Is Ambivalence the New Homophobia?

As anti-gay prejudice becomes less socially acceptable, homophobia joins racism and sexism in the ranks of biases veiled behind supposed ambivalence.
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As anti-gay prejudice becomes less socially acceptable, homophobia joins racism and sexism in the ranks of biases veiled behind supposed ambivalence.
At a gay-rights rally, a straight family supports same-sex marriage. (Photo: dannyman/Flickr)

At a gay-rights rally, a straight family supports same-sex marriage. (Photo: dannyman/Flickr)

Earlier this month, gay rights advocates cheered as seven couples in North Dakota filed suit against the last un-challenged gay marriage ban in the United States. The marriage equality tide is turning, and although gay men and women are still far from obtaining equal rights across the country, American attitudes toward marriage equality have evolved faster than most other policy issues this decade.

As anti-gay attitudes become socially unacceptable, researchers expect to see them replaced with a subtle form of discrimination that has long been the dominant form of racism and sexism. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote cogently at the Atlantic, “Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism.”

Researchers Mark R. Hoffarth and Gordon Hodson at Brock University in Canada published a paper in the latest Personality and Individual Differences that reveals claims of “conflicted” or “mixed” feelings toward gays as an elegant homophobia.

Though previous research shows "holding mixed, conflicted attitudes can outwardly convey nuanced understanding of a controversial topic," the results show that ambivalent attitudes "largely reflect underlying bias, not nuanced beliefs."

The participants were 185 Canadian heterosexual undergraduate students with low overall levels of overt anti-gay bias. They completed surveys measuring their subjective ambivalence (e.g. “How conflicted do you feel in your attitudes toward gay men/lesbians?”), attitudes toward gays and lesbians, various beliefs linked with anti-gay prejudice (e.g. right-wing conservatism, religious fundamentalism), and support for gay rights.

As researchers predicted, higher levels of ambivalence were consistently associated with stronger anti-gay bias across almost all measures. Ambivalence was not associated with positive beliefs at all, and it was negatively correlated with gay rights support.

Though previous research has suggested that “holding mixed, conflicted attitudes can outwardly convey nuanced understanding of a controversial topic,” the results show that ambivalent attitudes “largely reflect underlying bias, not nuanced beliefs.”

A second study examined how these beliefs affect students’ reactions to real-life events. Participants read a news article describing a case of gay bullying: One condition included a quote justifying the behavior as “boys will be boys,” while the second condition indicated the behavior was not justified. Then, participants rated if they had positive or negative attitudes toward the bullying situation.

People who reported more ambivalence toward gays felt less opposition to gay bullying. The effect was due, in part, to a correlation between higher ambivalence and lower intergroup empathy. Those in the “justification” condition felt less opposition to gay bullying than in the “non-justification” condition, partially because the participants felt less collective guilt when the bullying was justified. The authors also note that “subjective ambivalence captures bias not captured by more ‘traditional,’ blatant anti-gay attitudes."

The findings don’t necessarily apply to a general population since the sample is drawn from university students, who are “relatively liberal” and opposed to anti-gay bias. Still, recent gay rights victories indicate that the liberal attitudes of university students may soon be mainstream, and ambivalence may be the new stand-in for blatant prejudice. While it's certainly a step above the ugly homophobia of previous decades, history has shown that "elegant" forms of prejudice can still do plenty of damage to marginalized groups.

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