February 3, 2015
Not so long ago, homosexuality was triply stigmatized.
Throughout much of the 20th century, in addition to being condemned as a sin and prosecuted as a crime, it was assumed by the mental health professions to be an illness.
Although that assumption was never based on valid scientific research, the stigma attached to homosexuality impelled untold numbers of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to seek a cure for their condition. Others were coerced into treatment after being arrested or hospitalized.
Psychologists and psychiatrists used a variety of techniques on them, ranging from talk therapy to electroshock, aversive conditioning, lobotomies, hormone injections, hysterectomies, and castrations.
None were effective.
Meanwhile, new research was challenging orthodox beliefs about homosexuality and prompting some mental health professionals and researchers to question the validity of the sickness model.
Alfred Kinsey’s studies revealed that same-sex attraction and behavior were much more common than had been widely believed. Clellan Ford and Frank Beach showed that homosexual behavior was common across human societies and in other species.
And Evelyn Hooker documented the existence of well-adjusted gay men. She also demonstrated that experts in the “diagnosis” of homosexuality could not distinguish between the Rorschach protocols of well-functioning gay and heterosexual men at a level better than chance.
The larger society was also changing. By the 1960s, gay and lesbian activists were challenging the notion that they were mentally ill.
Psychiatric and psychological orthodoxy proved unable to withstand the critical scrutiny that these developments brought. On December 15, 1973, millions of people suddenly found themselves free of mental illness when the American Psychiatric Association’s Board of Directors voted to remove homosexuality as a diagnosis from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
It was arguably the biggest mass cure in the modern history of mental health.
Then, meeting in late January of 1975 – almost exactly 40 years ago – the American Psychological Association (APA) Council of Representatives voted to support the psychiatrists’ action, affirming that:
“Homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social and vocational capabilities.”
This complete reversal in the status accorded to homosexuality by the mental health profession’s two largest and most influential organizations was to have a huge impact.
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people would no longer have to grow up assuming they are sick. Reputable psychologists and psychiatrists would no longer tell them they can and should become heterosexual. Because a characteristic that isn’t an illness doesn’t need treatment, the raison d’etre for attempting to cure homosexuality vanished.
Nearly all therapists eventually abandoned their efforts to make gay people straight. New therapeutic approaches were developed that affirm the value of gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities and same-sex relationships while assisting sexual minorities in coping with the challenges created by societal stigma. These approaches are now integral to the education, training, and practice of psychologists and other mental health professionals.
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But the significance of this year’s 40th anniversary extends further. The APA’s 1975 resolution also urged mental health professionals
“to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations.”
Thus, the Association committed itself to advocacy, lobbying, and educational efforts on behalf of sexual minorities. It has since followed through by promoting research and communicating scientific and clinical knowledge about sexual orientation to the courts, elected officials, policy makers, educators, and the general public.
Notably, these efforts have included filing amicus briefs in more than 40 major federal and state court cases involving the rights of sexual minorities. Roughly half of those cases involved legal recognition of same-sex couples. Others addressed state sodomy laws, discrimination, restrictions on military service, parenting rights, and related issues.
Drawing from empirical research, the APA briefs have explained important facts about sexual orientation:
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In April, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments for four marriage equality cases, the APA will file another amicus brief summarizing current scientific knowledge and professional opinion about sexual orientation, committed intimate relationships, parenting, and related topics.
In doing so, the Association will continue to honor its pledge to take the lead in “removing the stigma.”
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A version of this post also appears on the APA’s blog, Psychology Benefits Society.
The APA amicus briefs are available at: http://www.apa.org/about/offices/ogc/amicus/index-issues.aspx
September 16, 2014
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.)
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
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).
* * * * *
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.
September 2, 2014
Today is the 107th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, the psychologist who is widely credited with helping to establish that homosexuality is not inherently linked to mental illness.
In the course of her remarkable life, Dr. Hooker surmounted many of the barriers faced by women who sought an academic career in the 20th century.
She was born Evelyn Gentry on September 2, 1907, to a poor farm family in North Platte, Nebraska. The sixth of nine children, she received her early education in one-room schoolhouses on the Nebraska prairie, followed by high school in Sterling, Colorado. She subsequently earned baccalaureate and master’s degrees at the University of Colorado.
She wanted to apply to the doctoral psychology program at Yale but her University of Colorado department chairman (himself a Yale graduate) refused to recommend a woman. Instead, she entered the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, receiving her Ph.D. in 1932.
She taught at the Maryland College for Women and then at Whittier College. While at Whittier, she received a fellowship to study psychotherapy for a year in Germany. As Hitler was ascending to power, she resided with a Jewish family in Berlin. While in Europe, she also visited Russia shortly after Stalin’s purge of 1938. Those experiences in totalitarian states further deepened her interest in working for social justice and human rights.
Whittier fired Dr. Hooker and several of her colleagues for their liberal political beliefs. She was subsequently hired by UCLA as an adjunct faculty member. According to the department chairman, she was relegated to that status because the Psychology Department faculty (all but three of whom were men) were unwilling to appoint another woman to a tenure-track position.
