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A gay president?

In a reflection of changing attitudes, more Americans say they are open to the possibility.

August 27, 2008

Even many Americans sympathetic to gay rights will be startled by a new Zogby International poll indicating that more than 60% of registered voters would support a qualified gay candidate for the presidency. Romantic as it may be, the notion that anyone can grow up to be president long has served as a metaphor for the openness and fairness of American society. It is thus remarkable, and reassuring, that nearly two-thirds of respondents in the poll expressed a willingness to discard one of the oldest and most pervasive prejudices when they enter the voting booth.

Zogby's findings don't come entirely out of the blue. Last year, a Gallup poll asked respondents whether they would vote for a presidential candidate who was gay. Fifty-five percent answered yes (compared with only 45% who would support an atheist candidate).

Critics of such polls will argue that they reflect a homophobic version of the Bradley Effect -- named for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley -- in which racist voters lie about their willingness to vote for a black candidate. But even if some respondents say they will vote for a gay candidate for fear of seeming politically incorrect, that is itself a comment on how far gays and lesbians have come.

Polls about the acceptability of a gay presidential candidate reflect a larger trend in support for gay equality. In a Field poll conducted shortly after the California Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling in May, 51% of registered California voters favored allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Another Field poll released last month found that by a 51%-to-42% margin, California voters opposed Proposition 8, which would amend the state Constitution to overturn the high court's decision.

With same-sex marriage, as with gay rights generally, the younger generation is leading the way. Last month's Field poll found that opposition to Proposition 8 was greatest among voters under 30 years of age. That was consistent with a finding by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that roughly half of adults under 30 supported same-sex marriage. The trend is clear: Support for gay rights and same-sex marriage is being driven by generational change.

But differences among age groups cannot completely explain the greater tolerance for gays and lesbians. Thanks to the gay-rights movement, Americans of all ages are likelier to have openly homosexual relatives, neighbors and co-workers. Those personal contacts make it harder for decent people to accept discrimination against gays and lesbians -- including at the ballot box.

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