September 25, 2007

The Iran-Cameron Connection

Posted at 4:01 pm (Pacific Time)

Q: What does the president of Iran have in common with certain antigay activists in the United States?
A: Both maintain that homosexuals don’t really exist.

Yesterday, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the existence of homosexuals in his country, the audience at Columbia University responded with laughter and derision.

Asked about the persecution of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad answered:

“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.”

The policies of Ahmadinejad’s own government would appear to contradict his statement. As documented by HOMAN (the US-based Iranian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Organization) and the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), Iranian law severely punishes men and women who engage in homosexual behavior. The punishment for male-male sex involving penetration is death. In 2005, two gay teenage boys were hanged after admitting to having sex with each other.

The public response to Ahmadinejad’s assertion has been similar to that of the Columbia audience. To most Americans, the idea that there are no homosexuals in Iran or any other country simply isn’t plausible.

But at least a few individuals apparently agree with the Iranian president, except for one detail: They would take issue with his assertion that there are homosexuals in the United States.

The Cameron Connection

Purveyors of junk science on the topic of sexual orientation increasingly seem to be denying that anyone is really gay or lesbian.

An example of this sentiment can be found in the guidelines that antigay activist Paul Cameron and his collaborators are developing on their new Web vehicle for reporting the results of their “research.”

As Jim Burroway reported on the Box Turtle Bulletin website, Cameron et al. recently announced that they’re creating their own on-line vanity press which presumably will feature papers that even Psychological Reports won’t publish. (They apparently also hope to reverse their cash flow; instead of paying Psychological Reports for publishing their papers, they say they’ll charge contributors upwards of $500 to publish an article on their own website.)

The content of the website has been changing, but a version I accessed on September 23 listed some rules for terminology:

“…[A]uthors should avoid terms such as ‘gay,’ homosexual,’ heterosexual,’ or ‘bisexual,’ as they are diagnostic and/or political, implying ‘something’ beyond the empirical facts. Describing those who engage in SS [same-sex sexual behavior], or who don’t engage in SS but desire to, as ‘homosexuals,’ ‘bisexuals,’ etc. also implies ‘something beyond the empirical reality’ of what individuals do and should be avoided….”

By September 25, the language rules were softened a bit but were still consistent with the previous version:

“With the understanding that persons who engage in same-sex sexual behavior are often called ‘homosexuals,’ ‘gays,’ ‘lesbians,’ and the like, it is preferred that the terms MSM (males who have sex with males), FSF (females who have sex with females) be used….”

Perhaps the shift toward a less categorical ban on on words like “homosexual” came after Cameron looked through his own published papers, e.g., a 2006 report titled Children of Homosexuals and Transsexuals Are More Apt To Be Homosexual. Nevertheless, the message is pretty clear: Sexual behavior corresponds to an empirical fact, but being gay or lesbian doesn’t.

What’s the point of this exercise? Why deny the existence of homosexuals?

The Law and Policy Connection

I don’t pretend to know President Ahmadinejad’s motivation for his statement at Columbia. But American homosexuality-deniers appear to be trying to create a rationale for antigay laws and policies.

This rationale is built on (at least) two components: (1) There’s no such thing as “a homosexual,” therefore, sexual minorities don’t constitute a minority group that is subjected to unfair discrimination and hence don’t need legal protection. (2) People who call themselves “homosexual” (or gay or lesbian or bisexual) can and should become heterosexual.

These arguments were presented, for example, in a legal declaration that Jeffrey Satinover submitted in the original San Francisco Superior Court case concerning the marriages of same-sex couples performed at San Francisco City Hall in 2004. He asserted:

“Homosexual or bisexual identification… spontaneously and dramatically declines to the largest degree over the course of the lifespan, especially in the adolescent years when sexual identity is most mutable and impressionable and subject to outside influence from peers, popular culture, formal education and the standards set by figures of influence as well as by the nature of actual sexual activity. Thus, to the largest degree, homosexual identification is a self-reinforcing, hence culturally-dependent phenomenon…”

“Homosexuality, once in the process of developing, can be altered. It can be more readily altered when mutually reinforcing effects of the environment (cultural, demographic variables — the “messages” sent by society) and the wishes of the individual are in accord. It is more difficult to alter if an individual decides to change course after having gone farther down a pathway that involves extensive repetition, but not necessarily impossible. For those who do not desire it… the best way to insure that this option remains viable is to create an environment that does not reinforce it in the first place.”


