September 16, 2014

Choice, Immutability, and the 7th Circuit Marriage Equality Decision

Posted at 1:00 am (Pacific Time)

Last week, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld lower court rulings striking down anti-marriage laws in Indiana and Wisconsin. Even those of us who aren’t legal scholars can find good reading in Judge Richard Posner’s written opinion, which skewered the states’ arguments against marriage equality.

As a social scientist, I was pleased that his legal analysis was informed by data from social and behavioral research. And I was gratified that he referenced some of my own work.

Early in his 40-page decision, Judge Posner wrote,

“We begin our detailed analysis of whether prohibiting same-sex marriage denies equal protection of the laws by noting that Indiana and Wisconsin … are discriminating against homosexuals by denying them a right that these states grant to heterosexuals, namely the right to marry an unmarried adult of their choice. And there is little doubt that sexual orientation, the ground of the discrimination, is an immutable (and probably an innate, in the sense of in-born) characteristic rather than a choice. Wisely, neither Indiana nor Wisconsin argues otherwise.” (p. 9, my emphasis)

The evidence he cited in support of this assertion included materials from the American Psychological Association and a paper on which I was the lead author, describing findings from a survey I conducted with a nationally representative sample of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults.

This blog post is about the research and the context in which I conducted it.

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Early research on sexual minority subcultures in the United States tended to focus on gay men. And the researchers often reported that most gay men felt they hadn’t chosen their sexual orientation. For example, in his 1951 book, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach, sociologist Edward Sagarin (writing under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory) wrote:

“This does not mean that sexual inversion [homosexuality] is voluntary, and that one need only exercise good judgment and will-power in order to overcome it or to choose some other pathway. Not at all. It is entirely involuntary and beyond control, because one did not choose to want to be homosexual.”  (p. 183)

And psychologist Evelyn Hooker, in her 1965 paper, Male Homosexuals and Their “Worlds” (in Judd Marmor’s edited book, Sexual Inversion: The Multiple Roots of Homosexuality), reported from her ethnographic observations of gay male communities:

“One of the important features of homosexual subcultures is the pattern of beliefs or the justification system. Central to it is the explanation of why they are homosexuals, involving the question of choice. The majority believe either that they were born as homosexuals or that familial factors operating very early in their lives determined the outcome. In any case, homosexuality is believed to be a fate over which they have no control and in which they have no choice.” (p. 102)

In recent years, religious conservatives have strongly disputed this view, and the argument that homosexuality is a sinful choice has achieved considerable prominence in their public rhetoric. In the 1990s, they mounted media campaigns promoting the notion that people can and should stop being gay. The director of one of these ex-gay campaigns told the New York Times that its goal was to strike at the assumption that homosexuality was immutable and that gay people therefore need protection under anti-discrimination laws.

Not surprisingly, public opinion reflects this dimension of the culture wars. Heterosexuals’ attitudes toward lesbians and gay men are reliably correlated with their beliefs about choice. Antigay heterosexuals are likely to assert that homosexuality is a choice, whereas unprejudiced heterosexuals are likely to believe that sexual orientation is inborn or otherwise not chosen. (As discussed below, the question of whether heterosexuals choose their orientation is rarely asked.)

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In the 1990s, I was surprised to discover that, despite all the debate and heated rhetoric, relatively little empirical research had directly examined how people perceive their own sexual orientation.

Indirect evidence for a lack of choice was available. For example, most participants in the Kinsey studies of the 1940s and 1950s reported they had experienced sexual attraction only to one sex (men or women) throughout their entire lives; but the Kinsey team did not ask directly about perceptions of choice.

Illuminating research was conducted by sociologist Vera Whisman, who set out to study lesbians and gay men who said they had chosen their sexual orientation. However, as she reported in her book, Queer By Choice, most of her sample did not experience their patterns of sexual attractions as a choice. Those who were “queer by choice” were typically referring to choosing their sexual behaviors and the labels and identities they adopted for themselves.

Otherwise, anecdotal and autobiographical accounts were available and a few studies reported relevant questionnaire data from small samples. But as best I could tell, no large-scale studies had asked people whether they perceived their own sexual orientation (whether hetero-, homo-, or bisexual) as a choice.

*          *          *          *          *

This lack of data prompted me to begin asking about choice in my own research.

Based on the available evidence, I expected to find that many – probably most – gay men didn’t perceive their sexual orientation to be a choice.

