attitudes as these groups may think. Other research, like the CBS poll on support for repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the US policy that bars lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from openly serving in the military, indicates that the effectiveness of particular ways of framing issues may depend on the issue; thus, maybe using the phrase “gays and lesbians” yields more support for repealing DADT but makes no difference for legalizing same-sex marriage.