September 24, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice #2: Allies

Posted at 12:56 pm (Pacific Time)

Last week, I argued we should base campaigns to eradicate sexual prejudice on methods we know will work. In that entry, my first on this topic, I focused on the importance of heterosexuals not only knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but also talking directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority. Thus, the goal of getting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to speak with loved ones about their experiences — making the connection between what happens to “gay people” in the abstract and what happens in one’s own life — should be the foundation of any anti-prejudice campaign.

In today’s entry, I’ll discuss a second building block in such a campaign: enlisting sympathetic and supportive heterosexuals, often called “allies,” to influence the attitudes of other heterosexuals.

Allies come from many demographic groups, but the largest and most consistently supportive segment of the population is heterosexual women. In study after study, heterosexual women — especially Latinas and non-Hispanic White women — express substantially less prejudice against sexual minorities than their male counterparts.

There are many reasons for the gender gap in sexual prejudice. For example, all else being equal, gay men and lesbians are more likely to come out to heterosexual women than to men, which fosters more favorable attitudes among females. (There is also a cyclical effect: heterosexual women’s more positive attitudes, in turn, make sexual minority individuals more likely to come out to them.) And many heterosexual males, feeling pressured to prove they’re “real men,” often do so by attacking what they perceive to be the antithesis of masculinity, namely, gay men.

Regardless of its underlying sources, the gender gap is real and anti-prejudice campaigns should use it. We can expect a dramatic reduction in discrimination, violence, and hostility toward sexual minorities if large numbers of heterosexual women effectively communicate a simple message to their straight husbands, boyfriends, sons, and fathers: “Sexual prejudice is wrong and I won’t tolerate it.”

What about male allies? Here are two strategies for locating heterosexual men to communicate the anti-prejudice message (especially to their straight male friends). First, recruit heterosexual men with gay friends and family members. Second, reach out to men in demographic groups that tend to have lower levels of sexual prejudice. These include men with college degrees, younger men, urban dwellers, political liberals, members of liberal religious denominations, and the nonreligious.

As with women allies, the men’s message to their friends and relatives should be that sexual prejudice is wrong and they won’t tolerate expressions of it.

To sum up thus far, a campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should harness the power of two key groups to change the attitudes of the people close to them: sexual minority individuals and heterosexual allies, especially women. I’ll expand further on these ideas in a future entry.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 23, 2006

The Kids Are Alright

Posted at 3:17 pm (Pacific Time)

Debates about parenting by sexual minorities often include disputes about whether the children of gay, lesbian, and bisexual parents differ from the children of heterosexual parents in their psychological or social adjustment. To date, empirical research has overwelmingly failed to detect such differences.

A newly published study contributes to scientific knowledge in this area by comparing the functioning of adolescents raised by same-sex female couples to that of adolescents raised by heterosexual couples. The study is especially noteworthy because it reports data from a large, nationally representative sample recruited for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Drs. Jennifer Wainright and Charlotte Patterson, developmental psychologists at the University of Virginia, compared two groups: (a) 23 adolescent girls and 21 adolescent boys who were living with two female parents, and (b) 44 adolescents living with a male and female parent. The two groups were matched on relevant demographic characteristics, including sex, age, ethnicity, family income, and adoption status.

In their paper, which was just published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the researchers highlighted three main findings.

  1. All of the adolescents were generally functioning well.
  2. Whether an adolescent’s parents were a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple didn’t affect her or his functioning. The researchers found no significant differences between the two groups in a diverse array of assessments, including measures of delinquent behavior, alcohol and drug use, and qualities of family relationships.
  3. Although the parents’ gender didn’t matter, the quality of the adolescent-parent relationship did. Regardless of whether they were being raised by a same-sex or heterosexual couple, adolescents whose parents described closer relationships with them reported less delinquent behavior and substance use.

These findings add to the growing body of research demonstrating that sexual orientation doesn’t affect parenting ability. What children need is a warm, close, supportive relationship with their parents, regardless of whether the latter are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight.

For the full report, see: Wainright & Patterson. (2006). Delinquency, Victimization, and Substance Use Among Adolescents With Female Same-Sex Parents. Journal of Family Studies, v. 20, pp. 526-530.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 22, 2006

HIV Is Still An Exceptional Disease

Posted at 12:21 pm (Pacific Time)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has formally called for a dramatic expansion in HIV testing, such that medical patients between 13 and 64 will be routinely tested unless they opt out. Separate written consent won’t be required and pre-test prevention counseling (which ensures that the patient understands how HIV is transmitted and prevented) will be dropped.

Knowing one’s HIV status is a good thing, provided the patient can effectively use the information. HIV-infected people need to be able to obtain ongoing treatment (including, but not limited to medications), and need to be able to take steps to protect their sexual partners from infection. Those who test negative need to understand that they can still get infected, e.g., if they engage in unprotected sex or share needles.

An important question to ask about the new CDC guidelines is whether they’ll meet these needs. By eliminating written consent and pre-test counseling, it’s all too easy to imagine that patients in busy emergency rooms will be tested without really agreeing to it and without being adequately prepared for the results.

Here are some other important facts about the social realities of HIV.