For women, however, I thought the pattern might be different. Many feminists argued that lesbianism is a choice women can (and should) make for themselves. And in some early studies, gay men tended to report having been aware of their homosexuality at an earlier age than lesbians, which might be evidence of a gender difference in the experience of choice.

These and other patterns led me to tentatively hypothesize that lesbians would be more likely than gay men to report they experienced some degree of choice about their sexual orientation.

In an exploratory study during the 1990s with a relatively small community sample that included 125 gay and lesbian adults, these hypotheses were supported. My colleagues and I found that most of the gay men (80%) said they had no choice at all about their sexual orientation. The proportion of lesbians who said they had no choice was smaller, but still a majority (62%).

While these findings were interesting, the sample was small. I subsequently decided to ask a similar question in two survey studies with larger and more representative samples that also included enough bisexual women and men to permit meaningful analyses of their responses.

In the first of those surveys, we collected questionnaire data from 2,259 gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults in the greater Sacramento area. One questionnaire item was, “How much choice do you feel that you had about being lesbian/bisexual?” [for men the wording was "gay]/bisexual”]. The 5 response options were “no choice at all,” “very little choice,” “some choice,” “a fair amount of choice,” and “a great deal of choice.”

The results weren’t dramatically different from those we obtained in the pilot study: 87% of the gay men reported they experienced “no choice at all” or “very little choice” about their sexual orientation. Once again, women perceived having more choice than men. Even so, most lesbians (nearly 70%) reported having little or no choice.

It is perhaps not surprising that bisexuals reported feeling they had more choice about their sexual orientation. Nevertheless, nearly 59% of bisexual men and 45% of bisexual women said they experienced little or no choice. Another 15% and 20%, respectively, said they had only “some choice.”

This study’s sample was large but it wasn’t a probability sample, i.e., one that is representative of the population at large. We had recruited the participants mainly through Northern California lesbian, gay, and bisexual community organizations and at community events, most of them in the Sacramento area. People who weren’t active in the community or weren’t open about their sexual orientation were probably underrepresented.

I subsequently had the opportunity to assess how well these findings fit the population as a whole when I surveyed a nationally representative sample of self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. We asked them “How much choice do you feel you had about being lesbian?” [Or gay or queer or bisexual or homosexual, depending on the term they had previously said they preferred for describing themselves.] Four response options were available: “no choice at all,” “a small amount of choice,” “a fair amount of choice,” and “a great deal of choice.”

The responses of gay men and lesbians were strikingly similar to those we obtained from the Sacramento-area community sample: 88% of the gay men reported “no choice at all” about being gay, with another 6.9% saying they experienced “a small amount of choice.” Only 5% reported they experienced “a fair amount” or “a great deal” of choice. Among lesbians, 68.4% reported no choice, and another 15.2% reported experiencing a small amount of choice; only 16% experienced a fair amount or a great deal of choice.

Thus, 95% of gay men and 84% of lesbians reported experiencing little or no choice about their sexual orientation. This is the finding Judge Posner cited last week in his opinion.

In contrast to the community study, a majority of bisexuals in the national sample reported having little or no choice about their sexual orientation, although they were less likely than gay men and lesbians to say they experienced no choice at all. Among bisexual men, 38.3% said they experienced no choice, and another 22.4% experienced a small amount of choice, a total of 60.7%. Among bisexual women, the numbers were 40.6% and 15.2%, respectively, a total of 55.8%.

None of these surveys explicitly defined the term choice, so we don’t know whether respondents interpreted it as referring to their pattern of attractions, their sexual behaviors, their identity, or some other facet of sexual orientation. Based on Vera Whisman’s research, cited above, it seems likely that most were referring to the amount of choice they experience in their sexual attractions and desires.

*          *          *          *          *

What about heterosexuals? Do they perceive their sexual orientation as a choice?

To the best of my knowledge, no published research based on a probability sample of heterosexual adults reports data that directly answer this question. I intended to ask it in a national survey I conducted in the 1990s, but was dissuaded from doing so by other members of my research team. They convinced me the question would create problems during data collection because most heterosexuals simply wouldn’t know how to answer it.

This asymmetry in who can answer the choice question can be understood as a reflection of sexual stigma. One manifestation of stigma is the widespread assumption that heterosexuality is normal and unproblematic. Few heterosexuals are ever asked what made them straight, and most have probably never thought about the origin of their own attractions to the other sex.

