August 25, 2014
In 1957, Dr. Evelyn Hooker’s groundbreaking study documented that, despite the conventional psychiatric wisdom of the day, gay men were not inherently maladjusted. More studies followed that similarly failed to find differences in psychological functioning between heterosexuals and nonheterosexuals.
Eventually, this body of research provided the scientific foundation for the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality as a diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and the American Psychological Association’s strong endorsement of that declassification.
With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that debates about Dr. Hooker’s work and that of later researchers — and, more broadly, about the status of homosexuality as a pathology — often conflated questions about homosexuality’s classification as a mental illness with questions about the prevalence of psychological disorders in a particular population. It was inappropriately assumed that if lesbian, gay, or bisexual people had higher rates of psychopathology or psychological distress than heterosexuals, homosexuality itself must be an illness.
We now recognize that sexual stigma in its many forms is a significant stressor that can affect an individual’s physical and mental health. Thus, it is not surprising that large-scale studies of the US population have revealed that, while most lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are functioning well, some are not. And, as a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine documented, a substantial array of health disparities exist between the population at large and sexual and gender minorities.
Against this backdrop, newly released data from Gallup reveal that US adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) report lower levels of well-being than their non-LGBT counterparts. Comparing the self-reports of 2,964 LGBT research participants with those of 81,134 other respondents, and controlling statistically for relevant demographic variables, Dr. Gary Gates found that the latter group reported less well-being in all five areas covered by the index.
The disparities were especially pronounced among women respondents. Sexual and gender minority women scored substantially lower than other women on measures of financial, physical, social, and community well-being, as well as a measure of having a sense of purpose in life. Among men, disparities were observed for financial and social well-being.
The initial report, which is available on the Gallup website, doesn’t separate the well-being scores of lesbian/gay, bisexual, and transgender respondents. Comparing these groups will be important insofar as past research has revealed important differences among them. (From the perspective of scientific research, a problem with combining the groups under the “LGBT” initialism is that it tends to obscure these differences.)
While reading the tables in the report it’s also important to keep in mind that, because the sample sizes are so large, relatively small differences between groups (i.e., 1 or 2 percentage points) can be statistically significant without having much practical importance. But the differences highlighted by Dr. Gates are generally larger than this.
As Dr. Gates concluded,
“These disparities associated with sexual orientation and gender identity highlight the ongoing need for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity measures in data collection focused on health and socio-economic outcomes. Availability of better data that identify the LGBT population will help researchers, healthcare policymakers, and healthcare providers craft better strategies to understand and prevent well-being disparities associated with sexual orientation and gender identity.”
June 12, 2009
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.
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
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.
November 25, 2008
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:
- Rostosky, S. S., Riggle, E. D. B., Horne, S. G., & Miller, A. D. (2009). Marriage amendments and psychological distress in lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) adults. Journal of Counseling Psychology, vol. 56, #1.
For more information about Colorado’s Amendment 2, and the Christian Right’s campaigns against the sexual minority community, see:
June 10, 2008
The full-page Macy’s ad in the May 28th San Francisco Chronicle is evidence that the debate about marriage equality in California during the next 5 months won’t be limited to the domains of civil rights and religious doctrine. It will also be about economics.
The ad was dominated by a grayscale photo of two wedding bands, followed by a red headline. Something like this:
First comes love.
Then comes marriage.
Just another ad for a wedding registry, right? But then came the copy. It began:
And now it’s a milestone every couple in California can celebrate.
Let Macy’s Wedding Gift & Registry help you start your new life together.
* * * * *
Macy’s shrewd decision to celebrate the May 15th Supreme Court ruling reflects their judgment that marriage equality in California will mean a lot of new business. And they’re not alone. According to various news reports, wedding planners, caterers, florists, DJs, and hoteliers, just to mention a few, are anticipating a sudden influx of customers as same-sex couples plan what many never dreamed they’d have — a legal wedding.
