OMAHA -- Americans are sharply divided over whether gay men and lesbians choose their sexual orientation, a split that shapes attitudes on everything from homosexuals in the military to gay life in general, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
Americans who say individuals cannot change their homosexuality -- 43 percent of those surveyed -- are more sympathetic to the gay view on these issues than the 44 percent who see it as a choice. The country is split evenly, 43 to 43, on whether homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the military. But support is higher, just over half, among those who think sexual identity cannot be changed; it is much lower, less than a third, among those who think being gay or lesbian is a choice.
The poll, as well as independent interviews with some 50 people in this Midwestern city over the last four days, found an America in conflict about homosexuality -- not wanting to appear bigoted but not too tolerant, either. People oppose job discrimination against gay men and women by a big majority, yet they are evenly split on such basics as whether homosexual relations should be illegal.
The poll of 1,154 adults, which was conducted nationwide Feb. 9-11 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points, found wide variations based on sex, age, education, geography and religion. Women were more supportive of gay civil rights than men, as were people under the age of 45 and those with higher levels of education. Southerners, Midwesterners, rural residents and those who said religion was extremely important in their lives were more opposed.
"We should let gay people be," said Jay Hart, 22, a student here at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "People should be allowed to do their jobs, in the military or anywhere."
But when he was asked if that included serving as teachers in elementary schools, Mr. Hart winced. "There are exceptions," he said. "Schoolteacher is one."
Contradictions like that played out repeatedly in the poll and the interviews.
Seventy-eight percent of those polled said homosexuals should have equal rights in job opportunities. This continues the high level of support repeatedly measured in recent years, as compared with the late 1970s, when the figure was 56 percent. Yet, the percentage drops dramatically for some job categories, particularly those involving close physical contact.
Only 11 percent said they would object to having a gay or lesbian airline pilot. And slightly more than a third said they would object to having a homosexual member of Congress, where there are now only two openly gay members.
But half of those polled would object to having a homosexual doctor. And more than half would object to their child's having a gay or lesbian elementary-school teacher.
In general, people want their children to have as little contact with homosexuality as possible -- a position that may stem from arguments by the religious right, not borne out in statistics, that children can be taught to be homosexual and that homosexuals are prone to child molesting.
More than half of those surveyed said they would not permit their child to watch a prime-time television situation comedy with gay and lesbian characters, to read a book containing a story about a gay couple or to play at the home of a friend who lives with a gay parent.