Homosexuality, by contrast, is viewed as problematic. Nonheterosexuals are routinely asked what made them “that way” and, in the course of coming out, they often ask themselves this question. Even when a scientific study evenhandedly examines the origins of all sexual orientations, its subject matter is typically characterized as what causes people to be gay or bisexual.

In this context of stigma, it is perhaps not surprising that I encountered some raised eyebrows when I initially shared my findings about perceptions of choice with other researchers – not so much because of the numbers, but simply because I had asked the question.

Some assumed that documenting how people perceive their sexual orientation would be the basis for arguing that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people shouldn’t be persecuted because “it’s not their fault” – they never chose to be “that way.” This argument is perceived (often correctly) as implicitly suggesting that (a) being lesbian, gay, or bisexual is a defect, and (b) if people did choose to be anything other than heterosexual, they would deserve to be discriminated against.

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But although Judge Posner’s opinion takes up the question of choice – as did Judge Vaughn Walker, who cited the same research in his decision overturning California’s Proposition 8 – he doesn’t treat homosexuality as a defect. Nor does he suggest that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people would deserve to be persecuted if they freely chose their sexual orientation.

However, Judge Posner recognizes that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people constitute an identifiable minority group defined by an immutable characteristic that is irrelevant to a person’s ability to contribute to society. Consequently, any attempt by the state to discriminate against them must serve some important government objective.

And, as he concluded, the rationale offered by Wisconsin and Indiana for their laws denying marriage rights to same-sex couples, “is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously…. The discrimination against same-sex couples is irrational, and therefore unconstitutional…” (pp. 7-8).

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Here are the bibliographic sources for my studies, described above.

Herek, G. M., Cogan, J. C., Gillis, J. R., & Glunt, E. K. (1998). Correlates of internalized homophobia in a community sample of lesbians and gay men. Journal of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, 2(1), 17-25.

Herek, G. M., Gillis, J. R., & Cogan, J. C. (2009). Internalized stigma among sexual minority adults: Insights from a social psychological perspective. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56, 32-43.

Herek, G. M., Norton, A. T., Allen, T. J., & Sims, C. L. (2010). Demographic, psychological, and social characteristics of self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in a U.S. probability sample. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 7, 176-200.

A brief introduction to sampling terminology and methods is available on my website.

Copyright © 2014 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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June 16, 2009

Marriage Equality Attitudes: Simply Knowing Gay People Helps, But Isn’t Enough

Posted at 5:25 pm (Pacific Time)

Late last month, Gallup released findings from a new poll demonstrating that opposition to marriage equality is higher among American adults who say they don’t know anyone who is lesbian or gay.

The survey, which was conducted earlier in May, found that Americans oppose legalizing marriage between same-sex couples by 57% to 40% . That margin hasn’t changed notably since a previous Gallup poll about a year ago.

When the May sample was split into those who said they have a gay or lesbian friend, relative, or coworker (58% of the sample) and those who didn’t (40%), the differences in marriage attitudes were striking.

The latter group registered overwhelming opposition to marriage equality — 72% opposed it whereas only 27% favored it. Within this group, 63% said legalizing marriage for same-sex couples will change society for the worse, compared to six percent who said it will change society for the better. 30% believed it won’t have any effect on society.

By contrast, respondents reporting personal contact with a gay man or lesbian were almost evenly split — 49% supported marriage equality and 47% opposed it. They were also divided over whether marriage equality will change society for the worse (39% believed it will) or will have no effect (40% believed this). Only about one in five said it will change society for the better, but that percentage was more than three times higher than the comparable figure for respondents without a gay or lesbian friend, relative, or coworker.

Consistent with past research, the poll found that attitudes toward marriage equality are linked with a person’s political ideology, and that liberal respondents were more likely than their conservative counterparts to personally know gay people. But Gallup found that the correlation between personal contact and opinions about marriage remained significant, even when political ideology was statistically controlled.

But Why Only 49%?

The Gallup report prominently characterized the survey as showing that “Opposition to gay marriage [is] higher among those who do not know someone who is gay/lesbian.”

