Marriage Equality Backlash Did Not Slow Progress for Gay and Lesbian Couples: UCI

A public backlash to gay marriage won't impede future policy gains for gay and lesbian couples, according to a new study co-authored by a UC Irvine professor.


“Opinion Backlash and Public Attitudes: Are Political Advances in Gay Rights Counterproductive?” was written by Charles Anthony Smith, UCI associate professor of political science; Benjamin G. Bishin, professor of political science at UC Riverside; Thomas J. Hayes, assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut; and Matthew B. Incantalupo, a Ph.D. candidate in politics and social policy at Princeton University.

Their findings, which appear in the American Journal of Political Science, should bring hope to marginalized groups that may otherwise be dissuaded from pursuing public change, according to Smith.

“Public opinion backlash is the idea that an angry public lashes back after a controversial law is passed, thus making it more difficult for minority groups to achieve their political and policy objectives,” explained Smith, who along with his scholarly colleagues were dubious of the long-accepted phenomenon in politics because few studies had tried to empirically substantiate it.

To put the concept to the test, the team surveyed more than 2,400 individuals in early June 2013, asking questions about political knowledge, opinions on equality and feelings about gays and lesbians. On June 26 of that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court made two key rulings in favor of gay rights by declaring unconstitutional Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (which limited same-sex couples' access to federal benefits) and by letting stand a lower-court decision overturning California's Proposition 8 (which banned previously voter-approved same-sex marriage).

The researchers repeated the survey for three days after the legal actions to gauge any changes in opinion. Across demographic groups, they found no significant difference in attitudes among the general public, members of groups that openly disagreed with the rulings, or people with psychological traits that would predispose them to lash back.

Smith noted that “disadvantaged minorities are always told to go slow, because if they go too fast in seeking their rights, they will cause the public to turn against them.” However, he said, “we show this is simply not the case, and rights should be demanded without hesitation.”

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