  • HIV and AIDS are still stigmatized in the United States. In a 1999 national survey, I found that one-fourth of the US public believed that people with AIDS have gotten what they deserve. 30% would feel uncomfortable having their children attend school with another child who has AIDS, and 22% would feel uncomfortable around an office coworker with AIDS. The proportion saying they felt afraid of people with AIDS was one in five.
  • That same 1999 survey revealed that misinformation about HIV transmission actually increased during the 1990s. 41% erroneously believed they could get AIDS from using public toilets. 50% believed they could get AIDS from being coughed on by a person with AIDS. About half believed they could get AIDS by sharing a drinking glass, and one third believed that AIDS can be contracted by donating blood. This sort of misinformation leads all too easily to avoidance and ostracism of people with HIV.
  • More recently, a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation national survey found that only 63% of Americans knew that HIV can’t be spread through kissing, and only 77% knew it can’t be spread by sharing a drinking glass.
  • The 2006 KFF survey also found that 1 in 5 Americans would be personally uncomfortable having a coworker with HIV/AIDS, and 30% of parents would be uncomfortable if their child had a teacher with HIV. 45% of Americans believe there is “a lot” of prejudice and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, and another 36% believe there is “some.” Only 11% believe that people with HIV/AIDS face “only a little” prejudice or none at all.
  • The KFF poll found that AIDS is still perceived as a gay disease, with Americans more likely to associate it with gay/bisexual men than any other group. My own research has shown that this perception translates into the use of AIDS stigma as a vehicle for expressing prejudice against sexual minorities.
  • Although the CDC wants to make HIV testing completely routine, the consequences of a positive HIV test are quite different from those of other routine tests. As Robert Allen, director of HIV policy for Kaiser’s Permanente Group, observed in a San Francisco Chronicle interview, “No one is ever fired from their job for having high cholesterol. Nobody got divorced from a cholesterol test.”
  • Money to pay for expanded testing and its consequences doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. The same week the CDC issued its new guidelines, the US House of Representatives moved to shift millions of dollars in Ryan White funds away from California, New York, and New Jersey to other states. All of the states need money for AIDS treatment and the logical solution is to increase overall AIDS funding. However, given the huge federal budget deficit, the cost of the war in Iraq, and the President’s zeal for tax cuts, it is difficult to imagine that Congress will allocate more AIDS funding in the coming fiscal year.

Is the CDC’s plan a good one? In principle, it probably is. But it appears to give insufficient attention to the importance of informed consent, pre-test counseling, and the reality that AIDS remains a stigmatized disease.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 19, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice: Installment #1

Posted at 2:24 pm (Pacific Time)

The continuing problems of hate crimes, discrimination, and hostility targeting sexual minorities make one thing evident: We need effective strategies for eradicating sexual prejudice. Exactly what form such strategies should take, however, is far from clear.

In this and future entries, I’ll highlight some promising ideas for reducing prejudice, based on data and theory from the social and behavioral sciences.

To begin, let’s ask what has been shown to work. There’s a fairly simple answer to this question. Research consistently shows that heterosexuals tend to be significantly less prejudiced against sexual minorities to the extent that they have a personal relationship with a gay man or lesbian.

It’s not enough simply to know someone who is gay, however. Rather, heterosexuals’ contact experiences are more likely to reduce their sexual prejudice when:

  • the gay person is a close friend or an immediate family member, rather than a distant relative, acquaintance, or stranger;
  • they know several gay or lesbian people, rather than only one;
  • they have talked openly with their friend or relative about what it’s like to be gay.

While data haven’t yet been collected to determine whether the same patterns hold for heterosexuals’ interpersonal contact with bisexual men and women, it seems reasonable to assume that they do.

There are many explanations for why personal relationships are so effective in reducing sexual prejudice. Certainly a key reason is that such relationships provide an instigation for the heterosexual person to change. Getting rid of one’s prejudices isn’t a quick or easy process. It involves learning new ways of thinking and acting, and can be challenging and uncomfortable. Most people don’t make personal changes like this unless they are strongly motivated to do so.

By coming out, gay men and lesbians give their heterosexual relatives and friends such motivation. When preserving a valued relationship means overcoming one’s sexual prejudice, many heterosexuals rise to the challenge. The gay friend or relative typically helps in this regard by providing information about sexual minorities and advice about how to act appropriately in novel situations. Perhaps most importantly, all of this happens within an ongoing relationship in which each party feels a strong emotional bond and sense of commitment to the other.

Of course, interpersonal contact doesn’t always reduce prejudice. Personal relationships may be less influential when a heterosexual’s prejudice has a strong foundation in religious or political ideology.

Nevertheless, the research data (not to mention the personal experiences of many sexual minority individuals) are clear and consistent in this regard. They strongly reinforce the value of coming out as a strategy for reducing hostility toward sexual minorities. Any campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should build on this fact.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 18, 2006

Marriage Equality: The Social Science Data

Posted at 3:20 pm (Pacific Time)

In a new paper published in this month’s issue of American Psychologist, I review behavioral and social science research to assess the validity of key factual claims in the debate about whether and how civil society should recognize committed relationships between same-sex partners. In brief, the data indicate that:

  • same-sex and heterosexual relationships do not differ in their essential psychosocial dimensions;
  • a parent’s sexual orientation is unrelated to her or his ability to provide a healthy and nurturing family environment; and
  • marriage bestows substantial psychological, social, and health benefits.

I conclude that same-sex couples and their children are likely to benefit in numerous ways from legal recognition of their families, and that providing such recognition through marriage will bestow greater benefit than civil unions or domestic partnerships.

The article, Legal Recognition Of Same-Sex Relationships In The United States: A Social Science Perspective, is based on my work on the American Psychological Association’s amicus briefs in marriage cases in New Jersey, Washington, and other states. A copy can be requested on my website.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


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