But we might well ask why there wasn’t greater support for marriage equality among poll respondents with gay or lesbian family or acquaintances. Why did only about half of that group support marriage rights? After all, research conducted over the past two decades has consistently shown that heterosexuals are less prejudiced against gay people if they know someone who is gay, and such prejudice is closely associated with opposition to marriage equality. (Data are lacking on how knowing a bisexual man or woman affects sexual prejudice among heterosexuals, but there’s reason to believe that the pattern is similar.)

My own reading of the research literature suggests that the strength of the correlation between prejudice and mere contact has diminished in recent years. A decade ago, knowing whether a heterosexual had a gay or lesbian friend or relative provided a very good indication of that person’s attitudes toward gay people in general. Today, personal contact remains a good predictor of prejudice, but it’s not as reliable as it once was.

I believe this diminution of the predictive power of mere contact may provide insight into what it is about contact that links it to nonprejudiced attitudes. My hypothesis is that the key variable isn’t — and never was — whether heterosexuals simply know a gay man or lesbian. Rather, what’s always been critical is the nature of that relationship. Perhaps the central variable is whether or not heterosexuals have talked with their gay friend or relative about the latter’s experiences and, in the course of those discussions, developed a better understanding of and more empathy for the situation of sexual minorities.

My hunch is that in the past, when most gay men and lesbians were highly selective about coming out, it was sufficient for researchers to simply ask heterosexual survey respondents whether they knew gay men or lesbians. If they had a gay friend or relative, more likely than not, they’d found out directly from that individual about her or his sexual orientation. Or, subsequent to finding out through some other means, they talked about it with her or him.

Today, by contrast, gay men and lesbians are more publicly visible. Many more heterosexuals probably have the experience of knowing that a relative, friend, or (especially) a coworker or neighbor is gay without ever having discussed it directly with that individual. Thus, knowing the details about a heterosexual person’s contact experiences is more important today than it was a few years (or decades) ago.

Some Data

This hypothesis is partly supported by data I collected in a 2005 telephone survey with a representative national sample of more than 2100 adults who identified as heterosexual. Along with questions about the nature and extent of their personal relationships with lesbian and gay individuals, respondents were asked a series of questions about their general feelings toward gay men and toward lesbians, their comfort or discomfort around both and, using a standard psychological attitude scale, their general attitudes toward them.

For purposes of analysis, I divided the sample into three groups: (1) those who said they had no gay or lesbian friends, acquaintances, or relatives as far as they knew, (2) those who knew at least one gay or lesbian person but hadn’t ever talked with that individual about being gay, and (3) those who had talked with a gay or lesbian friend or relative about the latter’s experiences as a sexual minority.

Compared to Group 1, Group 2 had more positive feelings, less discomfort, and generally more favorable attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. But Group 3 had significantly more positive views of lesbians and gay men than either Group 1 (those with no personal contact) or Group 2 (those with personal contact but no open discussion).

Implications

Combined with other survey findings that I’m still analyzing, these data suggest it often isn’t enough for heterosexuals to simply know that a member of their family or immediate social circle is gay or lesbian. In order for the experience to reduce their sexual prejudice, they also must communicate directly with their friend or relative about what it’s like to be gay.

But although such discussions probably play a key role in reducing sexual prejudice and increasing support for the civil rights of sexual minorities, they can be difficult. Not surprisingly, they don’t occur often enough. In a separate study (which is not yet published), I’ve found that most gay men and lesbians say they are out to their immediate family and close heterosexual friends, but many aren’t out to their extended family, coworkers, or heterosexual acquaintances. And many of those who are out never discuss their experiences with their family or friends.

These findings highlight the importance of assisting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in having conversations — giving them support and helping them find the best way to talk with their heterosexual friends and family members about their lives and how they’re affected by issues like marriage equality. The Tell 3 Campaign is one strategy for promoting such discussions.  If the marriage equality movement is going to succeed in changing public opinion, it will have to devote more resources to Tell 3 and other programs like it.

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More information about my 2005 survey can be found in the following chapter:

Herek, G. M. (2009). Sexual stigma and sexual prejudice in the United States: A conceptual framework. In D.A. Hope (Ed.), Contemporary perspectives on lesbian, gay and bisexual identities: The 54th Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 65-111). New York: Springer.

Copyright © 2009 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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June 12, 2009

Remembering Larry Kurdek

Posted at 12:22 pm (Pacific Time)

Larry Kurdek

Larry Kurdek, one of the world’s leading social science researchers on lesbian and gay committed relationships,  died yesterday in Ohio.