  1. There’s really no such thing as “a homosexual.” Impressionable young people who engage in same-sex behavior end up believing they’re “gay” or “bisexual” because they’ve been influenced or duped by popular culture, but most of them grow out of it.
  2. People who want to stop being homosexual can and should do so, and the best way for society to assist them is to make sure that the culture is as hostile to sexual minorities as possible. (As quoted on the NARTH website, Satinover believes that “homosexuality — like narcissism — is best viewed as a spiritual and moral illness.”)

Responding To The Arguments

These attempts by antigay activists to argue sexual minorities out of existence seem better suited to the imaginary worlds created by George Orwell and Lewis Carroll than to the contemporary United States. Unfortunately for them, their wish to create new meanings for words — or to completely abolish the concepts to which the words refer — doesn’t change reality.

In fact, most people in the United States experience their sexual orientation as a fundamental component of their identity. Most gay, lesbian, and bisexual people (and probably most heterosexuals) feel they couldn’t change their sexual orientation if they wanted to. And most don’t wish to change.

This isn’t to say that culture exerts no influence on how people experience their sexuality and form identities based on it. Indeed, historical and anthropological studies over the last several decades have documented the central role that culture plays in shaping such experiences and identities. They have also illuminated how the meanings attached to sexual behavior have changed over the course of history. However, the arguments presented by Satinover et al. ignore the fact that identities shaped by cultural forces are “real” — whether they reflect sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or some other characteristic.

Nor am I arguing that no one’s sexual orientation changes over the course of their life. Many gay and lesbian people report that they once considered themselves heterosexual. However, claims that a particular “therapy” or “treatment” can alter a person’s sexual orientation have no scientific support. And there are solid grounds for questioning the safety and ethics of such interventions.

What, then, is the appropriate response to the arguments put forth by the American homosexual-deniers?

The Columbia University audience’s reaction to President Ahmadinejad’s statement strikes me as a good start. They booed and laughed.

* * * * *

For more information about the situation of sexual minorities in Iran, check the websites of HOMAN, the IRQO (formerly the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization, or PGLO), the International Lesbian and Gay Association, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and Human Rights Watch.

Journalist Doug Ireland has written about the persecution of Iranian sexual minorities in his blog and in articles for various publications, including In These Times.

In January of 2007, the IRQO sponsored an all-day symposium at the University of Toronto on systematic violations of human rights in Iran, including the rights of sexual minorities.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 19, 2007

Swagger and Sway: The Study’s Author Comments

Posted at 11:46 am (Pacific Time)

In a recent posting, I discussed a newly published study titled “Swagger, Sway, and Sexuality: Judging Sexual Orientation from Body Motion and Morphology.” In addition to summarizing the study findings, I pointed out that some media reports seem to have missed the point of the research.

Prof. Kerri Johnson, the study’s lead author, e-mailed me today about that posting. In her e-mail, she noted that her principal research focus is how people perceive others, and she explained the study’s relationship to her ongoing research program. With her permission, I’m posting the text of her e-mail here.

“On your blog you recently reviewed some of my research that appeared in this month’s JPSP. I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful comments — and for helping to set the record straight.

As is always the case, this research is part of a broader program of research. The broader research program aims to understand how individuals use sexually dimorphic cues in their social judgments, and here we focused on the implications for perceived sexual orientation. I feel quite strongly that understanding how people make these judgments (whether they are correct or incorrect) can also help to understand stigma and bias. In other research (currently being written up), for example, we demonstrate that inferences made about the cues that convey masculinity/femininity, not the homosexual category membership itself, predict harsh evaluations. Because I see a clear link between understanding person construal and preventing bias, some of the claims in popular blogs have been unsettling.

