By CHARLES M. BLOW
Published: June 4, 2010
Last week, while many of us were distracted by the oil belching forth from the gulf floor and the president’s ham-handed attempts to demonstrate that he was sufficiently engaged and enraged, Gallup released a stunning, and little noticed, report on Americans’ evolving views of homosexuality. Allow me to enlighten:
1. For the first time, the percentage of Americans who perceive “gay and lesbian relations” as morally acceptable has crossed the 50 percent mark. (You have to love the fact that they still use the word “relations.” So quaint.)
2. Also for the first time, the percentage of men who hold that view is greater than the percentage of women who do.
3. This new alignment is being led by a dramatic change in attitudes among younger men, but older men’s perceptions also have eclipsed older women’s. While women’s views have stayed about the same over the past four years, the percentage of men ages 18 to 49 who perceived these “relations” as morally acceptable rose by 48 percent, and among men over 50, it rose by 26 percent.
I warned you: stunning.
There is no way to know for sure what’s driving such a radical change in men’s views on this issue because Gallup didn’t ask, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t speculate. To help me do so, I called Dr. Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author or editor of more than 20 books on men and masculinity, and Professor Ritch Savin-Williams, the chairman of human development at Cornell University and the author of seven books, most of which deal with adolescent development and same-sex attraction.
Here are three theories:
1. The contact hypothesis. As more men openly acknowledge that they are gay, it becomes harder for men who are not gay to discriminate against them. And as that group of openly gay men becomes more varied — including athletes, celebrities and soldiers — many of the old, derisive stereotypes lose their purchase. To that point, a Gallup poll released last May found that people who said they personally knew someone who was gay or lesbian were more likely to be accepting of gay men and lesbians in general and more supportive of their issues.
2. Men may be becoming more egalitarian in general. As Dr. Kimmel put it: “Men have gotten increasingly comfortable with the presence of, and relative equality of, ‘the other,’ and we’re becoming more accustomed to it. And most men are finding that it has not been a disaster.” The expanding sense of acceptance likely began with the feminist and civil rights movements and is now being extended to the gay rights movement. Dr. Kimmel continued, “The dire predictions for diversity have not only not come true, but, in fact, they’ve been proved the other way.”
3. Virulent homophobes are increasingly being exposed for engaging in homosexuality. Think Ted Haggard, the once fervent antigay preacher and former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, and his male prostitute. (This week, Haggard announced that he was starting a new “inclusive” church open to “gay, straight, bi, tall, short,” but no same-sex marriages. Not “God’s ideal.” Sorry.) Or George Rekers, the founding member of the Family Research Council, and his rent boy/luggage handler. Last week, the council claimed that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” would lead to an explosion of “homosexual assaults” in which sleeping soldiers would be the victims of fondling and fellatio by gay predators. In fact, there is a growing body of research that supports the notion that homophobia in some men could be a reaction to their own homosexual impulses. Many heterosexual men see this, and they don’t want to be associated with it. It’s like being antigay is becoming the old gay. Not cool.
These sound plausible, but why aren’t women seeing the same enlightening effects as men? Professor Savin-Williams suggests that there may be a “ceiling effect,” that men are simply catching up to women, and there may be a level at which views top out. Interesting.
All of this is great news, but it doesn’t mean that all measures relating to acceptance of gay men and lesbians have changed to the same degree. People’s comfort with the “gay and lesbian” part of the equation is still greater than their comfort with the “relations” part — the idea versus the act — particularly when it comes to pairings of men.
As Professor Savin-Williams told me, there is still a higher aversive reaction to same-sex sexuality among men than among women.
For instance, in a February New York Times/CBS News poll, half of the respondents were asked if they favored letting “gay men and lesbians” serve in the military (which is still more than 85 percent male), and the other half were asked if they favored letting “homosexuals” serve. Those who got the “homosexual” question favored it at a rate that was 11 percentage points lower than those who got the “gay men and lesbians” question.
Part of the difference may be that “homosexual” is a bigger, more clinical word freighted with a lot of historical baggage. But just as likely is that the inclusion of the root word “sex” still raises an aversive response to the idea of, how shall I say, the architectural issues between two men. It is the point at which support for basic human rights cleaves from endorsement of behavior.
As for the aversion among men, it may be softening a bit. Professor Savin-Williams says that his current research reveals that the fastest-growing group along the sexuality continuum are men who self-identify as “mostly straight” as opposed to labels like “straight,” “gay” or “bisexual.” They acknowledge some level of attraction to other men even as they say that they probably wouldn’t act on it, but ... the right guy, the right day, a few beers and who knows. As the professor points out, you would never have heard that in years past.
All together now: stunning.
(I now return you to Day 46 of the oil spill where they finally may be making some progress.)
I found this article surprising on some levels because at least in the position of a queer guy I still find homophobia (and biphobia for that matter) with shocking frequency in tons of situations and media. On the other hand, the numbers can't completely be wrong. Mostly I don't like that the article treats a lot of these trends superficially, e.g. it doesn't perform any kind of feminist analysis, it doesn't provide many real-world anecdotes from openly non-hetero people, it doesn't acknowledge the ways that heteronormativity still dominates US society, etc. And it completely ignores transphobia altogether, among other things that shouldn't be synonymous with homophobia but are still relevant to consider alongside it; while sexuality and gender identity work independently for individuals, prejudices about the latter tend to wind up informing prejudices about the former, and vice versa. So: interesting poll results, but I'd love to see people here bring more nuanced discussion of them to the table.