Some Catholic Countries More Accepting of Homosexuality Than the United States

When it comes to acceptance of LGBT people, the United States is far from being the most tolerant country in the world.

According to a report released last week by the Pew Research Center, attitudes about homosexuality in society vary widely based on geography — but less by religion than you might expect. Pew asked more than 37,000 participants in 39 countries whether “homosexuality should be accepted or rejected by society,” and found widespread geographical differences in responses.

The Washington Post summarizes the findings:

The broadest acceptance was found in countries where religion is not central to life, such as Canada (80 percent), France (77 percent) and Australia (79 percent). Yet the poll also found high levels of tolerance toward gay people in some heavily Catholic countries, including Spain (86 percent), Italy (74 percent), Argentina (74 percent) and the Philippines (73 percent). In the United States, 60 percent of the public said gay people should be accepted in society.

It’s interesting to paint France as a country where religion isn’t a major influence, considering conservative Catholics have been at the forefront of an often violent movement protesting the country’s new marriage equality law. However, while Catholic countries seem to be erring on the side of acceptance, Muslim countries are not:

In contrast, there was widespread rejection of homosexuality in predominantly Muslim countries, as well as in Africa, Russia and parts of Asia. In most of the Middle East, including Egypt and Jordan, more than nine in 10 people said homosexuality should be rejected. That was also the case in most of Africa, including Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria…

Israel in particular illustrated the role religion plays in attitudes toward gay people. Six in 10 secular Jews in Israel told Pew that homosexuality should be accepted, more than twice the 26 percent of religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews who urged acceptance. Just 2 percent of Israeli Muslims agreed.

Pew reports that attitudes toward homosexuality have been generally stable over the last six years in most countries — except in the U.S., Canada, and South Korea, where acceptance has shot up by more than 10% each, and in France, Russia, and Turkey, where it’s dropped a few points.

Why the discrepancy between acceptance rates in countries with similarly huge religious influences? Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute at UCLA, told the Post it’s less about the legal standing of LGBT people in a certain country and more about the culture of a religion:

“There are cultures where religion is a very, very important factor, as a regular part of daily life,” he said. “In those countries, it’s harder to distinguish what’s religious and what’s culture. But in other countries, like Italy or Spain, the culture has always had a live-and-let-live dimension to it. Even with a very strong religious presence, you see that kind of attitude coming out.”

What I gather from this is that even the world’s most Catholic countries (hello, Spain and Italy!) are more tolerant of LGBT people than the United States, and that’s a little scary. According to these numbers, the U.S. touts itself as far more accepting — and more secular — than it actually is.

This article seems to say that legal equality for LGBT people doesn’t have a great deal of influence on acceptance of homosexuality, like in South Africa, where anti-gay discrimination is unconstitutional, yet 60% of the population doesn’t accept homosexuality. As the U.S. moves closer to ending DOMA and Prop 8 and abolishing discrimination in other ways, I can only hope we prove that trend wrong.

About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at

  • Sweetredtele

    Technically, Russia isn’t RCC catholic like the other countries on that list. Only 750,000.

    • doug105

      Russian Orthodox Church.

  • Steve

    Can’t believe Britain is behind France! Or even worse, behind Catholic Spain! So much for our so called tolerance!

    • Ewan

      I suspect the UK is patchier; while a lot of our ‘mainstream’ is heavily secular, we have quite a few backwaters (rural conservatives, traditional working class north, Northern Ireland, and rural Scotland, to pick out a few broad brush areas) that are not.

      Those areas, both geographically and culturally, tend to be under represented in the media anyway, so it’s easy to miss the extent to which homophobia is just a baseline assumption in people’s lives, not even something they have as a particularly deliberate opinion.

    • Spuddie

      Spain is not that Catholic anymore. Franco did a lot to turn the public away from them for the last 3 generations.

  • Scott McGreal

    I find it interesting that Japan was behind most of the Western countries, even though they are not considered a very religious nation. My guess is that their culture is still fairly traditional and conservative in many ways, and they have a more collectivistic ethic compared to the individualistic West. But still, they are much more progressive than anywhere in the Middle East or Africa.

    • Kimpatsu

      A lot of that is to do with the belief that marriage is about social stability, not personal happiness. Even gay people are expected to (heterosexually) marry here, even though it makes them miserable; the population needs to be replenished, and that is a social responsibility. Your sexual orientation is irrelevant.

      • Anna

        I wonder if that will change as more Japanese same-sex couples start having children? I did a quick search and couldn’t seem to find anything at all about how those families are faring (or any indication they even exist) in Japan. In fact, the only result that seems to pop up on Google is that story about Kaguya, the mouse with two mothers!