Over the past 25 years, Larry published dozens of important empirical and theoretical articles and chapters about gay and lesbian couples. Among other findings, his research demonstrated that the factors predicting relationship satisfaction, commitment, and stability are remarkably similar for both same-sex cohabiting couples and heterosexual married couples. His work was featured prominently in amicus briefs that the American Psychological Association (APA) filed in court cases challenging marriage laws in New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Iowa, and elsewhere. He received the 2003 Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues (APA Division 44).

Larry helped to craft the APA’s Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Marriage, in which the Association committed itself to “take a leadership role in opposing all discrimination in legal benefits, rights, and privileges against same-sex couples.” He also helped to develop the APA’s Resolution on Sexual Orientation, Parents, and Children, in which the Association went on record opposing “any discrimination based on sexual orientation in matters of adoption, child custody and visitation, foster care, and reproductive health services.”

Larry was a great lover of dogs. After receiving his cancer diagnosis, he decided to pursue research on the emotional bonds between people and their dogs. In 2008, he published a paper titled “Pet dogs as attachment figures” in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. In it, he documented similarities between the attachments people form with their dogs and those they form with other humans.

According to Gene Siesky, Larry’s partner, he passed away peacefully at home with his dogs by his side, just as he had wanted.

I first met Larry back in the 1980s. I got to see him only infrequently over the years, but we had an ongoing e-mail correspondence. He gave me lots of information and guidance about my own work and writing on marriage and relationships. During the time that I chaired the Scientific Review Committee for the Wayne F. Placek Awards, he was always willing to provide thoughtful reviews of proposals. And we sent each other condolences when we lost beloved dogs.

I’ll miss Larry as both a colleague and a friend. His premature passing is a great loss to the field of psychology and to everyone who supports marriage equality.

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John Flach, Chair of the Psychology Department at Wright State University, shared these thoughts about Larry in an e-mail:

Larry had been battling cancer for several years. Up until a few weeks ago he was still working and working out.  Those of you who know Larry, know that he was very dedicated to his work and his personal fitness.

Larry will be greatly missed by his colleagues in the Psych department. In many respects, Larry was the spiritual center of our department – helping us to always focus on quality.

Larry completed the Ph.D. at University of Illinois, Chicago in 1976 and began as an assistant professor at WSU that same year. He was promoted to Professor in 1984.  He was an excellent teacher – teaching courses in statistics and developmental psychology.  He was a leading researcher on commitment and  satisfaction in family relationships with over 145 journal publications. And he was dedicated to serving the department, college, and university. For example, he was instrumental in developing the department bylaws.

I relied heavily on Larry’s support and guidance and will personally miss him very much.

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A viewing and memorial service will be held this weekend at Newcomer Funeral Home, Beavercreek, Ohio. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Larry Kurdek Memorial Scholarship Fund in care of the Psychology Department at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.

Copyright © 2009 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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May 31, 2009

Don’t Rush Into A New Prop. 8 Campaign

Posted at 12:38 pm (Pacific Time)

Now that the California Supreme Court has upheld Proposition 8′s constitutionality, some marriage equality supporters are ready to begin collecting signatures for a new ballot measure to overturn it in next year’s election.

Instead, I hope Californians who support marriage rights for same-sex couples will take a deep collective breath and engage in level-headed strategizing about how best to achieve the long-range goal of marriage equality.

There are at least two good reasons not to put an anti-Prop. 8 measure on the 2010 ballot.

First, such an initiative stands a strong chance of losing. Highly respected statewide polls, such as those conducted by Field and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), indicate that support for marriage rights for California same-sex couples hasn’t increased noticeably since November. In a February Field Poll, for example, fewer than half of registered voters said they would support a new ballot measure to legalize same-sex marriage, and about the same percentage would oppose it. Only a 49% plurality said they generally support “California allowing homosexuals to marry members of their own sex and have regular marriage laws apply to them.”  And a March PPIC survey found that the state’s likely voters oppose marriage equality by a 49-45% margin.

These numbers don’t bode well for a 2010 ballot campaign to overturn Prop. 8. Just over a year ago, the Field Poll found that more than half of likely voters opposed changing the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. PPIC surveys similarly revealed a widespread reluctance to enact Prop. 8. Yet that solid majority evaporated during the final months of last fall’s campaign. Launching a new initiative with support from less than half of the electorate is ill advised. And if the next campaign fails, it’s highly unlikely that the necessary resources will be available anytime soon to mount yet another ballot fight.

