The notion that gay couples should be treated the same as straight ones has grown enormously in acceptance in recent years. But new research suggests there is a limit to all of this tolerance.
According to a research team led by Indiana University sociologist Long Doan, heterosexual Americans believe gay couples should have the same legal rights as straight couples. However, they remain uncomfortable with public displays of affection by gay and lesbian couples.
Surprisingly, the study finds gay men also take a relatively dim view of same-sex public kissing and hand-holding, while lesbians hold mixed opinions on the subject.
Writing in the American Sociological Review, the researchers describe a survey of 1,073 Americans—258 lesbians, 310 gay men, 240 straight women, and 265 straight men. They were randomly assigned to read a brief vignette about a couple that met, fell in love, and have been living together for the past two years.
"We come to the conclusion that although heterosexuals may be increasingly willing to grant legal benefits to gay and lesbian couples, entrenched prejudice that takes on subtler forms may remain."
One-third of the participants read about “Brian and Jennifer.” For another third, the couple consisted of “Heather and Jennifer,” while for the final third, they were named “Brian and Matt.”
All were asked to respond to a series of statements regarding the couple’s rights. Some of these were legal, such as inheritance and hospital visitation rights. Others were more informal, such as their right to hold hands or kiss in a public park. For each item, participants responded on a one-to-four scale (“strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”).
“We find that, overall, heterosexuals are as willing to grant formal rights to the same-sex couple as they are to the heterosexual couple,” the researchers report. "Across all of the formal rights items, we find no significant differences in heterosexual males' approval for the heterosexual, lesbian, or gay couple." Topping that, straight women approved the idea of insurance benefits for the lesbian couple at a higher rate than they did for the straight couple.
Besides showing the expected support for their own legal rights, “gays and lesbians were significantly more approving for the heterosexual couple than even heterosexual males are,” they add. “This suggests that lesbians and gays may be more sympathetic to cohabiting couples of all types, but especially to other same-sex couples.”
The picture grows considerably more complicated when then questions concerned what Doan and his colleagues call “informal privileges”—specifically, the right to show affection in public. Compared to their attitude toward the heterosexual couple, straight men and women were significantly less approving of the homosexual couple holding hands, kissing on the cheek, or French kissing in public.
Unexpectedly, that was also true of gay men. "Lesbians are not significantly different in their approval of kissing on the cheek or French kissing for the lesbian couple vs. the heterosexual couple," the researchers write. "Gays, however, are significantly less approving of the gay couple kissing on the cheek and French kissing compared to the heterosexual couple."
What's more, both gays and lesbians were more approving of the heterosexual couple holding hands in public than the couple of their own sexual orientation. The researchers speculate this may reflect “internalized stigma” or “safety concerns for the couple” in the light of homophobic hate crimes.
While the findings are certainly interesting, one can take issue with some of the researchers’ assumptions, as well as some of their conclusions.
Doan and his colleagues distinguish between “formal” and “informal” privileges reserved for romantic couples, but the only “informal” ones they discuss are public displays of affection. Does disapproval of such behavior really constitute “marginalization” of same-sex couples, as they suggest? It seems a stretch.
“We come to the conclusion that although heterosexuals may be increasingly willing to grant legal benefits to gay and lesbian couples, entrenched prejudice that takes on subtler forms may remain,” Doan told the American Sociological Association.
But is that a fair characterization? If homosexuality makes you uncomfortable, but you are able to set aside those feelings and support legal equality, by definition that means you’re willing to override your emotional reaction in favor of basic fairness. Isn’t that the opposite of prejudice?