It’s not only retailers and entrepreneurs who anticipate a windfall. The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau web site now features a welcome letter from CEO Joe D’Alessandro, stating that the Bureau “wants to be among the first to wish all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples the warmest of congratulations on securing marriage rights in this hard-fought battle.” It goes on to promote San Francisco as the place to marry:
We hope you will think of San Francisco as the ideal spot to plan your perfect wedding and/or honeymoon…. [W]e want to encourage everyone to “Come Out Here” and visit the first city in the United States to perform same-sex marriages and the only state where everyone, including visitors, has the constitutional right to marry.
Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who twice vetoed marriage equality bills passed by the legislature, saying it was up to the California courts to decide whether the freedom to marry is a constitutional right, now sees dollar signs in the future. Speaking at a May 20 Environmental Defense Fund event in San Francisco, Schwarzenegger responded to a question about the California Supreme Court’s marriage decision by quipping, “You know, I’m wishing everyone good luck with their marriages and I hope that California’s economy is booming because everyone is going to come here and get married.”
Calculating California’s Windfall
Just how much money will weddings between same-sex partners bring to California? A new report, The Impact of Extending Marriage to Same-Sex Couples on the California Budget, offers some informed estimates. Authored by Profs. Brad Sears and Lee Badgett from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA’s School of Law, the report projects the economic fallout of marriage equality in California over the next 3 years.
The report considers likely spending both by California couples and by non-California couples who come to the Golden State to wed. (There will probably be many such couples because, unlike Massachusetts, California has no residency requirement for marrying.)
Using data on civil unions in Vermont, marriages in Massachusetts, and domestic partnerships in California, the Williams Institute researchers estimate that roughly half of California’s same-sex couples will marry in the next 3 years. Based on Census data estimates, this translates into about 51,000 couples. The average wedding expenditure for heterosexual couples in California during the next 3 years will be about $30,500. If same-sex couples each spend one fourth of this amount (about $7,600), the total will be about $392 million, plus another $31.4 million in sales taxes.
In addition to California residents, the researchers project that about 67,500 couples from other states will travel to California to marry. This estimate includes about one fourth of the same-sex couples currently living in New York and New Mexico, states where a California marriage will be recognized. It also includes one fourth of the same-sex couples living in the states that currently are the main sources of tourism for California — Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina.
The average tourist visiting California stays 4 days and spends $163 per day. If, in addition to these routine expenses, non-resident couples (and their friends and family) spend an additional $3,000 in the state on wedding expenses (special accommodations, meals, clothing, flowers, gifts, etc.), the average will be about $4,300 per couple, or a total of $291 million over the next 3 years. Sales and hotel taxes will add another $23.7 million to state and local government revenues.
Add in another $8.8 million in marriage license fees to county governments, and the Williams Institute researchers conclude:
[W]e estimate that allowing same-sex couples to wed in California could result in approximately $683.6 million in additional spending on weddings and tourism in the State over the next three years, creating approximately 2,178 new jobs and resulting in additional state and local tax revenues of $63.8 million.
Granted, given the size of California’s economy, these are modest amounts. But in the midst of a downturn that many believe is a recession, even a relatively small economic stimulus is welcome news.
Of course, California’s voters may decide in November to amend the state constitution so as to eliminate marriage equality. But the Williams Institute report makes it clear that passing the ballot proposition will not only deny many Californians their right to marry the person they love. It also will effectively kill the goose that will be laying golden eggs for the state’s economy.
* * * * *
The report by Profs. Sears and Badgett is titled The Impact of Extending Marriage to Same-Sex Couples on the California Budget and is available from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy website.
September 19, 2007
In a recent posting, I discussed a newly published study titled “Swagger, Sway, and Sexuality: Judging Sexual Orientation from Body Motion and Morphology.” In addition to summarizing the study findings, I pointed out that some media reports seem to have missed the point of the research.
Prof. Kerri Johnson, the study’s lead author, e-mailed me today about that posting. In her e-mail, she noted that her principal research focus is how people perceive others, and she explained the study’s relationship to her ongoing research program. With her permission, I’m posting the text of her e-mail here.