        • Anna

          After doing enough searches, I finally managed to track down something on lesbian mothers in Japan:

          Can’t actually read the article, but found a summary on another site:

          This report explores a lesbian mother and interviews the families. In the interviews, besides the lack of legal recognition, lesbian mothers not biologically connected to the children also experience other struggles.
          Educationally, teachers would be unwilling to allow both of the parents in a lesbian couple to participate in school events. There was a case of discrimination on Mother’s Day where the child in school came home and there was
          only room for one mother’s name on the card. In Japan there is not a system of co-adoption by the second parent, so one of the mothers cannot be a legal parent to the child. In a custody battle, the parent of the child may not even win if the biological mother was to pass away.

          It sounds a lot like the situation in the United States back in the 70s and early 80s. Clearly, Japan looks like it has a long way to go.

          • Spuddie

            Japan’s culture is essentially the US in the 50′s when it comes to social issues. Gays are treated as curious amusements in popular culture (much like mixed race performers) but generally shunned from anything substantial.

            • Anna

              That’s disappointing. I guess I figured with the popularity of “yaoi” that things were a little more progressive.

              • Spuddie

                The pop culture gives a greater impression of acceptance than reality suggests. Yaoi are written for a female audience and represent an outsider’s idealized version of male homosexuality.

                Androgyny and transvestitism is fairly common in Japanese popular culture but it is not as taken seriously as in the West.

                • Anna

                  True. I suppose yaoi could be compared to the popularity of girl-girl porn among heterosexual men. They love it as entertainment, but it doesn’t translate to acceptance of homosexuality.

                  Still, there’s something to be said for pop culture. I think one of the main things that’s really transformed American society over the past 20 years has been increasing depictions of gay people in the media. For all its faults, I think we can credit reality television for much of that. Seeing more out gay people on television (both real and fictional) has been able to largely rid American culture of the idea that homosexuality is and should be considered taboo.

                • Spuddie

                  The major part of the American (European) culture is that the gay people are the ones creating the depictions. Trying to mold their own images rather than letting people do it for them.

                  Once an “outsider” group starts taking control of their own media images, it pushes out the obviously bigoted and the cloyingly well intentioned but patronizing within the culture. You see the same sort of progression with racial and ethnic groups.

    • GBNA

      Based on the age breakdown from the survey younger people in Japan are actually more accepting than Americans and on par with most of Europe (83% from 18-29 age groups accept homosexuality in Japan vs 70% in USA or 79% in Britain). The age gap is even bigger for South Korea (71% from 18-29 accept homosexuality). So acceptance definitely seems to be increasing pretty fast in a lot of Asian countries.

  • Ewan

    “According to these numbers, the U.S. touts itself as far more accepting — and more secular — than it actually is.”

    I have to say, from a perspective outside the US, I’d never got the impression that the country touted itself as particularly secular. Indeed, it’s always seemed that the US needs law to separate church and state because the culture does not.

    • NickDB

      Second that.

  • curtcameron

    Where is India on this list? It’s only the second-most populous country.

    • curtcameron

      ETA: Nevermind, the footnote to the survey says “Results for India are not reported due to concerns about the survey’s administration in the field.”

      • Pepe

        I’m originally from India and I’m pretty certain that the acceptance levels are gonna be really low. The whole region is still quite conservative.

  • Gus Snarp

    I expect that a lot of this is cultural Catholicism. People who are Catholic because they and their families and neighbors always have been, but who aren’t exactly dogmatic followers of the Pope. In general I think that the more dogmatic religious believers there are, the lower the support for equal rights and acceptance for LGTBQ persons, regardless of which variety of dogmatic religion it is.

  • MD

    Actually, Spain is not really that religious anymore. I was surprised at how secular the country has become. They now have to import priests from South America.
    From what I’ve been told, the RCC was so in bed with the military dictatorship that a large number of Spaniards became disgusted with the Church and dropped religion as soon as democracy was established.

    • Geoff Boulton

      Poland is slowly heading the same way, at least amongst young urbanites, but unfortunately there are still a large number of rural areas where the church still rules with an iron rod and regularly spits its vitriol with impunity.

      • MD

        The conservatives took back control of the Spanish government and were intending to roll back some of the liberal social policies. And then realised that the country is in too much deep shit to be fiddling about with stuff not related to the economy.
        I do live in a very conservative area, with loads of Opus Dei families, but they aren’t representative so the average citizen. Most people are cultural Catholics now.

