For gay New Yorkers, the closet door is
a) entirely off its hinges;
b) halfway open;
c) slightly ajar;
d) double padlocked and painted shut.
In this gayest of cities (sorry, San Francisco), the answer in 2001 seems to be mostly (a). And in the spirit of Seinfeld, most straight New Yorkers don’t see anything wrong with that.
In a wide-ranging poll of straight, gay, and lesbian New York-area residents conducted by the polling firm Global Strategy Group Inc., New York Magazine found landslide-level acceptance and openness regarding homosexuality. The poll paints a picture of a city in which most straight people are not only very comfortable with gays but socially and professionally intimate with them as well. Almost half (46 percent) of straight New Yorkers say they have a gay male close friend, roughly one third (31 percent) have a close friend who’s a lesbian, and almost two fifths (39 percent) have gay male co-workers. Almost one in five (19 percent) say they have at least one male family member who’s gay, and 13 percent have one lesbian family member. Straight New Yorkers are broadly accepting of gays in positions of responsibility and public leadership. And they take gay relationships seriously: Sixty-six percent say gay and lesbian relationships are as likely as heterosexual relationships to be loving, long-term, and monogamous – and 58 percent favor legalizing gay marriages. (Taken as a whole, New Yorkers are almost twice as likely to support legalizing gay marriage – 60 percent – as the national sample in a Gallup poll in January, 34 percent.)
Still, there is lingering intolerance, as well as isolation. New York may be the capital of the new global economy, but only 58 percent of gays and lesbians surveyed are comfortable enough to be out at work. And lesbians are less familiar to straight New Yorkers than gay men are: More than a quarter of straight people – 26 percent – report that they don’t know any lesbians (not even Liz Smith?), compared with 16 percent who don’t know any gay men. In part, this may be because lesbians are less likely to be out: Forty-four percent of lesbians say they are out at work, compared with 64 percent of gay men.
City residents who imagine themselves to be more enlightened than suburbanites should get over themselves: Our poll showed that residents of the boroughs and of the surrounding New York and New Jersey suburbs are more or less equally tolerant. Seventy-nine percent of city residents, for instance, would be comfortable with an openly gay police officer, compared with 80 percent of suburbanites. Sixty-six percent of city residents would be comfortable having an openly gay person as their child’s elementary-school teacher, as opposed to 63 percent of suburbanites. Within the five boroughs, though, where you live seems to affect how you think: Non-Manhattan city dwellers are considerably less tolerant of gays and gay issues than Manhattanites. Only 29 percent of Queens residents, for instance, think public funding should be withheld from the anti-gay Boy Scouts, compared with 59 percent of Manhattanites. In general, more highly educated and higher-income respondents are more likely to know gays – and they’re more accepting and supportive of gay rights, too. For instance, just over a third (34 percent) of straight New Yorkers with incomes under $50,000 would withhold public funding from the anti-gay Boy Scouts, compared with 43 percent of those making $50,000 to $89,999 and 50 percent of those earning $90,000 or more. (Curiously, 23 percent of gays and lesbians think the Scouts should continue to get public funding even though they exclude gays.)
To know gays, apparently, is to love them – or at least trust them and support their civil rights. More than two thirds (67 percent) of straight New Yorkers who have a close gay friend would be comfortable with an openly gay person baby-sitting their child, compared with 37 percent of those who don’t know any gays; 82 percent of straight people with a close gay friend believe that gays should be free to adopt, as opposed to 53 percent of those who don’t know any gays.
Or at least they think they don’t know any gays. Hard to know for sure, since so many gays are still in the closet at work and 29 percent of gays aren’t out to their families. (Nearly one quarter – 21 percent – said they became estranged from a family member because of their sexual orientation.)
If only the straights knew that hunky, mysterious Bob in accounting is gay, more might have agreed with the statement “Gay men are more attractive than straight men.” A net 19 percent of straight New Yorkers agreed, compared with 46 percent of gays and lesbians. (Then again, it’s awfully dark in Wonder Bar, so who’s to say, really?) And gays and lesbians still maintain an edge when it comes to gaydar: Forty-two percent claim they can tell if someone is gay or lesbian just by looking at them, compared with 26 percent of straight New Yorkers.
Elsewhere on the stereotype front, 32 percent of straight New Yorkers agree that “lesbians prefer to be with other women usually because of negative experiences with men.” Surprisingly, 20 percent of gays and lesbians think the same thing. Perhaps even more surprising: Eleven percent of gays and lesbians “strongly agree” (compared with 14 percent of straight New Yorkers) that “homosexuals choose to be gay.”
Why, pray tell, would gays choose to be gay when 40 percent of gays and lesbians polled fear that they may one day contract HIV (compared with 20 percent of straight New Yorkers), 59 percent have experienced homophobic slurs or threats, and 19 percent have been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation?
Gays do seem to get out more: Thirty-one percent of gays and lesbians go out to nightclubs one to two times a month or more (compared with 16 percent of straight New Yorkers), 33 percent go to the theater once a month or more (compared with 13 percent), and 29 percent eat out at restaurants three or four times a week (compared with 17 percent). You’ve probably already noticed, but 63 percent of straight New Yorkers never go a gym or health club, compared with 43 percent of gays and lesbians.
If gays and lesbians lack unanimity regarding the necessity of getting buff, what do they agree on? Marriage and Dubya, basically. Ninety-two percent of gays and lesbians want the right to get legally married, and only 4 percent of New York gays and lesbians voted for George W. Bush.
Gays and lesbians who are pessimistic about the next four years might do well to take more of a long-range view, because homophobia is literally dying off: Younger New Yorkers are more likely to support gays and gay rights than older ones. For instance, almost four in five (79 percent) of New Yorkers 18 to 34 are for gay adoption compared with 67 percent of 35-to-54-year-olds and 53 percent of those 55 or older. Nearly three quarters (72 percent) of 18-to-34-year-old New Yorkers are pro-gay marriage compared with 64 percent of 35-to-54-year-olds and fewer than half (45 percent) of those 55 or older. And 76 percent of New Yorkers 18 to 34 and 35 to 54 would be likely to vote for an openly gay mayor compared with 62 percent of those 55 or older. In fact, in a face-off between Bruce Vilanch and Rudy Giuliani … oh, wait, that’s the one question we forgot to ask.
Check out the March 5, 2001 issue of New York Magazine for more poll results!
This poll was conducted February 4 to February 8 by Global Strategy Group, Inc., from a random sample of 308 New York City residents (from all five boroughs) and 292 residents of surrounding New York and New Jersey counties, plus an oversample of 300 gay and lesbian New York- area residents. The margin of error is +/-4 percent for the poll and +/-5.7 percent for the oversample.