“On your blog you recently reviewed some of my research that appeared in this month’s JPSP. I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful comments — and for helping to set the record straight.
As is always the case, this research is part of a broader program of research. The broader research program aims to understand how individuals use sexually dimorphic cues in their social judgments, and here we focused on the implications for perceived sexual orientation. I feel quite strongly that understanding how people make these judgments (whether they are correct or incorrect) can also help to understand stigma and bias. In other research (currently being written up), for example, we demonstrate that inferences made about the cues that convey masculinity/femininity, not the homosexual category membership itself, predict harsh evaluations. Because I see a clear link between understanding person construal and preventing bias, some of the claims in popular blogs have been unsettling.
In any event, you’re one of the few individuals who has correctly pointed out that my emphasis is on social perception, not the production of gendered body motion.”
Kerri L. Johnson
UCLA Department of Communication Studies
September 15, 2007
Anyone who saw The Birdcage probably remembers the hilarious scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) tries to teach Albert (Nathan Lane) how to walk like John Wayne.
Classic film lovers will remember a similar, albeit more serious scene in the 1956 film, Tea and Sympathy, in which Tom (John Kerr), a heterosexual teenager falsely accused of being gay, asks Al (Darryl Hickman), his (straight) friend, to help him with his walk.
In both films, of course, it wasn’t walking per se that concerned the characters. Rather, it was having others believe one is straight. Audience members understood that there are “masculine” and “feminine” ways to walk in American culture, and that men who walk in a feminine manner are likely to be labeled gay, regardless of their actual sexual orientation.
Relevant to the experiences of the characters of Albert and Tom, a study by Prof. Kerri Johnson and her colleagues, published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), systematically examined just how observers make judgments about whether someone is male or female, and gay or straight, based on their body shape and gait.
However, media coverage and public discussions of the article have been focusing on an incidental component of the study. More about that below.
First, let’s review the study findings. Like many research papers published in JPSP, this one reported data from three related studies, all conducted with samples of undergraduate college students.
Studies 1 and 2: Animated Figures
In the first two studies, the researchers showed students computer animations of walking human figures. They systematically varied two aspects of the models, each of which they hypothesized would be used by observers to make judgments about the figure’s sex and sexual orientation.
One variable was the figure’s overall body shape, which they characterized in terms of waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). Although there are many exceptions, women tend to have a lower WHR than men. In other words, women tend to have broad hips relative to their waist (in the extreme, an “hourglass” shape), whereas men tend to have what the researchers described as a “tubular” shape, that is, relatively similar measures of waist and hip size.
The second variable was the figure’s gait, which the researchers defined in terms of the amount of shoulder motion relative to hip motion. The stereotypical masculine walk — what Albert in The Birdcage and Tom in Tea and Sympathy were trying to achieve — involves more shoulder motion than hip motion. The researchers characterized this as a “swagger” (à la Robin Williams channeling John Wayne). By contrast, the stereotypical feminine walk involves more hip motion than shoulder motion — what the researchers called a “sway” (for the counterpart to John Wayne, think Jessica Rabbit).
When students viewed the animations, they tended to judge the cartoon walkers with more swagger to be men, and those with more sway as women. They also tended to judge walkers with more hourglass-shaped bodies to be women, and those with more tubular shaped bodies to be men. If an hourglass-shaped figure walked with swaggering shoulders, they tended to assume it was a lesbian. Tubular-shaped figures that walked with swaying hips were often assumed to be gay men.
If the body shape was androgynous but the student was told the figure’s sex, he or she then tended to rely on the image’s gait for making a guess about its sexual orientation. Once again, swaggering males were usually assumed to be straight whereas swaying males were often guessed to be gay. The pattern was usually reversed for female figures.
Thus, absent all other information about an individual, the research suggests that a male who walks with a feminine sway is often taken for gay (at least by this group of NYU undergraduates). Ditto for a female who walks with a masculine swagger.
Study 3: Videos of Live Actors
In their third study, the researchers used videos of actual human beings. Or rather, they used stripped-down videos that obscured many physical details of the real-life actors who were filmed.
