Advancements in civil rights for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals in Europe (as well as the Americas and Australia) have been among the most striking social changes in recent decades. As recently as 2000, same-sex marriage was illegal throughout Europe. At present, same-sex couples can legally marry in 17 European countries while same-sex registered domestic partnerships or civil unions are allowed in 11 others. Social acceptance of LGB individuals has increased considerably in these countries over the same period.

How do same-sex marriage and registered domestic partnership policies affect attitudes toward sexual minorities?

Legal same-sex relationship recognition policies (SSRRPs) remain high on the policy agenda across the world, including in Australia, Europe and Latin America. Understanding the impact of such policies on public attitudes is important for policymakers trying to gauge their social implications. In particular, recent developments in SSRRPs raise the question whether legal changes merely passively reflect changes in society’s attitudes or, in contrast, whether laws (also) have an independent influence on people’s views of LGB individuals. Flores and Barclay (2016) discuss four possibilities in this regard: backlash, legitimacy, polarisation, and consensus.

A backlash model predicts that attitudes toward LGB people become more negative following legal recognition of same-sex relationships, especially in the case of judicial rulings. A legitimacy model predicts that legal rulings increase acceptance and approval of LGB populations as people infer that the laws increase social legitimacy. A polarisation model predicts that focusing on events such as major same-sex relationship policies reduces ambivalence toward LGB people and increase both social approval and disapproval of sexual minorities. Finally, a consensus model predicts that attitudes shape policy but that policy does not influence attitudes.

So, what do the data say?

In a recent EBRD working paper, we study the relationship between legal same-sex relationship recognition policies and attitudes toward sexual minorities in Europe. Our data allow us to examine whether relationship recognition policies have unintended negative effects on views toward sexual minorities in general as well as for particular demographic groups such as men, rural populations, and religious individuals. Knowing whether there are adverse attitudinal effects for specific groups can help design policies to counterbalance any such spillover effects from SSRRPs.

We analyse data from the 2002-2016 European Social Surveys, which asked over 325,000 people across Europe identically worded questions about a range of social and economic issues. Of particular interest is a question on whether the respondent agrees that “Gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish”. We use cross-country variation in the timing of SSRRP adoption to estimate difference-in-differences models while controlling for individual demographic characteristics, country characteristics, other LGB policies (such as nondiscrimination laws, adoption policies, and hate crimes legislation), country, year, and month fixed effects, and linear country-specific time trends.

In a nutshell, we find that — consistent with a legitimacy model — laws do cause changes in people’s attitudes. The introduction of a relationship recognition law for same-sex couples is associated with a statistically significant 3.6 percentage point increase in the likelihood that a respondent agreed that gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish. This effect is about five per cent of the baseline average. These results mean that the adoption of expanded relationship recognition policies for same-sex couples can explain 36 per cent of the ten-percentage point increase over our sample period in the share of adults agreeing that gays should be free to live their own life as they wish.

Event study models confirm that the effects we identify emerge only after policy adoption, suggesting that the policies cause changes in attitudes (and not vice versa). We also show that the effects of same-sex relationship policies are unique to LGB attitudes: there is no systematic relation between these policies and people’s views on other social and economic issues (including attitudes toward other minority groups such as immigrants). Moreover, we document that the effects we identify are widespread across many demographic groups.

Implications

Our results suggest that as marriage equality and other relationship recognition policies continue to expand throughout the world, we might expect to observe continued improvements in attitudes towards sexual minorities in the countries involved. This could translate into less discrimination (or more inclusion) in labour and housing markets, improved mental health for sexual minorities, and a range of other potential benefits associated with less anti-gay sentiment.

Yet, our findings also contain a stark warning. If pro-LGB laws increase societal acceptance of sexual minorities then, conversely, anti-LGB legislation can erode such acceptance. Various countries have recently proposed or introduced legislation to explicitly outlaw same-sex sexual activity (Chad), to introduce a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage (Armenia, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Kyrgyzstan) or to even ban the “propaganda of non-traditional relationships” (Kyrgyzstan and Russia). In Brazil, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2013, fears are that the recently elected President Jair Bolsonaro — who once described himself as a proud homophobe — may try to outlaw same-sex marriage again.

In line with our results, social acceptance of LGB individuals has remained low or declined further in many of these countries. Amnesty International has reported that more than hundred gay men were abducted, tortured and in some cases killed in Russia’s Chechnya republic in 2017. Our findings suggest that legislators may take part of the blame for the erosion of tolerance towards sexual minorities that can result in excesses like these.

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cevat-giray-aksoy-photoCevat Giray Aksoy is a principal economist in the office of the chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, and a research associate at IZA Institute of Labor Economics and at LSE’s Institute of Global Affairs. His main research interests are inequalities in the labour market, female labour supply and economics of fertility. He tweets at @cevatgirayaksoy.

 

christopher-carpenter-photoChristopher S. Carpenter is a professor of economics, law, education, medicine, health and society, and health policy at Vanderbilt University. He is an empirical labour and health economist by training and has published widely on the effects of public policies on health outcomes and on labour market outcomes for sexual minorities in the United States, Australia, Canada and United Kingdom. He is associate editor at the Journal of the European Economic Association and the Journal of Health Economics and sits on the editorial boards of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, American Journal of Health Economics, and Industrial Relations. He holds a PhD in economics from UC Berkeley and a BA in mathematics, economics, and public service from Albion College (MI). His research has been supported by the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Ralph De Haas (Maastricht, 1976) is the Director of Research at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Prior to joining the EBRD, he worked at the Banking Supervision and Monetary Policy Departments of the Dutch central bank. Ralph holds a PhD in Economics from Utrecht University and is currently a part-time Associate Professor of Finance at Tilburg University. His main research interests include international banking and financial integration, development economics, and small-business finance.

Kevin Tran is a PhD student ad Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW), Berlin.