Multiple Gay Images Stir Straight Reaction

Between a recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay sex, news of a gay public high school, a gay Episcopal priest becoming bishop and five gay fashionistas making television history, some conservatives say straight Americans are suffering from overload.

"All this in-your-face stuff — every time you pick up a newspaper or turn on the T.V., it's gay, gay, gay all the time. I think the average Joe is saying enough is enough," said Peter Labarbera, senior policy analyst of the Culture and Family Institute (search), which makes no bones about its anti-homosexual agenda.

"That's why God made the remote — if you don't like what's on the television, change the channel," responded David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign (search), a gay-rights advocacy organization.

Rhetoric aside, a recent Gallup Poll (search) suggests that for the first time since the 1980s, support for the gay lifestyle — including the much-discussed idea of same-sex marriages — has begun slipping.

Pollsters acknowledge that recent events have played a role in what might be a "gay backlash."

"There really has been a shift in the population," said Frank Newport, executive editor of the Gallup Poll, which conducted two surveys last month following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in June to overturn a Texas law that criminalized gay sex.

In both polls, support for homosexuals dropped markedly from the same survey conducted in May. Across nearly every demographic group — including age, religion, income, race and region of the country — Gallup reported a "dramatic reversal" in what had been increasing tolerance over the last few decades.

"Almost any question we asked, [responses] showed the same decrease in acceptance," Newport said.

In the most recent poll, conducted July 25 through July 27, 48 percent of respondents said homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal, compared to a record high of 60 percent in May. When asked if homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle, 54 percent agreed in May, but only 46 percent said so in July.

On the issue of giving same-sex couples the right to enter into civil unions, 40 percent in July said they should, compared with 49 percent two months ago.

"It's pretty obvious that at least in the short term, opposition is higher than it was," said Carroll Dorety, editor of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (search). "We don't know how enduring it is going to be."

Pollsters peg the shift to the court ruling, which both sides of the debate have said could clear the way for legalized same-sex unions, even marriage.

Talk of gay marriage might have made many Americans wary, energizing people predisposed against the homosexual lifestyle and scaring fence-sitters with lukewarm support for the gay cause, say experts.

"In the last few weeks, the issue has been framed in terms of gay marriage, and you're seeing the numbers go south," said Susan Estrich, professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California Law School.

"When you get to marriage you get to the bedrock of tradition and that's not going to change easily," she added.

A July poll conducted by Andres McKenna Research (search) found that 32 percent of respondents saw the Supreme Court ruling as "a disaster" compared to 27 percent who said they didn't really care. Twenty percent said it was "about time" and 18 percent said they weren't happy about it but didn't see it as an important development.

Smith acknowledged that the Gallup Poll "definitely raises some concerns," but believes the decline is short-term and reflects a healthy debate over gay marriage, which wasn't even discussed seriously 20 years ago.

"I think people are wrestling with these issues, and a confluence of events has definitely brought it to the fore," Smith said.

Aside from the Supreme Court ruling, President Bush affirmed his position that marriage is "between a man and a woman" on July 29. This followed news that a program for homosexual public high school students in New York City was planning to admit even more teens. On Tuesday, an Episcopal priest was named the first openly gay bishop of a state diocese in New Hampshire.

On the pop-culture front, two new cable TV shows have generated endless chatter and record ratings: "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," about five gay men who give fashion-unconscious straight men makeovers, and, on the same channel, a reality dating show, "Boy Meets Boy."

Rev. Lou Sheldon, spokesman for the conservative Traditional Values Coalition (search), said Americans have reached their limit.

"People are saying, 'If you want to be a homosexual, that's between you and your maker, but not in my face,'" he said. Sheldon suggested that many people have kept quiet about their beliefs until now, but recent developments "hit them in the face. It was an absolute wake-up call."

Sheldon predicted a stronger backlash than ever. But Bill Leap, anthropology professor and gay-issues expert at American University, said that despite the conservative bluster, most polls still reflect a strong majority in favor of laws protecting gays from discrimination.

That's where the real fight should be, he said.

"I personally don't think the gay-marriage issue is as much of a priority as equal rights, as the protections in the workplace," said Leap.

Smith said he wasn't going to fret over the long-term implications, yet.

"One poll does not a backlash make," he said. "But I think we need to stay very alert to the issue."