Between the Olympics in Russia and the coming out of a college football player destined for the NFL, the issue of equal rights for gays and lesbians is dominating the news this week. But all the coverage begs the question: What exactly drives anti-gay prejudice?
Timely new research suggests the simple answer is: Even today, many people hold horrifically stereotyped views of homosexuals.
In a just-published paper, a research team led by DePaul University psychologist Christine Reyna presents evidence that the primary driver of opposition to gay-rights policies is the belief that gays and lesbians engage in “behaviors that go against society.”
People opposed to gay-rights laws aren’t as concerned with whether sexual orientation is ingrained or changeable as they are with "beliefs that gays and lesbians violate important social codes of conduct."
People opposed to gay-rights laws aren’t as concerned with whether sexual orientation is ingrained or changeable as they are with “beliefs that gays and lesbians violate important social codes of conduct,” the researchers write in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
Reyna and her colleagues describe two studies backing up this thesis. The first examined the views of 90 people approached on the street in Pasadena, California, and Chicago in 2008 and 2009. After disclosing the degree to which they felt homosexuality is a choice, they responded to a series of statements relating to moral values.
Specifically, they reported their agreement or disagreement (on a one-to-seven scale) with such assertions as “Typically, gay men and lesbians do not uphold the value of mature love (e.g., deep emotional commitment and spiritual intimacy),” and “Typically, gay men and lesbians do not uphold the value of self-discipline (e.g., self-restraint, resistance to temptation)”.
Finally, they described their support or opposition to such issues as gay marriage, gays serving openly in the military, and the legality of employers discriminating against gays in hiring.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that “the more people perceived sexual orientation to be a choice, the more they opposed gay rights policies.”
But as they looked more deeply into the data, they found the issue of “choice” was relevant only because of its behavioral implications. In the minds of homophobes, if someone chooses to be gay, then he or she is also choosing to defy traditional values such as self-discipline and monogamy.
A second, similar study featured 347 undergraduates, and added the issue of support or opposition to proposed legislation limiting marriage to a man and a woman. The results were the same as the first study: Prejudiced views of gays’ moral values were strongly linked to opposition to gay rights.
Of course, numerous factors contribute to bias against gays and lesbians. Religious doctrine presumably plays a role, and psychologist Jonathan Haidt, among others, convincingly argues that the reflex of disgust plays a role. And even if plainly disprovable stereotypes are largely to blame, the continued reality of subtle racial prejudice suggests such preconceived notions are very difficult to stamp out.
Nevertheless, these results help explain the tortured belief system behind assertions that same-sex unions will destroy traditional marriage. If you’re convinced that gays and lesbians don’t take the idea of commitment seriously, including them in the pool of married people would presumably degrade the institution. If you believe they uniformly lack discipline and self-restraint, it follows that you’d be convinced their presence would hurt an army brigade—or a football team.
Overall, the results suggest gay-rights advocates may be making a mistake in emphasizing the biological basis of sexual orientation. It seems that information, by itself, won’t be enough to change people’s attitudes on matters such as same-sex marriage.
The researchers argue they might be better off spending “just as much time, if not more, touting the discipline and bravery of our gay and lesbian service men and women, highlighting their loving and devoted partnerships, and emphasizing the nurturing care with which they raise their children."