In 1951, she married Edward Niles Hooker, a distinguished UCLA professor of English and the man she called her “true love.” He died suddenly in 1957, a loss that deeply pained her.
Dr. Hooker is best known for her psychological research in the 1950s and 1960s with gay men.
Her studies were innovative in several important respects. Rather than simply accepting the conventional wisdom that homosexuality is a pathology, she used the scientific method to test this assumption. And rather than studying homosexual psychiatric patients, she recruited a sample of gay men who were functioning normally in society.
For her best known study, published in 1957 in The Journal of Projective Techniques, she recruited 30 homosexual males and 30 heterosexual males through community organizations in the Los Angeles area. The two groups were matched for age, IQ, and education. None of the men were in therapy at the time of the study.
She administered three projective tests to the men — the Rorschach inkblot test, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), and the Make-A-Picture-Story (MAPS) Test). Then she asked outside experts to use the test data to rate each man’s mental health. Although today it seems like an obvious safeguard against bias, Dr. Hooker’s was the first published study to utilize raters who did not know the sexual orientation of the study participants.
Using the Rorschach data, two of the independent experts evaluated the men’s overall adjustment using a 5-point scale. They classified two-thirds of the heterosexuals and two-thirds of the homosexuals in the three highest categories of adjustment.
Hooker presented the judges with the 60 Rorschach protocols in random order and asked them to identify each man’s sexual orientation. Only six of the homosexual men and six of the heterosexual men were correctly identified by both judges. She later gave the judges another opportunity, this time presenting them with matched pairs of protocols, one from a homosexual man and one from a heterosexual. Only 12 of the 30 pairs elicited correct responses from both judges.
A third expert used the TAT and MAPS protocols to evaluate the men’s psychological adjustment. As with the Rorschach responses, the adjustment ratings of the homosexuals and heterosexuals did not differ significantly.
Dr. Hooker concluded from her data that homosexuality is not a clinical entity and that homosexuality is not inherently associated with psychopathology. Her findings have since been replicated by other investigators using a variety of research methods.
In retrospect, we can see that Dr. Hooker’s main hypothesis — that no group differences in psychological distress should exist between heterosexual and homosexual samples — actually applied too strict a test. We know today that some members of stigmatized groups manifest elevated rates of psychological distress — for example, because of the stress imposed on them by social ostracism, harassment, discrimination, and violence. Such correlations don’t mean that group membership is itself a pathology.
By documenting that well-adjusted homosexuals not only existed but in fact were numerous, Dr. Hooker’s research demonstrated that the illness model had no scientific basis. She helped to lay the foundation for the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and for the American Psychological Association’s subsequent commitment to removing the stigma that has historically been attached to homosexuality.
Dr. Hooker died at her Santa Monica home on November 18, 1996. Her pioneering research and remarkable life were honored with awards from numerous professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, and many advocacy and community groups.
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For more information, see the 1992 Oscar-nominated documentary, Changing Our Minds The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker.
A biographical sketch and a selected bibliography of Dr. Hooker’s publications can be found on my website.
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Postscript. Although homosexuality has not been classified as a mental disorder in the United States for decades, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) still lists several diagnoses related to homosexuality (although not homosexuality itself) as pathological. For example, “ego-dystonic” sexual orientation, which was removed from the DSM in the 1980s, remains in the ICD.
In preparation for the upcoming 11th edition of the ICD, the World Health Organization created a Working Group on the Classification of Sexual Disorders and Sexual Health to review these diagnoses. In a report released this summer, the Working Group, headed by Prof. Susan Cochran of UCLA, recommended that all of them be eliminated.
The Working Group’s recommendations will be reviewed by the ministers of health from more than 170 WHO countries, including Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and other nations where sexual stigma is enshrined in law.
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This entry is an expanded and updated version of a 2008 Beyond Homophobia post.
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.”
August 16, 2014
Gregory M. Herek: Beyond “Homophobia” – Thinking More Clearly About Sexual Stigma and Prejudice
The Commonwealth Club of California
595 Market Street, San Francisco
Mon, August 18, 2014 at 6:00pm (networking reception at 5:30 pm)
The concept of homophobia – a word first coined in the 1960s – has played an important role in shifting society’s focus onto the problem of prejudice against people who aren’t heterosexual. But the word homophobia conveys a variety of assumptions that can actually limit our thinking. Drawing from social science research findings, including his own studies over the past 30 years, Prof. Herek will explain the value of looking beyond the usual conceptions of homophobia to develop a better understanding of stigma, discrimination and prejudice against sexual minorities, and to formulate effective strategies for changing attitudes.
- Free for members
- $20 for non-members
- $7 for students with valid ID
This program is part of the 2014 Platforum series The LGBT Journey, sponsored by Ernst & Young.
June 16, 2009
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.
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).
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.
* * * * *
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.
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