How Do Americans Really Feel About Gays?

Does everyone who says they support gay rights mean it?
Does everyone who says they support gay rights really mean it?

Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

As gay rights advocates celebrate a seemingly endless barrage of victories in their fight for full equality, a new study offers a reality check on how far we’ve come. A team of researchers from Ohio State and Boston Universities used a survey technique known as the “veiled elicitation method” to correct for social desirability bias—the tendency of survey respondents to give researchers the answers they think are expected. The veiled method involves asking subjects to respond to a group of questions, and in an indirect manner, which has been shown to reduce the chances that an answer will be biased toward social expectations. The theory is that grouping sensitive and non-sensitive questions together can “veil” how subjects answer the sensitive question, thus reducing the influence of social desirability bias. As the study authors put it, “saying ‘three items’ might be easier to say than ‘Yes, I cheat on my spouse.’ ”

The new study, which surveyed more than 2,500 Americans, reached two conclusions that may be surprising: that far more people may not be heterosexual than previously reported, and that far more people continue to feel anti-gay sentiment than recent gay rights narratives might suggest.

According to the study:

The veiled method increased self-reports of non-heterosexual identity by 65% (p<0.05) and same-sex sexual experiences by 59% (p<0.01). The veiled method also increased the rates of anti-gay sentiment. Respondents were 67% more likely to express disapproval of an openly gay manager at work (p<0.01) and 71% more likely to say it is okay to discriminate against lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals (p<0.01).

These conclusions jibe with other research on unconscious anti-gay sentiment. In one study, for instance, psychologists collected information about their subjects’ stated (conscious) beliefs and then asked them about specific acts involving gay couples. Similar to the use of the veiled method described above, the researchers asked “sideways” questions about these acts rather than asking directly if they were right or wrong. Earlier research established that people are more likely to believe that actions they think are immoral are done intentionally; so researchers asked subjects if they thought certain acts were done intentionally. They were then able to use the subjects’ answers as proxies for moral judgment, even when answers conflicted with the subjects’ stated moral judgment. Sure enough, this research found that even when people claimed there was nothing wrong with homosexuality, the subjects held intuitively negative judgments against it.

These findings on buried anti-gay sentiment help make sense of some seeming paradoxes: a spike in anti-gay violence, including in New York’s historically gay-friendly West Village, and last year’s long lines outside Chick-fil-A restaurants as a show of support for its CEO’s anti-gay-marriage position—just as traditional opinion polls show widespread increases in acceptance of homosexuality.

But the research raises a larger question that some gay advocates have been slow to address: Just what is—and should be—the goal of the gay rights movement? Does equal treatment mean straight people say the right things and pull the right levers, or does it go deeper than that, extending to how people really think and feel about homosexuality in their hearts?

Espousing gay-friendly views and positions certainly affects real lives. How you speak to and about someone is an inherent part of how you treat them, and supporting politicians or ballot initiatives that secure equal rights can have a huge impact on gay people and their families. For decades, these goals were, understandably, the focus of gay rights battles. But as gains toward equality grew, and the focus turned to marriage, advocates began to emphasize a new dimension of equality that transcends rights and tolerance, and extends to acceptance and full recognition of LGBT humanity. Part of this change in focus was tactics—an outgrowth of the movement’s understanding that Americans respond better to messages of love and commitment than demands for rights and benefits.

But part of it was inherent in the battle for marriage, which, after all, takes its very meaning from the quest for public recognition of a couple’s union. The whole point of a wedding, from a cultural perspective, is for a couple to invite their community to recognize and help enforce—indeed to approve of—their union as a positive thing worth supporting. There has always been something a bit disingenuous about gay rights activists insisting that they deserve marital recognition from their society because their relationships are nobody’s business but their own. Marriage is all about making your relationship other people’s business.

If millions of the people who profess support for gay rights are actually not according gay people and their relationships equal dignity, surely some level of the progress we’ve made on paper rings hollow. It’s not as if anyone actually believes that when major pols and CEOs make anti-gay “gaffes” and roll out an earnest mea culpa the next day, they really didn’t mean what they said the first time. Do we really think the chairman of Barilla pasta reversed his views on gay marriage 24 hours after his stated opposition to it spurred a public relations disaster and that threats of a boycott played no role in his dramatic apology?

That’s why Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder recently wrote, “who cares” what the CEO of Barilla pasta says about gay rights? Lowder doesn’t care what he says because he views such concern as a kind of oversensitivity, asking, “are you really so starved for approval that you need it to come packaged with pasta?” I don’t care what Guido Barilla says because I care what he thinks—and as the veiled elicitation method confirms, the two often don’t match. For marriage equality to mean anything, we must secure not just equal benefits, but full recognition of our relationships.

Am I just being oversensitive? Should I care about what others think and feel if they behave properly? Here’s the thing: Feelings have consequences. Juries make life-altering decisions based on them; police officers who pull triggers before they have time to correct for their biases end lives because of them; and gay kids who grow up with parents who profess tolerance but quietly exhibit disapproval or disgust wreak havoc with their kids’ lives—all because biases shape our lives more than we’re often willing to concede. And remember, the veiled survey method increased by 71 percent the likelihood that subjects said it was “okay to discriminate against lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals.” That is, not just to stigmatize them but to actually treat them worse.

This week, Justice Antonin Scalia claimed he is not anti-gay even though he finds no protections for homosexuality in the Constitution, and despite a long record of vehement homophobia. Lest you were inclined to believe him, or his suggestion that his personal views about gay people have no impact on his legal decisions, here’s more evidence that you shouldn’t. True equality requires that we get to the bottom of our biases, not just that we learn to say the right things.