September 19, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice: Installment #1

Posted at 2:24 pm (Pacific Time)

The continuing problems of hate crimes, discrimination, and hostility targeting sexual minorities make one thing evident: We need effective strategies for eradicating sexual prejudice. Exactly what form such strategies should take, however, is far from clear.

In this and future entries, I’ll highlight some promising ideas for reducing prejudice, based on data and theory from the social and behavioral sciences.

To begin, let’s ask what has been shown to work. There’s a fairly simple answer to this question. Research consistently shows that heterosexuals tend to be significantly less prejudiced against sexual minorities to the extent that they have a personal relationship with a gay man or lesbian.

It’s not enough simply to know someone who is gay, however. Rather, heterosexuals’ contact experiences are more likely to reduce their sexual prejudice when:

  • the gay person is a close friend or an immediate family member, rather than a distant relative, acquaintance, or stranger;
  • they know several gay or lesbian people, rather than only one;
  • they have talked openly with their friend or relative about what it’s like to be gay.

While data haven’t yet been collected to determine whether the same patterns hold for heterosexuals’ interpersonal contact with bisexual men and women, it seems reasonable to assume that they do.

There are many explanations for why personal relationships are so effective in reducing sexual prejudice. Certainly a key reason is that such relationships provide an instigation for the heterosexual person to change. Getting rid of one’s prejudices isn’t a quick or easy process. It involves learning new ways of thinking and acting, and can be challenging and uncomfortable. Most people don’t make personal changes like this unless they are strongly motivated to do so.

By coming out, gay men and lesbians give their heterosexual relatives and friends such motivation. When preserving a valued relationship means overcoming one’s sexual prejudice, many heterosexuals rise to the challenge. The gay friend or relative typically helps in this regard by providing information about sexual minorities and advice about how to act appropriately in novel situations. Perhaps most importantly, all of this happens within an ongoing relationship in which each party feels a strong emotional bond and sense of commitment to the other.

Of course, interpersonal contact doesn’t always reduce prejudice. Personal relationships may be less influential when a heterosexual’s prejudice has a strong foundation in religious or political ideology.

Nevertheless, the research data (not to mention the personal experiences of many sexual minority individuals) are clear and consistent in this regard. They strongly reinforce the value of coming out as a strategy for reducing hostility toward sexual minorities. Any campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should build on this fact.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.