  • Michael Harrison

    If DOMA gets repealed, it will become the next bullet in the Christian persecution talking points list.

    • Artor

      It already is, since the DOJ declined to defend it.

  • Anna

    Six in 10 secular Jews in Israel told Pew that homosexuality should be accepted

    I found this pretty shocking. Only six in 10 secular Jews? That sounds like 40% of Jewish atheists (deists, fuzzy theists, etc.) think homosexuality should be rejected by society. If you did a poll in the United States, my guess is it would be much closer to universal acceptance.

    • Artor

      I suspect you’d be wrong on that mark. Even among the supposedly rational here in the US, we have a strong showing of hateful bigots. Maybe not 40%, but higher than you’d think.

      • Anna

        Not that there aren’t outliers, but polls do show that American atheists have much higher acceptance rates of same-sex marriage.

        88% of “Nones,” for example, support legal gay marriage. And I would suspect most of those other 12% would at least support civil unions or domestic partnerships. In answer to the question of the poll, about whether society as a whole should accept or reject homosexuality, I can’t imagine more than single digits saying that it should be rejected.

        With that in mind, I simply can’t picture American Jewish atheists being anywhere near 40% rejection of homosexuality, particularly because Reform Judaism (which many secular Jews might be or might have once been associated with) is itself accepting of homosexuality.

        • Artor

          I’d like to agree with your suspicion that that 12% is mostly supportive of civil unions, but I’m not so sure.

          • Anna

            I have a feeling that most would be supportive of at least some legal rights, even if they can’t go all the way towards full acceptance of marriage. Many atheists who do seem to be against same-sex marriage reject it on the grounds that marriage is an “extra special thing” that should be reserved for heterosexuals.

            They’re not really against gay people having rights; it’s more that homosexuality makes them uncomfortable and they think heterosexual relationships should still be given a special, lauded place in society. They’ll appeal to tradition, or nature, or maybe even “think of the children,” but I think you’d be hard pressed to find many atheists who would say that private sexual relationships between consenting adults are wrong and that homosexuality should be rejected.

            I’m sure there are some, though. No group is immune to irrational homophobia. Of those 12%, I’d guess maybe half would say that society should reject homosexuality.

  • rovinrockhound

    Hm. I’m not completely comfortable with the numbers from at least one of the countries in South America (from personal experience), and I’m wondering if it’s because the question has different implications for different groups. Wanting gays to be “rejected by society” could mean anything from not having your children exposed to them or it being frowned upon to be openly out, to forcibly rounding them up in concentration camps. The answer to the question is very different depending on which of these scenarios you envision – I can easily see many people I grew up around who would say that gays should be accepted by society and who would still still be willing to disown their kid if he came out because, for them, saying gays should be “rejected by society” implies mass killings.

  • Paul Little

    The Catholics aren’t the problem.

    • MD

      Uh… the aren’t THE problem, sure, but they are most certainly part of the problem.

      • Paul Little

        My point was, in a continuum of religious sects that range from less tolerant to more tolerant, Catholics would tend to fall on the more tolerant end of the spectrum, compared to, say, Baptists. Primarily Catholic countries would therefore tend to appear more tolerant than primarily Protestant, or more widely mixed countries.

        • MD

          Germany, Czech Republic and Britain are traditionally Protestant countries and they are way up in the tolerance scale. Spain (and Belgium) rank high DESPITE their traditional Catholicism, not because of it.

          • Emily Helgersen

            My impression is that most Catholics don’t follow all the dictates of their church. Example: Spain and Italy have the lowest birthrates in Europe now. So I’m not surprised those countries have a higher acceptance level for gays than does the US.

            Even if on a personal level, non-religious people may be more accepting of homosexuality than religious ones, on a nation-wide basis the religiosity of a population doesn’t always neatly correlate with attitudes towards gays and lesbians. Interestingly, some of the most homophobic STATES in recent times were either non-religious (Nazi Germany) or anti-religious (the Soviet Union, where male homosexuality was considered a criminal offence). So it’s hard to go by a nation’s religion or religious practice as a method of gauging its gay-friendliness.

  • macobex

    As a Filipino, I find this survey about the Philippines being one of the most tolerant countries to gay people very dangerously misleading. Yes, the Philippines is tolerant of the LGBT — but only if you fit the stereotypes. That is : Gays (or “Gays”, who are actually transgender women — Filipinos are very ignorant of the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation) must be hyper-successful effeminate flamboyant hairdressers and entertainers, Lesbians must be butch police officers or security guards. Anything out of those stereotypes, and you’re treated like sh*t.