Second, win or lose, another initiative campaign will exact a substantial psychological toll. Research shows that marriage amendment campaigns have negative mental health effects on the people whose lives they target. A recently published nationwide study, for example, found that during the months leading up to the 2006 November election, psychological distress increased among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults living in states where an antigay marriage measure was on the ballot, but not among their counterparts living elsewhere. By Election Day, sexual minority residents of the states with antigay ballot measures had, on average, significantly higher levels of stress and more symptoms of depression than their neighbors in other states.

Comparable research on the 2008 election isn’t yet available but the limited data I’ve seen, supplemented by my own observations, lead me to believe that the Proposition 8 campaign had a similar, negative effect on many Californians. Perhaps the psychological fallout of another statewide campaign will be tolerable if Prop. 8 is repealed. But without a strong likelihood of succeeding, it is irresponsible to subject lesbian, gay, and bisexual Californians to another prolonged period of daily attacks on the legitimacy of their relationships and families.

It has become almost a cliché to assert that time is on the side of the marriage equality movement. Younger voters support marriage rights for same-sex couples more strongly than their elders (although the strength of support among young voters shouldn’t be overstated). That view will eventually achieve majority status in California, perhaps even by 2012. But almost certainly not by next year.

I’m not suggesting that marriage equality supporters should sit on their hands. There’s much work to be done to create a solid majority of California voters who feel they have a personal stake in overturning Prop. 8.

For example, heterosexuals who support marriage rights for same-sex couples can become agents of change by making their opinions known to their spouse, family, neighbors, and coworkers.

And it’s critically important for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Californians to speak directly with their straight relatives and friends about their own experiences, to explain how measures like Prop. 8 personally affect them. In the wake of the November election, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups launched the Tell 3 Campaign to encourage and assist sexual minority adults in telling their stories to the people who love and respect them. Having such conversations is one of the most potent strategies for changing attitudes. Yet, according to my own research, they occur all too infrequently.

Last week’s Supreme Court decision has rightly evoked strong feelings among gay, lesbian, and bisexual Californians and their heterosexual supporters. That emotion can be harnessed to build a successful movement for marriage equality in California. But it shouldn’t push us prematurely into a ballot campaign that poses a significant risk not only of losing, but also of ultimately harming many lesbian, gay, and bisexual Californians.

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A briefer version of this essay appeared in the Sacramento Bee on Sunday, May 31, 2009.

Copyright © 2009 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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November 25, 2008

The Psychological Harm of Anti-Gay Ballot Campaigns

Posted at 2:26 pm (Pacific Time)

Here’s how the New York Times article began:

They sat around a cafe table two days after the election, but nobody felt much like eating. It seemed like they had just been on trial. And the verdict was not pleasant.

“I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach,” said Lawrence Pacheco, a 23-year-old gay man. “Do they really hate us that much?”

Noting the state’s reputation for having a live-and-let-live spirit, the story reported claims by backers of the newly passed ballot measure that they didn’t intend it to discriminate against gay people. It described pre-election expectations that the amendment would fail, and discussed post-election calls for boycotts.

And the Times story noted an irony: In the same election that saw passage of the antigay measure, the state’s voters also passed a separate initiative protecting the welfare of animals.

Another story about California in the wake of Prop. 8′s passage?

No, the Times article was about Amendment 2. But not the Amendment 2 that Florida voters passed a few weeks ago, enshrining that state’s antigay relationship law into its constitution.

Rather, the Times story, which appeared in 1992, was about another Amendment 2.

Amendment 2 (version 1.0)

Sixteen years ago, by a margin of roughly 53-47%, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment written to overturn gay rights ordinances in Denver and other cities, and to bar the future enactment of such laws by cities or the state legislature.

Amendment 2 was ultimately struck down by the US Supreme Court in 1996.  Writing for the Court majority in its historic Romer v. Evans decision, Justice Kennedy declared:

“We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.”

Although Amendment 2 was ultimately nullified, Colorado’s gay, lesbian, and bisexual residents nevertheless had to endure the months-long antigay pre-election campaign waged by its Christian Right sponsors. And they had to deal with the knowledge that a majority of their neighbors had voted to strip them of their rights.