In any event, you’re one of the few individuals who has correctly pointed out that my emphasis is on social perception, not the production of gendered body motion.”

Kerri L. Johnson
UCLA Department of Communication Studies

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 15, 2007

Swagger and Sway

Posted at 11:18 am (Pacific Time)

Anyone who saw The Birdcage probably remembers the hilarious scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) tries to teach Albert (Nathan Lane) how to walk like John Wayne.

Classic film lovers will remember a similar, albeit more serious scene in the 1956 film, Tea and Sympathy, in which Tom (John Kerr), a heterosexual teenager falsely accused of being gay, asks Al (Darryl Hickman), his (straight) friend, to help him with his walk.

In both films, of course, it wasn’t walking per se that concerned the characters. Rather, it was having others believe one is straight. Audience members understood that there are “masculine” and “feminine” ways to walk in American culture, and that men who walk in a feminine manner are likely to be labeled gay, regardless of their actual sexual orientation.

Relevant to the experiences of the characters of Albert and Tom, a study by Prof. Kerri Johnson and her colleagues, published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), systematically examined just how observers make judgments about whether someone is male or female, and gay or straight, based on their body shape and gait.

However, media coverage and public discussions of the article have been focusing on an incidental component of the study. More about that below.

First, let’s review the study findings. Like many research papers published in JPSP, this one reported data from three related studies, all conducted with samples of undergraduate college students.

Studies 1 and 2: Animated Figures

In the first two studies, the researchers showed students computer animations of walking human figures. They systematically varied two aspects of the models, each of which they hypothesized would be used by observers to make judgments about the figure’s sex and sexual orientation.

One variable was the figure’s overall body shape, which they characterized in terms of waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). Although there are many exceptions, women tend to have a lower WHR than men. In other words, women tend to have broad hips relative to their waist (in the extreme, an “hourglass” shape), whereas men tend to have what the researchers described as a “tubular” shape, that is, relatively similar measures of waist and hip size.

The second variable was the figure’s gait, which the researchers defined in terms of the amount of shoulder motion relative to hip motion. The stereotypical masculine walk — what Albert in The Birdcage and Tom in Tea and Sympathy were trying to achieve — involves more shoulder motion than hip motion. The researchers characterized this as a “swagger” (à la Robin Williams channeling John Wayne). By contrast, the stereotypical feminine walk involves more hip motion than shoulder motion — what the researchers called a “sway” (for the counterpart to John Wayne, think Jessica Rabbit).

When students viewed the animations, they tended to judge the cartoon walkers with more swagger to be men, and those with more sway as women. They also tended to judge walkers with more hourglass-shaped bodies to be women, and those with more tubular shaped bodies to be men. If an hourglass-shaped figure walked with swaggering shoulders, they tended to assume it was a lesbian. Tubular-shaped figures that walked with swaying hips were often assumed to be gay men.

If the body shape was androgynous but the student was told the figure’s sex, he or she then tended to rely on the image’s gait for making a guess about its sexual orientation. Once again, swaggering males were usually assumed to be straight whereas swaying males were often guessed to be gay. The pattern was usually reversed for female figures.

Thus, absent all other information about an individual, the research suggests that a male who walks with a feminine sway is often taken for gay (at least by this group of NYU undergraduates). Ditto for a female who walks with a masculine swagger.

Study 3: Videos of Live Actors

In their third study, the researchers used videos of actual human beings. Or rather, they used stripped-down videos that obscured many physical details of the real-life actors who were filmed.

To make the videos, they asked 8 men and 8 women to be filmed while walking on a treadmill. Half were heterosexual, half were gay or lesbian. The JPSP article didn’t provide any other information about the actors — such as their age or ethnicity, how they were recruited, or whether they considered themselves to be masculine, feminine, or androgynous. Presumably, however, the 4 gay male and 4 lesbian actors were all sufficiently out of the closet that they were willing to be filmed. In other words, they weren’t trying to pass as heterosexual.

As in Studies 1 and 2, the researchers showed the videos to students and asked them to guess about each walker’s sex and sexual orientation.