To make the videos, they asked 8 men and 8 women to be filmed while walking on a treadmill. Half were heterosexual, half were gay or lesbian. The JPSP article didn’t provide any other information about the actors — such as their age or ethnicity, how they were recruited, or whether they considered themselves to be masculine, feminine, or androgynous. Presumably, however, the 4 gay male and 4 lesbian actors were all sufficiently out of the closet that they were willing to be filmed. In other words, they weren’t trying to pass as heterosexual.
As in Studies 1 and 2, the researchers showed the videos to students and asked them to guess about each walker’s sex and sexual orientation.
When it came to guessing the women walkers’ sexual orientation, the students essentially did a mental coin toss. They correctly guessed the sexual orientation of the lesbian models 43% of the time, but incorrectly guessed that the heterosexual women were lesbians 46% of the time.
They were somewhat better with the male walkers, but nevertheless were wrong about the gay male models most of the time. They correctly labeled the gay male model as homosexual only 38% of the time, and incorrectly guessed that the gay model was straight 62% of the time. They incorrectly labeled the straight men as gay 15% of the time.
Missing the Point
In summary, the three studies show that NYU students (and probably other people as well) use gender-stereotypical movement cues to make assumptions about sexual orientation in artificially created figures, and to a lesser degree in real models. When judging the real models, they use the motion cues somewhat for men, but not for women.
To the extent that people actually use these cues in their day-to-day interactions, it can have important consequences. Other research suggests that once a heterosexual observer categorizes someone as lesbian or gay, this judgment often affects their subsequent perceptions of that individual. For example, they may dislike the individual and are likely to assume that he or she conforms to a variety of gay-related stereotypes.
Although the findings reported by Prof. Johnson and her colleagues are about observers’ judgments, media coverage has been paying a lot of attention to the swagger and sway of those live actors who were videotaped for Study 3. In many reports, the study
has been incorrectly characterized as revealing something about the person who’s walking rather than the people who are observing that walk (and who make guesses about the walker’s sexual orientation).
Perhaps this can be traced to the UCLA press release about the study, which was headlined “Sexual Orientation Revealed by Body Type and Motion, Study Suggests.” To read that press release, you’d think the study’s focus was on determining whether gay and straight men and women actually have different body types and walk differently. Two paragraphs placed early in the 9-paragraph release described the 16 models who were videotaped for Study 3, concluding:
…the researchers determined that the gay subjects tended to have more gender-incongruent body types than their straight counterparts (hourglass figures for men, tubular bodies for women) and body motions (hip-swaying for men, shoulder-swaggering for women) than their straight counterparts.
This is true for the 16 models.
But the study didn’t
show that gender-specific body movements are reliably associated with a person’s sexual orientation. As noted above, the researchers videotaped only 4 gay men, 4 lesbians, 4 heterosexual men, and 4 heterosexual women. You simply can’t generalize about an entire population from a handful of people. And we don’t even know how these models were recruited in the first place.
Nevertheless, MSNBC pursued this tangent in its story, quoting another researcher (not connected with the study) who opined:
“There’s reason to think that gay people can’t conceal their homosexuality…. I don’t think it’s a performance that gay people enact. I think it’s something that either is inborn, or it’s acquired very early, perhaps by watching members of the other sex.”
To be fair, the quoted researcher didn’t appear to be suggesting that the JPSP study proves his point — he was simply stating his personal opinion.
My own hunch, though, is that thousands of gay men and lesbians who have successfully concealed their sexual orientation from their straight friends and relatives would disagree with him. As would a lot of straight males who, like Tom in Tea and Sympathy, have worried about the way they walk.
# # # # #
“Swagger, sway, and sexuality: Judging sexual orientation from body motion and morphology” was authored by Kerri L. Johnson, Simone Gill, Victoria Reichman, and Louis G. Tassinary, and it appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 93, #3, pp. 321-334 (2007).
