Personal relationships / Homosexuality


In 2013 public attitudes towards homosexuality hit the headlines once again, as a result of the debates surrounding the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, providing a good illustration of the tension between David Cameron's desire to promote socially liberal conservatism on issues such as gay rights and a socially authoritarian, and highly vocal, section of his party (Hayton, 2010). These debates are not confined to the UK; earlier in 2013, a reported 150,000 people marched in Paris to protest against a similar law being enacted there. 

undefinedIt is worth reminding ourselves of how much Britain has changed in relation to homosexuality. Before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, male homosexuality had been illegal. One hundred years earlier it had been a capital offence. But, despite its decriminalisation in 1967 (for men aged 21 and over), stigma and prejudice against gay men and lesbians remained widespread over the subsequent decades and prevented many from openly expressing their sexuality. This is not the place for an exhaustive history, but it is worth flagging some events and debates of particular relevance to the 30 year period covered by the British Social Attitudes survey. In the 1980s, two events in particular stand out; the arrival of HIV AIDS and the introduction of Section 28. The first round of the British Social Attitudes survey took place in 1983, a point at which there was intense media scrutiny of what was then a new and frightening disease; acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In 1982, Terrence Higgins became one of the first UK fatalities and the years that followed saw frequent (and often incorrect) scares about how the HIV virus could be transmitted (Wellings, 1988) as well a frequent distinction being made between those who were 'innocent' victims (for example, contracting the HIV virus through blood transfusions) and those, like gay men or intravenous drug-users, who were seen to have 'chosen' to place themselves at risk through their behaviour (Beharrell, 1993). 

Moving forward a few years to the 1987 Conservative Party conference brings us to another landmark debate of the 1980s. In her speech to the party faithful, Margaret Thatcher remarked "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay".[7] These concerns heralded the introduction of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which stated that local government "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in state schools of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". 

The 1990s saw breakthroughs in the medical treatment of AIDS and HIV. The first gay pride events took place in Manchester (1990), Brighton (1992) and London (Europride, 1992), and an increasing number of public figures came out as gay or announced that they were HIV positive. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 reduced the age of consent for homosexual sex from 21 to 18. After years of wrangling between the House of Commons and House of Lords, the age of consent was eventually lowered to 16 in 2001. Section 28 was eventually repealed in England and Wales as part of the Local Government Act 2003 (its Scottish equivalent having been repealed a few years earlier in 2000). The following year the Civil Partnership Act 2004 gave same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (the first civil partnership took place the following year). In 2013, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill was introduced to Parliament and at the time of writing is being considered by the House of Lords; in the same year the Scottish Parliament introduced its own Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. As a result of these, and other legislative changes, lesbian and gay rights in Britain have strengthened considerably, and are seen as being among the best in Europe.[8]

undefinedWhat might these changes mean for public attitudes? Certainly, we might expect to find that attitudes have become much more tolerant over time, in line with legislative change and an increasing willingness among public figures to be open about being gay. But we might also expect this path to be a bumpy one, perhaps reflecting the debates about homosexuality that accompanied discussions about AIDS in the 1980s. This indeed proves to be the case. Back in 1983, we asked people what they thought of "sexual relations between adults of the same sex". Their responses, and those obtained in subsequent years, are presented in Table 1.7. In 1983, half - one in every two people - took the most critical view possible, that such behaviour was "always wrong". An additional one in ten thought it was "mostly wrong" and less than two in ten thought it "not wrong at all". The view that homosexuality was wrong grew over the decade - by 1987, nearly two-thirds thought it was always wrong, no doubt at least partly reflecting some of the debates surrounding HIV AIDS. Since then, attitudes have become far more tolerant - the proportion thinking homosexuality is always wrong is now a third of that in 1987, while the 11 per cent who took the most relaxed view possible back then (that homosexuality was not wrong at all) has more than quadrupled to 47 per cent. 


undefinedFigure 1.4 compares trends in attitudes to homosexuality with attitudes to premarital sex. Three points emerge. Firstly, and very obviously, societal attitudes to homosexuality were (and remain) markedly less liberal than attitudes to premarital sex. Secondly, although opinion on premarital sex became progressively more liberal throughout the 1980s, this was a decade during which attitudes to homosexuality hardened, for the reasons highlighted earlier. And thirdly, views about premarital sex seem to have
stabilised since 2007 while attitudes to homosexuality
are continuing to become more liberal.  


undefinedWe turn now to look at how opinion varies between different groups, focusing particularly on how attitudes among different groups have changed over time and what impact this has had on any gap between groups with particularly marked views. We start by looking at the views of different generations. These are shown in Figure 1.5 which illustrates clearly that each successive generation has more liberal views than the one before. In 2012, for instance, the 1980s generation are the least likely to think that homosexuality is always or mostly wrong; those born in the 1930s are the most likely to do so. This gradient from one generation to the next, combined with the exit of older, less liberal, generations and the arrival of newer, more liberal ones, largely accounts for the large shift in overall public opinion that has taken place - a decline of 34 points over three decades in the proportion who think homosexuality is always or mostly wrong. This shift will continue so long as these clear generational gradients exist, but should begin to slow down at the point when the 1960s generation becomes the oldest, as this generation and those that follow it have very similar views. 

But generational change is not the whole story as, with the exception of the 1960s generation, each generation themselves became less tolerant between 1987 and 1993, for reasons that have been outlined already. The unique path of the 1960s generation is intriguing, suggesting that they were perhaps more resistant than older generations to the impact that debates around HIV AIDS (among other things) appear to have had on attitudes. However, if we focus on overall change between 1983 and 2012, it is clear that all generations have become notably more liberal over time. Among those born in the 1930s, for example, 61 per cent thought homosexuality was wrong in 1983, compared with 54 per cent among that generation now. The 1950s and 1960s generations in particular have become markedly more liberal on this issue over time. 