When it came to guessing the women walkers’ sexual orientation, the students essentially did a mental coin toss. They correctly guessed the sexual orientation of the lesbian models 43% of the time, but incorrectly guessed that the heterosexual women were lesbians 46% of the time.

They were somewhat better with the male walkers, but nevertheless were wrong about the gay male models most of the time. They correctly labeled the gay male model as homosexual only 38% of the time, and incorrectly guessed that the gay model was straight 62% of the time. They incorrectly labeled the straight men as gay 15% of the time.

Missing the Point

In summary, the three studies show that NYU students (and probably other people as well) use gender-stereotypical movement cues to make assumptions about sexual orientation in artificially created figures, and to a lesser degree in real models. When judging the real models, they use the motion cues somewhat for men, but not for women.

To the extent that people actually use these cues in their day-to-day interactions, it can have important consequences. Other research suggests that once a heterosexual observer categorizes someone as lesbian or gay, this judgment often affects their subsequent perceptions of that individual. For example, they may dislike the individual and are likely to assume that he or she conforms to a variety of gay-related stereotypes.

Although the findings reported by Prof. Johnson and her colleagues are about observers’ judgments, media coverage has been paying a lot of attention to the swagger and sway of those live actors who were videotaped for Study 3. In many reports, the study has been incorrectly characterized as revealing something about the person who’s walking rather than the people who are observing that walk (and who make guesses about the walker’s sexual orientation).

Perhaps this can be traced to the UCLA press release about the study, which was headlined “Sexual Orientation Revealed by Body Type and Motion, Study Suggests.” To read that press release, you’d think the study’s focus was on determining whether gay and straight men and women actually have different body types and walk differently. Two paragraphs placed early in the 9-paragraph release described the 16 models who were videotaped for Study 3, concluding:

…the researchers determined that the gay subjects tended to have more gender-incongruent body types than their straight counterparts (hourglass figures for men, tubular bodies for women) and body motions (hip-swaying for men, shoulder-swaggering for women) than their straight counterparts.

This is true for the 16 models. But the study didn’t show that gender-specific body movements are reliably associated with a person’s sexual orientation. As noted above, the researchers videotaped only 4 gay men, 4 lesbians, 4 heterosexual men, and 4 heterosexual women. You simply can’t generalize about an entire population from a handful of people. And we don’t even know how these models were recruited in the first place.

Nevertheless, MSNBC pursued this tangent in its story, quoting another researcher (not connected with the study) who opined:

“There’s reason to think that gay people can’t conceal their homosexuality…. I don’t think it’s a performance that gay people enact. I think it’s something that either is inborn, or it’s acquired very early, perhaps by watching members of the other sex.”

To be fair, the quoted researcher didn’t appear to be suggesting that the JPSP study proves his point — he was simply stating his personal opinion.

My own hunch, though, is that thousands of gay men and lesbians who have successfully concealed their sexual orientation from their straight friends and relatives would disagree with him. As would a lot of straight males who, like Tom in Tea and Sympathy, have worried about the way they walk.

# # # # #

Swagger, sway, and sexuality: Judging sexual orientation from body motion and morphology” was authored by Kerri L. Johnson, Simone Gill, Victoria Reichman, and Louis G. Tassinary, and it appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 93, #3, pp. 321-334 (2007).

Some of the video clips that the researchers used in Studies 1 and 2 are posted at the American Psychological Association’s journals website. Some of the videos used in Study 3 are posted at the website and the APA website.

See Mike Airhart’s comment on media coverage of the study at

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 13, 2007

Overkill in Alabama: All the Rage

Posted at 5:58 pm (Pacific Time)

The last two of Scotty Joe Weaver’s murderers have pleaded guilty.

Weaver was a popular 18-year old gay man in the southern Alabama town of Bay Minette, as recounted in the independent documentary film Small Town Gay Bar. Members of the local gay community reacted with shock when his charred body was found several miles from his 2-bedroom trailer home.

On July 18, 2004, Weaver had been beaten, cut, and strangled to death in his trailer. Some accounts reported he was nearly decapitated. The murderers were his roommates, Christopher Gaines and Nichole Bryars Kelsay, and Gaines’ friend, Robert Porter.

