Psst: New Study Shows American Jews Overwhelmingly Support LGBT Rights. Far Too Quietly

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February 27, 2014

Public Religion Research Institute

Perception Problem: Of all the identified religious groups in the poll, Jews are the most supportive of same-sex marriage, with 83% favoring allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new Zeek series about the Jewish push for LGBT rights.

This past Wednesday was a trifecta for the LGBT rights community.

A federal district court judge struck down the Texas ban on same-sex marriage, positioning Texas to join the 17 states and District of Columbia that now allow gay couples to legally wed.

The Republican Arizona governor vetoed a bill allowing refusal of services to gays and lesbians, hopefully setting a precedent for similar bills being considered in several other states. And the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a major new survey on a decade of changes in attitudes on LGBT-related issues.

The research revealed a 21-point jump in support for same-sex marriage from 2003, when one-third (32%) of Americans supported same-sex marriage, to 2013, when a majority (53%) of Americans do.

Here are some other numbers worth considering from the PRRI study, “A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues”:

*Majorities of Americans in the Northeast (60%), West (58%) and Midwest (51%) favor allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry- and Southerners are now evenly divided (48% favor, 48% oppose).

*In the South, nearly two-thirds (65%) of Millennials (ages 18 to 33) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry (compared to 28% of Southerners who are part of the Silent Generation (ages 68 and older)).

*The number of Americans who report having a close friend of family member who is gay or lesbian has tripled in the past two decades—from 22% in 1993 to 65% in 2013.

*Americans overall overestimate the size of the LGBT population by a factor of 4, with the median estimate at 20% as compared to the 5% who self-identified as LGBT in the poll.

*There is a racial divide on the issue of same-sex marriage. A majority of white (55%) and Hispanic Americans (53%) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, compared to 39% of black Americans.

*There is a 9-point gender gap on support for same-sex marriage, with 57% of women now in favor as compared to 48% of men.

The Jewish Numbers

As a Jew and a professional Jew (I work for the Washington office of the Reform Jewish movement), I always hope to find the Jewish numbers in polls like this one but rarely do. Today’s poll, however, was big enough- with 4,509 telephone interviews conducted — to offer breakdowns that included us.

As I listened to PRRI Founder and President Dr. Robert P. Jones report on the Jewish numbers, I felt an enormous sense of pride, some humility and called to act.

Of all the identified religious groups in the poll, Jews are the most supportive of same-sex marriage, with 83% favoring allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. This compares to 73% of those with no religious affiliation, 62% of white mainline Protestants, 57% of Catholics, 46% of Hispanic Protestants, 35% of Black Protestants and 27% of white evangelical Protestants.

Moreover, 58% of us strongly favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry (a full 22 points higher than the next highest category, religiously unaffiliateds). We are only 3 points behind LGBT Americans in their own support of marriage equality (86% — though those who oppose might well have different reasons for doing so)! This segment was my moment of pride.

The humility came when Dr. Jones reported on Americans’ perception of Jews’ feelings towards LGBT people. Only a quarter of Americans believe Jews are friendly toward LGBT people, a third believe we are unfriendly and 41% do not know or refused to answer the question. We are perceived to be only 1 point friendlier than evangelical Christian churches — and 6 points less friendly than African-American churches.

Three Things We Can Do

These numbers call Jews to action in three different ways.

First, based on our strong interfaith relationships, Jews have a tremendous opportunity to help continue to move the dial on LGBT equality. For example, Jews and black Protestants are coalition partners on numerous issues, from economic justice to gun violence prevention. We have earned the trust to be able to initiate conversations about harder topics such as this one. We capitalized on our broad interfaith partnerships last year, when the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism coordinated a letter from 60 faiths groups in support of the federal bill protecting LGBT Americans from discrimination in the workplace. We must continue to play this role.

Second, we must recognize that despite our efforts, we are not living up to our potential. True — not all Jews are fully on board. But, as this poll reveals, a strong majority of Jews are resolute in our support, and too few Americans know it. Although we confront the challenge of our relatively tiny portion of the U.S. population, we can and must do more to communicate Jews’ support for LGBT equality to our non-Jewish brothers and sisters. Our views, if better understood, could help combat the image that the faith community is anti-gay and model love and inclusivity. Perhaps an effort to place op-eds in support of an LGBT equality measure or idea in mainstream papers across all 50 states could begin to help correct this misimpression.

Third, Jews need to be aware that we have been and still are in a considerably different place from the majority of Americans, including the policymakers and interfaith coalition partners we are trying to persuade. As advocates, we must remember to speak in terms of the “journey” toward LGBT equality that so many Americans are on — even if many of us have already arrived.

The Journey to Full LGBT Equality

I’m not usually a betting girl, but PRRI’s poll makes me want to put money down on America’s inevitable journey toward full LGBT equality. But as long as gay, lesbian and transgender Americans can still lose their jobs because of who they love and who they are; so long as gay and lesbian couples cannot turn their love into a committed marriage no matter where they live in America; so long as gay, lesbian and transgender kids continue to be bullied at school; and so long as states like Arizona, Tennessee, Utah and Mississippi keep trying to pass laws that allow private individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBT Americans in the name of “religious liberty,” we all have our work cut out for us.

Rachel Laser is the Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Prior to the RAC, Ms. Laser worked as Culture Program Director at Third Way and as Senior Counsel for the National Women’s Law Center. She is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Chicago Law School. Her proudest accomplishment is balancing her career with her family of three teenagers and a husband.

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new Zeek series about the Jewish push for LGBT rights.

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