Some of the video clips that the researchers used in Studies 1 and 2 are posted at the American Psychological Association’s journals website. Some of the videos used in Study 3 are posted at the MSNBC.com website and the APA website.
See Mike Airhart’s comment on media coverage of the study at ExGayWatch.com.
July 4, 2007
“The only work that really brings enjoyment
Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.”
–George & Ira Gershwin (Nice Work If You Can Get It)
Opinion surveys consistently show that the American public opposes workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. In a 2007 Gallup poll, for example, 89% of US adults agreed that “Homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities.” This percentage represents an increase of more than 30 points since the question was first asked by Gallup in 1977, when 56% supported equal employment opportunity.
Despite this near-consensus that sexual minority individuals shouldn’t face job discrimination because of their orientation, federal law still doesn’t protect workers in this regard (although 20 states and the District of Columbia do, according to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.)
Is job-related bias a problem? A new study by economist Dr. Lee Badgett and her colleagues at UCLA indicates that it is. Their report, Bias in the Workplace: Consistent Evidence of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination, was released last week and is available from the Williams Institute’s web site.
Dr. Badgett and her coauthors reviewed findings from more than 50 studies that addressed employment discrimination among sexual and gender minorities. As would be expected in any such review, the methodologies and results varied considerably across the studies. The data clearly show, however, that workplace discrimination is disturbingly widespread.
Some of Dr. Badgett’s main findings:
- Depending on the study, between 15% and 68% of the sexual minority respondents said they had experienced employment discrimination at some point in their lives because of their sexual orientation.
- In studies that asked respondents more specific questions about the type of discrimination they experienced, 8%-17% said they were fired or denied employment, 10%-28% were denied a promotion or given negative performance evaluations, and 10%-19% reported receiving unequal pay or benefits.
- Many heterosexuals reported witnessing sexual orientation discrimination against their coworkers.
- In states that currently prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, sexual minorities file complaints of employment discrimination at roughly the same rates as women and racial minorities.
- Gay men earn 10%-32% less than similarly qualified heterosexual men. Data for lesbians don’t reveal a consistent pattern of pay differences from heterosexual women but, like heterosexual women, lesbians earn less than men.
- Six studies that surveyed transgender individuals separately found that 20% to 57% of transgender respondents reported having experienced employment discrimination at some point in their life. More specifically, 13%-56% said they were fired, 13%-47% were denied employment, 22%-31% were harassed, and 19% were denied a promotion based on their gender identity.
Three of the studies reviewed by Dr. Badgett were based on nationally representative samples of self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Because of the nature of their samples, they probably provide the best estimates of the extent of workplace discrimination experiences in the sexual minority population.
- A 2000 Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 405 lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in 15 large metropolitan areas found that 18% of the respondents reported experiencing discrimination when applying for a job or keeping a job.
- In a 2001 paper published in the American Journal of Public Health (vol. 91, pp. 1869-1876), Drs. Vicki Mays and Susan Cochran analyzed self-reports of discrimination in a large nationally representative sample of adults aged 25-74 years. They found that 8% of sexual minority respondents reported being fired, 13% were denied employment, and 11% were denied a promotion. (However, the survey did not ask whether these specific incidents were based on the respondent’s sexual orientation or another factor, such as race or gender.)
- In my own study with a nationally representative sample of 662 lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults, 10% of the total sample reported having been fired from a job or denied a job or promotion since age 18 because of their sexual orientation. Broken down by sexual orientation groups, 16% of lesbians and gay men said they had experienced job discrimination, compared to 6% of bisexual women and 3% of bisexual men. (More information about this study is available in a previous blog post. The paper can be downloaded from my website.)
Dr. Badgett’s report highlights the need for workplace protections for sexual minorities. Congress is currently considering one potential source of such protection, The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007 (HR 2015). ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The experiences of women and racial minorities teach us that ENDA and similar laws won’t eliminate workplace discrimination. By making such discrimination illegal and providing remedies for individuals who experience it, however, they are an important step toward addressing the problems documented by Dr. Badgett’s study.
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