According to the Baldwin County District Attorney, “Weaver and Porter never got along because Porter had problems with Weaver’s homosexuality….” An entry in Porter’s court file noted that “Porter was asked if his participation in the murder was because Weaver was gay,” to which Porter replied in the affirmative.

After the killing, the three murderers drove around town while discussing how to dispose of Weaver’s body. They eventually took it to a remote trail off a country road, placed it face up on a blanket, urinated on it, and then set it afire. The body wasn’t discovered for four days.

Weaver’s murder evoked a sense of deja vu in Alabama where, five years earlier in Sylacauga, 39-year old Billy Jack Gaither was murdered in a crime that bore many resemblances to Weaver’s killing. On February 19, 1999, Gaither was kidnapped, his throat was cut, and he was beaten to death. His body was thrown on a pile of tires and set afire. Two men were eventually arrested: Steve Mullins pleaded guilty to capital murder and Charles Monroe Butler was found guilty by a jury. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

One week ago, on September 6, Robert Porter pleaded guilty to killing Scotty Joe Weaver and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment. Today, in a plea bargain, Kelsay pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Gaines pleaded guilty to capital murder last May and was sentenced to life in prison without chance for parole.

Overkill in Antigay Murders

The brutality that characterized the murders of Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver isn’t unusual in killings of sexual minority victims. In a 1980 research paper, sociologists Brian Miller and Laud Humphreys reported findings from their study of 52 antigay murders whose descriptions they found through archival sources. The researchers noted the “gruesome, often vicious nature” of the crimes, which were considerably more likely to involve stabbing, compared to murders in the United States as a whole, and which frequently showed evidence of overkill — wounding far beyond what would be required to cause a victim’s death.

Miller and Humphreys noted,

“Seldom is a homosexual victim simply shot. He is more apt to be stabbed a dozen or more times, mutilated, and strangled. In a number of instances, the victim was stabbed or mutilated even after being fatally shot.”

Corroboration for this observation comes from another study. Michael Bell and Raul Vila, two Florida forensic pathologists, compared the autopsy reports of 67 male homosexual and bisexual homicide victims with those of 195 randomly selected male heterosexual victims. Each victim’s sexual orientation was determined by police reports. The two groups were matched for age and race.

Consistent with the Miller and Humphreys study, the researchers found:

  • The homicides of homosexual and bisexual men were objectively more violent than murders of heterosexuals.
  • Stabbing and other sharp-force injuries were the most common cause of death among the homosexual and bisexual victims, whereas gunshot wounds were the most common for the heterosexual victims.
  • The bodies of homosexual victims, on average, evidenced more injuries from blunt weapons, more fatal stab wounds, and injuries to more areas of the body than the heterosexual victims.
  • Homosexual and bisexual men were more likely than heterosexual men to have injuries in the face, head, neck, back, arms, and legs.
  • The percentage of cases with multiple causes of death – overkill – was greater among the homosexual and bisexual victims, although the difference was not statistically significant.

Why Overkill?

There are probably many explanations for the high levels of violence that often characterize antigay attacks. For example, overkill and related forms of brutality may indicate the extent to which sexual minorities are dehumanized in the minds of perpetrators. When attackers regard their victims as less than human, they’re unlikely to feel any inhibition about brutalizing them. Such denigration can ultimately be traced to the stigma that is attached to homosexuality in our culture.

The phenomenon of overkill also suggests that many perpetrators of antigay crimes experience extraordinarily high levels of emotion during the attack, which is expressed through extreme violence.

Research by Dr. Dominic Parrott, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University, provides some insights about these emotions. He conducted a series of laboratory studies that examined the linkages among anger, sexual prejudice, and antigay aggression.

In one study, heterosexual male college students watched a sexually explicit video — half were randomly assigned to a video of two men in a sexual situation, whereas the other half watched a heterosexual couple. The participants’ levels of anger were measured before and after they viewed the video. Among the men who watched the male-male video, increased feelings of anger were strongly associated with high scores on a measure of sexual prejudice (which had been administered earlier). For men who watched the heterosexual video, the correlation was near zero.

