Anti-Gay Prejudice

The Psychology of Anti-Gay Prejudice: Part I

(This is the first in a 2-part series. You can find Part II here.)

Last Friday, the Supreme Court made history, ruling that same-sex marriage is a right protected under the Constitution. This decision, of course, was preceded by many years of fierce struggle against strong opponents of such a right, and although the decision has clarified a legal right to same-sex marriage, it didn’t erase anti-gay prejudice overnight.

Social psychologists have invested a lot in understanding prejudice and discrimination, provoking a whole field focused on the psychology of prejudice. As far back as 1954, Gordon Allport, one of the early figures in social psychology, published a book titled The Nature of Prejudice. In it, he laid down a comprehensive account of prejudice, its origins, its expression, and how we might reduce it.

The Origins of “Sexual Prejudice”

Since Allport’s landmark book, a ton of research has been done to more completely understand prejudice, which at its essence, is a negative attitude someone has, generalized across an entire group of people. Little research, however, has looked specifically at anti-gay prejudice, but the available data suggest a few precursors to this particular form of prejudice.

Gregory Herek and Kevin McLemore define sexual prejudice as “a negative attitude toward an individual based on her or his membership in a group defined by its members’ sexual attractions, behaviors, or orientation.”[1]This, they argue, is an improvement over the term “homophobia,” which implies that the negative attitudes are based on an individual’s irrational fears instead of being a results of normative cultural stigma. By defining prejudice in this way, they can examine data to see what other characteristics are associated with having negative evaluations of sexual minorities.

In their 2013 Annual Review of Psychology article, Herek and McLemore provide a great overview of the research in this area. It’s still small field of research, but here are several empirically supported facts about sexual prejudice.

Gender and Masculinity Threat

Heterosexual men tend to express stronger anti-gay prejudice than heterosexual women (e.g., Herek, 2000).[2]When I’ve taught about this research in class, a student raised a very valid point about how “men” and “women” are defined in this research. Of course, a separate but related case of sexual prejudice includes prejudice toward transgender individuals. Clearly, then, “men” vs. “women” comparisons should include clearer definitions. Suffice it to say, however, in this research, gender would be defined as people’s self-reported responses to a survey question about their gender. Of course, there could be a bunch of reasons for this simple difference, but some have argued that it comes down to a society that emphasizes the importance of masculinity, a trait that some feel is threatened by the thought of homosexuality.

The idea is that men (moreso than women) are raised to value masculinity and avoid femininity. Whenever a parent scolds a young boy for playing with dolls or whenever someone aims to insult another person by yelling, “you play ball like a girl!“, it feeds this social norm.

hairstyles-33223Some interesting experimental research, in fact, has shown that threatening a man’s sense of masculinity increases his expressions of sexual prejudice. These researchers had participants do a task with a partner in which they had to punish him for incorrect responses by making him listen to a loud, unpleasant noise over headphones. Importantly, some of the participants were led to think that their partner was gay and the rest of the participants were led to think their partner was straight.

They also threatened some participants’ masculinity by giving them pre-prepared feedback about a questionnaire everyone completed. Some of the participants were told that their answers reflected a masculinity on par with the national average, but other participants were told that their answers reflected masculinity levels well below the national average. Of course, the feedback they received had nothing to do with their actual answers to the survey.

When it came time to do the activity with their partner, people punished incorrect answers most aggressively when they thought their partner was gay and they had just felt a threat to their masculinity. It’s important to note that the masculinity threat didn’t change people’s behavior if they thought their partner was straight.

Therefore, one reason why men may, on average, express greater sexual prejudice than women, is that they feel a particular motivation to assert the value of masculinity–a value they picked up through socialization.

Interestingly, this is in contrast to another reason why people often think men express stronger prejudice, namely that they do so out of a fear that they themselves might have latent homosexual tendencies. Although this explanation has found support in some research, other studies have failed to provide evidence of this explanation.

You can find Part II of this topic here. It covers another precursor to sexual prejudice and reviews some data that offer an insight into how to reduce this prejudice.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This, they argue, is an improvement over the term “homophobia,” which implies that the negative attitudes are based on an individual’s irrational fears instead of being a results of normative cultural stigma.
2. When I’ve taught about this research in class, a student raised a very valid point about how “men” and “women” are defined in this research. Of course, a separate but related case of sexual prejudice includes prejudice toward transgender individuals. Clearly, then, “men” vs. “women” comparisons should include clearer definitions. Suffice it to say, however, in this research, gender would be defined as people’s self-reported responses to a survey question about their gender.

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