Not surprisingly, religious belief is closely linked to attitudes to homosexuality. Those who aren't religious are the least likely to see it as always or mostly wrong, only 16 per cent do so. This compares to disapproval rates of over a third among Anglicans (40 per cent) and Catholics (35 per cent). The highest disapproval of all is found among non-Christians, six in ten (61 per cent) of whom see homosexuality as always or mostly wrong (although these figures need to be treated with caution due to the small sample sizes involved). 

undefinedAlthough tolerance of homosexuality has grown among all religious groups, it has grown most among those who are not religious. As a result, the gap between the religious and non-religious on this issue is now far wider than in the past. In 1983, Anglicans were 1.2 times more likely than the non-religious to think homosexuality was wrong; now they are 2.6 times more likely. This stronger relationship between religiosity and attitudes to homosexuality is confirmed by multivariate analysis described in the social class chapter elsewhere in this report. As was the case with attitudes to premarital sex, these trends show that changing attitudes to homosexuality cannot be accounted for by the decline of religious faith within Britain alone; the fact that many religious people are more liberal now than they once were suggests that other forces are more important. 

Education is also closely related to a person's attitudes towards homosexuality, with the most marked distinction being between those with and without qualifications. Graduates are the most tolerant of all; in 2012 one in five (19 per cent) thought homosexuality was always or mostly wrong, half the proportion (39 per cent) who took that view in 1985. The least tolerant are those without any qualifications; nearly half (47 per cent) in 2012 thought homosexuality was wrong, down from just over three-quarters (78 per cent) in 1985. 

So far we have seen a clear liberal shift in attitudes to homosexuality, both across the public as a whole and among all the specific groups we have looked at. In the case of generation, religion and education these shifts have actually increased the gap between the most and least tolerant groups. As was the case with attitudes to marriage the key driver behind much of this change is generational, with each generation being successively more liberal than its predecessor. However, events also clearly matter, as shown by the impact that the arrival of AIDS in the 1980s appears to have had on people's attitudes, in the form of a hardening of mood likely to reflect the debates of the time. 

Given some of the debates that have taken place among Conservative Party MPs and supporters about the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, we might anticipate finding considerable differences between the views of their supporters and those of other parties. In fact, as Table 1.8 shows, party identification is not as strongly linked to people's views on homosexuality as some of the other characteristics we have considered. In fact, the difference between the proportion of Conservative and Labour Party supporters who think that homosexuality is wrong is not statistically significant; the main divide is between the supporters of these two main parties, on the one hand, and Liberal Democrats or those who do not support any party on the other, who are less likely to think homosexuality is wrong. 

undefinedIn line with what we have seen earlier, supporters of all parties have become more tolerant over time. Among the main political parties, the biggest change has taken place among Labour supporters; in 1983, 67 per cent thought homosexuality was always or mostly wrong, compared with 29 per cent now, a drop of 38 percentage points (a shift that largely took place between 1993 and 2003). Among Conservatives the overall decline has been somewhat lower, but it is worth flagging the dramatic change that took place among their supporters between 2003 and 2012, with the proportion thinking homosexuality is wrong falling from a half to just over a third. It is not clear how much of this we can attribute to the social liberalism of David Cameron, who was elected leader of the Conservative Party in the autumn of 2005. Might his views have persuaded party supporters to adopt a more liberal stance, or even attracted those with a more liberal view to the party? Both are possible, but it is important to note that much of the increase in liberalism among Conservative supporters pre-dated Cameron's election as party leader, with the proportion thinking homosexuality is always or mostly wrong falling from 51 to 44 per cent between 2003 and 2005. 


Earlier we saw that Conservative supporters were distinctively less liberal than other groups on the issue of parenthood and marriage. Perhaps not surprisingly then, they are also less enthusiastic than other groups about the idea of opening up marriage to same-sex couples. We asked people in 2012 whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement "Gay or lesbian couples should have the right to marry one another if they want to". Overall, 24 per cent agree strongly with this proposition while 33 per cent agree. Twenty-four per cent either disagree or disagree strongly. Conservatives were the least likely to agree strongly, only 17 per cent doing so, compared with 27 per cent of Labour party supporters and 39 per cent of Liberal Democrats.  

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  1. BBC news, 17th February 2001, available at:
  2. It is possible that the expansion of higher education will affect the relationship between degree-level education and social values, especially if the main mechanism by which education affects attitudes is socialisation (rather than cognitive development). So as a wider cross-section of young people attend university, the distinctive nature of their values is diluted.
  3. Bases for Table 1.4 are as follows:
  4. Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows: 
  5. In summary, there has been a considerable rise since 1983 in the proportion who identify with no political party whatsoever, up from eight per cent in 1983 to 21 per cent now. The proportion of Conservative identifiers has shrunk (from 39 to 27 per cent) and the proportion of Labour identifiers has remained broadly constant (33 and 36 per cent in 1983 and 2012 respectively). In 1983, 15 per cent of people identified with the Liberal/SDP Alliance, compared with six per cent in 2012 identifying with the Liberal Democrats. Further details can be found in the Politics chapter.  
  6. Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
  7. Speech by Margaret Thatcher to the Conservative Party Conference, 1987, 9th October, available at:
  8. See, for example, the ILGA Europe review of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and intersex people in Europe, available at:
  9. Bases for Table 1.8 are as follows:
  10. The Guardian Datablog, 7th October 2012, available at: