Gays feel more accepted, still stigmatized

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With some trepidation, Tammy Smith returned to her tiny hometown in rural Oregon last year, shortly after she was named a brigadier general in the Army Reserves.

Folks there had known her as a tomboy active in the Future Farmers of America when she was growing up, and Gen. Smith wasn't sure how they would receive her and her new wife, Tracey Hepner.

But at a reception the town threw for Gen. Smith, old men from the Veterans of Foreign Wars wanted their pictures taken with her, often insisting that Ms. Hepner join the photo. One woman gave the couple a wedding present, a small sculpture of two kissing doves that now graces their living room in Arlington, Va. The local newspaper called Gen. Smith's promotion one of the most positive news items to hit the town of fewer than 1,000 people that year.

"There was a sense of pride that Oakland, Oregon, had produced somebody who not only was a general, but someone prominent who is out," said Gen. Smith, 50, the first openly gay officer of flag rank in the U.S. military. "It was an amazing and unexpected response."

The welcoming embrace that Oakland showed Gen. Smith and Ms. Hepner is becoming increasingly common in the United States. In a new poll the Pew Research Center released Thursday, 9 in 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults said society had become more accepting of them in the last decade, and that they expected it to be even more open to them in the years ahead.

Yet only 19 percent said there is "a lot" of acceptance for gays, while 59 percent chose to characterize it more softly, as "some" acceptance, and 21 percent said there was little to none. More than half said they had been subjected to slurs or jokes about gays, and sizeable numbers said they had been rejected by friends or family, threatened with physical attack or made to feel unwelcome at a house of worship.

The Pew survey of 1,197 LGBT adults, exploring many aspects of respondents' interior lives, is the first of its kind by a major polling organization.

It asked them when they realized that they weren't straight, when they came out to family and close friends and how they have been stigmatized in society.

It also found that only small minorities of gay people have anything positive to say about the military, professional sports leagues or the Republican Party. Compared with the general public, Pew said, gays and lesbians are more liberal, more Democratic, less religious and less happy with their own lives, yet more satisfied with the direction in which the nation is headed.

"For the LGBT population, these are the best of times," said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. "But that does not mean these are easy times, or their lives are uncomplicated. Many are still searching for a comfortable, secure place in a society where acceptance is growing but still limited. That is part of the drama of their lives."

Pew, and many of the gay people it polled, link much of the growing acceptance to the fact that more people personally know someone who is gay. In an earlier Pew poll of the general public, almost 9 in 10 people said they have a gay friend or relative, up from 6 in 10 only a decade ago.

The gay people polled by Pew said they think lesbians are welcomed more in society than gay men are; in fact, 1 in 4 said there is a lot of acceptance of lesbians. Just 15 percent characterized it that way for gay men. A third said bisexual women are accepted a lot, compared with just 8 percent for bisexual men. And only 3 percent of those polled said transgender adults meet a lot of acceptance.

One striking finding of the Pew poll is the young age at which many gay people say they realized that they weren't straight. The median age at which gay men said they had their first inkling was when they were only 10, and they knew for sure by 15.

For lesbians, the median age when they first thought they might not be straight was 13, and they were certain by 18. The median age when they first divulged their secret to someone was 18 for gay men, and 21 for lesbians.



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