In the wake of the 1992 vote, a research team led by psychologist Glenda Russell conducted a statewide study to assess the psychological well-being of Colorado lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. In her 2000 book, Voted Out: The Psychological Consequences of Anti-Gay Politics, Dr. Russell reports extensive analyses of the data. In particular, she details her group’s examination of the research participants’ accounts of how they experienced the Amendment 2 campaign.

In those accounts, Dr. Russell’s group detected themes that today are all too familiar to many sexual minority residents of California, Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas. Respondents reported feeling overwhelmed or devastated by the vote. Some were shocked that the measure passed. Many experienced anger, fear, sadness, or depression. Some felt a sense of loss, saying they would never again feel the same about living in Colorado. Some expressed regret at not having done more to prevent the measure’s passage.

I can’t do justice to Dr. Russell’s book-length account here, especially her in-depth descriptions of the stories related by research participants. But one of her important findings was that a substantial segment of the sample reported many symptoms that are commonly associated with depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they perceived that these symptoms were a direct result of having lived through the months of antigay campaigning.

Thus, the data are consistent with the conclusion that antigay campaigns not only take away individuals’ rights, but are also harmful to the mental health of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who live through them.

The 2006 Anti-Marriage Campaigns

After the Supreme Court’s Romer decision, antigay activists soon found another focus for their efforts.

Following a Hawaii court ruling that seemed to portend the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples in the Aloha State, religious and political conservatives shifted their focus to the goal of preventing marriage equality from becoming a reality. In 1996, Congress passed and then-President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and antigay organizations directed their energies to passing state-level DOMAs across the country.

The DOMA campaign proved to be a powerful strategy. Not only did the statewide measures consistently win by large majorities, they also brought out voters who helped to elect Republicans to office. The Christian Right was able to use the campaigns to increase its strength within the Republican party — and in many Republican-controlled quarters of government — while promoting its antigay agenda.

Meanwhile, gay and lesbian and bisexual people living in the targeted states endured rhetorical — and sometimes physical — attacks against themselves and their families.

In 2006, marriage amendments appeared on the November ballot in 8 states. All of them passed except in Arizona. (The Arizona measure’s defeat was widely attributed to ambiguities concerning whether it would adversely affect heterosexual couples; a rewritten version that focused exclusively on banning recognition of same-sex relationships passed on November 4.)

Given the earlier findings of Dr. Russell’s research team in Colorado, it was reasonable to assume that those campaigns in other states would also exact a psychological toll. That hypothesis is supported by data from a new study to be published early in 2009 in the prestigious Journal of Counseling Psychology.

The study, titled Marriage Amendments and Psychological Distress in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) Adults, was conducted by Drs. Sharon Rostosky, Ellen Riggle, Sharon Horne, and Angela Miller.

Through Internet surveys, the researchers used standard mental health measures to assess the current well-being of more than 1500 lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. For example, respondents were asked whether they had recently experienced various symptoms of depression, such as having difficulty sleeping or concentrating, feeling fearful or hopeless, and not being able to “get going.” They were also asked about the extent to which they were experiencing negative emotions, such as fear, irritability, hostility, and nervousness.

587 participants completed two versions of the questionnaires — one in the spring of 2006 and a second one about 6 months later, shortly after the November elections. Nearly one thousand others completed the post-election questionnaire, but not the pre-election survey.

The researchers sorted participants into two groups — those living in a state with an anti-marriage amendment on the 2006 November ballot and those in other states. Not surprisingly, compared to residents of other states, residents of the amendment-campaign states reported encountering a larger number of antigay messages in the mass media and in day-to-day conversations. Moreover, comparison of the November questionnaires with those administered six months earlier revealed that the number of encounters with negative messages had increased significantly in the amendment states but not in the other states.

When the researchers examined the mental health data, they found that residents of the states where an antigay campaign had just been waged reported higher levels of stress, more negative emotions, and more symptoms of depression than did respondents who lived elsewhere. Comparison of the pre-election and post-election questionnaires revealed that levels of psychological distress had increased significantly among residents of states with a marriage amendment on the ballot, but not among residents of other states.

In sum, the findings of Dr. Rostosky’s group support and extend those of Dr. Russell’s research team. By examining the experiences of sexual minority adults residing in different states, and by comparing scores on mental health measures before and after the statewide antigay campaigns, they provide good evidence that marriage amendment campaigns are harmful to the mental health of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals.

