In a New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this month, people were asked a variety of questions on a wide range of topics. I was especially intrigued by a pair of questions around the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
And by just how different the results were, depending on whether the question asked about “homosexuals” or “gay men and lesbians.”
1,084 adults were surveyed from February 5th-10th, but there was a twist… About half of the respondents were asked this question:
Do you favor or oppose permitting homosexuals to serve in the military? Do you favor/oppose that strongly or not so strongly?
34% – Favor Strongly
25% – Favor Not So Strongly
19% – Oppose Strongly
10% – Oppose Not So Strongly
12% – Don’t Know / No Answer
On the surface, that’s encouraging, right? 59% of people favor permitting homosexuals to serve in the military. A majority, ladies and gentlemen… Congress, get your shit together.
But wait… Only about half of respondents were given that question. The other half were given this question:
Do you favor or oppose permitting gay men and lesbians to serve in the military? Do you favor/oppose that strongly or not so strongly?
A subtle difference, right? Instead of asking about “homosexuals” we’re asking about “gay men and lesbians” in the military. And here’s the difference in results:
51% – Favor Strongly (+17)
19% – Favor Not So Strongly (-6)
12% – Oppose Strongly (-7)
07% – Oppose Not So Strongly (-3)
10% – Don’t Know / No Answer (-2)
The “Favor Strongly” category jumps up seventeen points when you change the word “homosexual” into “gay men and lesbians.” And the “Favor Not So Strongly” only dropped by six points, meaning a good chunk of the lukewarm supporters jumped into full support, and a bunch of the opposition moved into lukewarm/full support. (Yes, there’s a rounding error… If you’re curious about the methodology, click here.)
The word “homosexual” still clearly puts people off – even people who are supportive of “gay men and lesbians.” It’s no wonder that many people prefer to describe themselves as “gay” or “lesbian” instead of “homosexual” under the circumstances.
People think of a “gay man” as Will Truman from TV’s Will & Grace, and a “lesbian” as Ellen DeGeneres. On the other hand, to many people a “homosexual” is the sort of sick, twisted pedophile you read about in the papers, or see in 50s-era public service announcements.
What a difference a word makes.