Next, each man participated in a competitive task with a male opponent, which included opportunities for the winner of each round to administer minor electric shocks to the loser. Half were led to believe their opponent was gay. Dr. Parrott detected a strong relationship between the intensity of shocks administered and levels of sexual prejudice, but only among the men who both watched male-male erotica and then competed against a (presumably) gay male opponent. Similarly, the intensity of shocks was correlated with levels of anger only in that group.

Thus, among men who were exposed to male-male sexuality and placed in a situation where they could aggress against a gay man, levels of sexual prejudice and anger were strongly associated with levels of aggression. This association was absent among men who were exposed to heterosexual sexuality or who believed they were competing against a heterosexual opponent.

In a separate, complementary study, Dr. Parrott and his colleagues found that the link between sexual prejudice and anger derives from straight men’s experience of negative emotions in connection with exposure to male homosexuality. In that study, once again, feelings of anger were strongly associated with sexual prejudice among men who viewed a male-male erotic video, but not among those who saw a heterosexual video. Moreover, watching a male-male video caused highly prejudiced heterosexual men to feel high levels of anxiety which, in turn, triggered their feelings of anger. Thus, Dr. Parrott concluded that increases in anxiety and related negative emotions following exposure to male-male sexuality may be a catalyst for heightened anger among prejudiced heterosexual men. If such men subsequently encounter a gay man, that anger can lead to aggression.

Generalizing from Dr. Parrott’s findings, we can speculate about the psychological underpinnings of antigay violence outside the laboratory. In some cases, perhaps prejudiced heterosexual men experience extremely negative feelings (including anxiety) as a result of simply being around a man they believe is gay. Perhaps those feelings are even more intense if the situation makes the gay man’s sexuality salient (or maybe some heterosexuals always perceive gay men mainly in sexual terms). Those feelings might cause prejudiced straight men to interpret the situation in ways that foster an increase in anger — even to the point of feeling rage. Given the right circumstances (including, perhaps, the disinhibiting effects of drugs or alcohol), they might express that rage through extremely violent acts against the gay man — perhaps even overkill.

This account leaves several questions unanswered. For example, why do some heterosexual men experience such strongly negative feelings around gay men whereas others don’t? What about other types of violence, such as straight men’s attacks on lesbians? And what about violence that results from factors other than prejudice, such as peer pressure or the perpetrator’s need to assert his masculinity?

I’ll address some of these puzzles in a future posting.

A Footnote

The murders of Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver weren’t included in FBI annual hate crime reports. Like a dozen other states, Alabama doesn’t count antigay murders or other crimes based on the victim’s sexual orientation under its hate crime statute.

# # # # #

Brian Miller & Laud Humphreys’ study, “Lifestyles and violence: Homosexual victims of assault and murder,” was published in 1980 in Qualitative Sociology (vol. 3, pp. 169-185).

Michael D. Bell & Raul I. Vila’s study, “Homicide in homosexual victims: A study of 67 cases from the Broward County, Florida, Medical Examiner’s office (1982-1992), with special emphasis on ‘overkill,’ ” was published in 1996 in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology (vol. 17, #1, pp. 65-69).

The studies by Dominic Parrott and his colleagues were published in 2006 in Aggressive Behavior (“Sexual prejudice and anger network activation: Mediating role of negative affect,” vol. 32, pp. 7-16) and in 2005 in Psychology of Men and Masculinity (“Effects of sexual prejudice and anger on physical aggression toward gay and heterosexual men,” vol. 6, pp. 3-17).

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 10, 2007

The Benefits of ENDA: Social Science Data

Posted at 9:34 am (Pacific Time)

In a July 4 posting, I discussed empirical research on employment discrimination against sexual minorities. Last week, in testimony before a House subcommittee, UCLA economist Lee Badgett explained the findings of that body of research to members of Congress.

Dr. Badgett’s testimony supported the need for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007 (ENDA), which would outlaw workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and explained how ENDA would be good for both employees and employers.