Strategies for Coping and Healing

As with my summary of Dr. Russell’s research, a brief blog entry can’t do justice to the findings of Dr. Rostosky and her colleagues. But in the wake of the recent antigay votes, even this short synopsis of their work may be helpful to many lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals.

If you were touched by the campaigns in California, Arizona, Florida, or Arkansas, and if you’ve been experiencing post-election psychological distress — whether it takes the form of anger, sadness, irritability, feelings of betrayal, revenge fantasies, sleep difficulties, or something else — the research suggests you’re not alone. What you’re feeling these days is a natural and normal response to the attacks you endured during the months leading up to November 4, and to the trauma of election night.

What can you do about it? Different people have different coping styles so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Moreover, as a nonclinician, I don’t have the expertise to offer mental health advice. But I believe it’s important to understand that the research described above not only documents the damage inflicted by antigay ballot campaigns — it also shows that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are remarkably resilient in dealing with those assaults.

Antigay attacks have a long history, and many participants in the Rostosky team’s study who didn’t reside in a state with a 2006 marriage amendment nevertheless had endured earlier marriage amendment battles. Their relatively low levels of psychological distress indicate they had recovered over the years from those negative campaigns.

In terms of facilitating such recovery, Dr. Rostosky and her coauthors suggest that sexual minority individuals should avoid blaming themselves or accepting antigay stigma and prejudice as valid. Instead, it’s important to remind oneself that the people who foment antigay hostility are the ones who deserve blame.

They also point to the importance of actively focusing on positive events and messages in one’s environment, and increasing one’s exposure to these messages by building stronger relationships and social support networks. This doesn’t mean engaging in self-deception or denying reality. But it’s important to find areas in your life that are positive and affirming, and to give yourself permission to take a break from dealing directly with prejudice and stigma to the extent that you can.

If you’ve been religiously reading every on-line posting about Proposition 8 and the other ballot measures, for example, maybe you should stop for awhile. Or perhaps you should at least consider restricting your reading to news stories while bypassing the blogs and comments that attack same-sex couples and marriage equality.

A strategy that many people use is to actively take control of how they think about their experiences with the ballot measures, and to put those experiences in a broader context. Related to this approach, in a 2003 article coauthored with Jeffrey Richards, Dr. Russell argued for the importance of adopting a “movement perspective — a view that sees LGB experiences as part of a larger social and political movement.”

“In the first place, adopting a movement perspective is helpful to LGB people in the political realm. For example, it supports the creation of coalitions with other oppressed groups and provides a historical framework within which to understand a particular event as but one element of an enduring movement for social change…. Adopting such a perspective allows LGB people to understand the relevance of homonegativity to their own lives, thereby decreasing the likelihood that they will be shocked by the overt presence of antigay political rhetoric and actions. Having a movement perspective also allows LGB people to place some undeniably painful experiences — rejection by family members, for example — into a broader and perhaps less personalized context” (p. 326).

Adopting such a perspective might lead you to engage in more activism — for example, by organizing and participating in rallies and protests, or getting involved with local and statewide political groups that are working for sexual minority rights. Many people who have attended post-election No On Prop. 8 rallies report they’ve felt better as a consequence.

At the same time, activism can lead to more encounters with antigay messages and, consequently, more stress. Indeed, Dr. Rostosky and her colleagues found that survey respondents who reported high levels of political activism during the anti-amendment campaigns were at greater risk than others for psychological distress. So here, too, it’s important to take control over your experiences as much as you can, and to develop a strategy for activism that can sustain you for the long term.

Colorado’s Amendment 2 was eventually overturned by the US Supreme Court. And although the losses on November 4 were devastating, it’s important to recall that the election also brought many positive changes. In 2009, a new Congress and a new Administration will assume leadership in Washington, and they have already indicated their willingness to end many forms of discrimination against sexual minorities at the federal level.

And that is cause for hope.

*     *     *     *     *

You can read more about Dr. Glenda Russell’s research in these sources:

  • Russell, G. M., & Richards, J. A. (2003). Stressor and resilience factors for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals confronting antigay politics. American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 31, pp. 313-328.

The article by Dr. Sharon Rostosky and her colleagues will be published early in 2009. Here is the reference, with a link to the pre-publication page proofs:

For more information about Colorado’s Amendment 2, and the Christian Right’s campaigns against the sexual minority community, see:

Copyright © 2008 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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