August 27, 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.”
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.
This program is part of the 2014 Platforum series The LGBT Journey, sponsored by Ernst & Young.
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.
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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.
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.