Dr. Badgett made three main points in her oral testimony. First, social science studies using a variety of methodologies have demonstrated that employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans occurs in workplaces across the country. She provided several examples:

“Two fairly recent national surveys of random samples of the LGB population give the clearest overall picture of sexual orientation-related discrimination. In 2000, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 18% of LGB people living in urban areas reported employment discrimination…. More recently, a 2005 survey by Dr. Gregory Herek found that 16% of lesbians and gay men and 5% of bisexual people reported having experienced employment discrimination. A quarter of LGB people disagreed with a statement asserting that most employers in their areas would hire openly LGB people if they are qualified for the job. Numerous local community surveys of nonrandom samples of LGBT people find that sexual orientation discrimination is also commonly reported in those areas.”

Second, this discrimination results in economic harm to sexual minorities, reducing their earnings by thousands of dollars.

“We now have more than a decade of research and twelve studies that compare earnings by sexual orientation in the United States. All twelve studies show a significant pay gap for gay men when compared to heterosexual men who have the same productive characteristics. Depending on the study, gay and bisexual men earn from 10% to 32% less than similarly qualified heterosexual men. Lesbians generally earn the same as or more than heterosexual women, but lesbians earn less than either heterosexual or gay men.”

Third, such discrimination hurts American businesses, and eliminating it will benefit employers in a variety of ways. For example, protection from discrimination is likely to result in healthier and more productive workers.

“Many studies have demonstrated that discrimination keeps LGBT workers from revealing their sexual orientation in the workplace. Although having experienced discrimination directly is a powerful reason for some to ‘stay in the closet,’ many studies show that LGBT people who fear discrimination are also less likely to reveal their sexual orientation to co-workers and supervisors. Employers have a stake in these individual decisions, since disclosure has potentially positive benefits to LGBT workers’ well-being and job performance. Studies find that people who have come out report lower levels of anxiety, less conflict between work and personal life, greater job satisfaction, more sharing of employers’ goals, higher levels of satisfaction with their co-workers, more self-esteem, and better physical health. On the flipside, when fear of discrimination causes LGBT employees to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity, employers experience negative costs along with LGBT people themselves. The time as well as social and psychological energy that is required to maintain a hidden identity would, from an employer’s perspective, be better used on the job.”

Dr. Badgett is Research Director at the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law and Director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her congressional testimony is available at the Williams Institute web site, as is the Institute’s recent report, Bias in the Workplace: Consistent Evidence of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


September 3, 2007

Tearooms, Labels, and Double Standards

Posted at 9:20 am (Pacific Time)

The events surrounding Senator Larry Craig’s resignation last week provide an opportunity for considering some social science insights about sex in public places, sexual orientation, denial, and prejudice.

The Tearoom Ritual: Solicitation vs. Entrapment

Laud Humphreys’ 1970 book, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex In Public Places, provided the first systematic account of men who engage in sexual acts in public restrooms, colloquially known as “tearooms.” (The book was based on Humphreys’ doctoral dissertation in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, and received the prestigious C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems.)

As Laura Mac Donald noted in her Sunday New York Times Op-Ed piece, Humphreys’ research revealed that tearoom sex is a highly interactive ritual. The participants are just that — participants, who actively signal their interest with a variety of silent and subtle gestures that typically escape the awareness of unsuspecting restroom users. Participants are well aware of the danger of being arrested or attacked, and don’t try to force themselves on anyone. It’s a consensual ritual that excludes those who are unaware or unwilling.

All of which raises suspicions about the actions of both Sen. Craig and the undercover airport police sergeant who denied entrapping him. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could inadvertently become involved in the tearoom ritual, or that a participant would persist in signaling another man without some indication of the latter’s willingness. As Laura Mac Donald commented in the Sunday Times, Humphreys’ findings

“suggest the implausibility not only of Senator Craig’s denial — that it was all a misunderstanding — but also of the policeman’s assertion that he was a passive participant. If the code was being followed, it is likely that both men would have to have been acting consciously for the signals to continue.”

“Gay” vs. “Homosexual”

If Sen. Craig was indeed a willing participant, is he gay? Homosexual? These words have been used interchangeably in speculation about Sen. Craig’s sexuality. Although they are often equated in popular parlance, they have somewhat different connotations.

Homosexual usually refers in a purely descriptive manner to same-sex desires and sexual behaviors, whereas gay refers to an individual’s social identity as a member of a larger culture of men and women with similar identities. Some writers have also distinguished between “a homosexual” (one who simply engages in same-sex activity or wishes to do so) and a gay person (one who embraces his or her sexuality as a defining feature of the self, and identifies with the larger community of gay and lesbian people).

Prof. Humphreys’ research showed that many men who engage in tearoom sex are heterosexually married (54% in his sample) and don’t identify as gay, or even homosexual.

Thus, absent any affirmation of the label from Sen. Craig, characterizing him as gay seems off the mark. His consistent antigay stances throughout his political career, coupled with his public self-identification as a heterosexual, are not consistent with being gay.

This doesn’t preclude him having same-sex desires or engaging in homosexual behavior. Maybe he is secretly “a homosexual” or maybe his private thoughts and behaviors qualify him as “a bisexual.” But neither status is a part of his public identity.

Denial: Conscious vs. Unconscious

Armchair psychoanalysis is a popular sport, so it’s not surprising to hear speculation that Sen. Craig has been in a psychological state of denial about his homosexuality. Maybe so, but anyone who hasn’t spoken directly with Sen. Craig about his innermost thoughts and feelings is not in a position to make this call.

There’s a much simpler explanation for his denial, namely, that the stigma attached to homosexuality remains strong throughout the United States, especially in places like Idaho. Awareness of that stigma motivates many heterosexuals to take steps to publicly establish that they’re not homosexual. They avoid gender nonconformity, don’t touch friends of the same sex, verbally assert their heterosexuality, and even perpetrate acts of hostility and violence against people whom they perceive to be gay. Closeted homosexuals sometimes engage in such conduct to protect their cover.

These actions aren’t the result of unconscious defense mechanisms. Rather, they are conscious strategies for avoiding the labels of gay and homosexual. We shouldn’t equate a public, fully voluntary and conscious denial that one is gay or homosexual with private self-deception or unconscious repression.

Heterosexual vs. Homosexual Transgressions

Why have Republican politicians reacted so differently to the actions of Sen. Craig and to those of Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who recently admitted to having used the services of female prostitutes?

Some have explained the discrepancy in terms of pragmatic political considerations. Sen. Craig represents a reliably conservative state with a Republican governor (who will almost certainly appoint another Republican to take his place), whereas Sen. Vitter hails from a state with a Democratic governor. Thus, keeping Sen Vitter in office while dumping Sen. Craig represents a safe strategy for the Republicans.

I don’t doubt that such a calculus has played a role in shaping GOP reactions to recent events. However, we can’t discount the importance of sexual prejudice. Sen. Vitter’s conduct violated his marital vows and broke laws against prostitution but, for most heterosexuals, a man having sex with women doesn’t conjure up feelings of revulsion. Sen. Craig’s actions in the airport didn’t even result in sex and wouldn’t have involved prostitution, although they presumably would have broken his marriage vows. But they have evoked a much more negative reaction.

The difference, of course, is that Sen. Craig would have been having sex with a man, whereas Sen. Vitter’s indiscretions were with women. Moreover, Sen Craig was arrested in a public restroom, a setting that evokes thoughts of bodily elimination. The combination of male homosexuality and public toilets arouses the emotion of disgust in many heterosexuals, what is sometimes called “the ick factor.” Indeed, last Tuesday on MSNBC, presidential candidate Mitt Romney characterized Sen. Craig’s behavior as “disgusting.”

The ick factor is an interesting component of sexual prejudice, one that I’ll discuss in a future entry.

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Relevant Reading: Public Sex/Gay Space, a book of essays reexamining Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade was published in 1999 by the Columbia University Press (edited by William Leap).

Update: Dr. Karen Franklin’s “In The News” forensic psychology blog for September 4 has some more insights based on Laud Humphreys’ study.

Update (September 15): For another perspective, check out “If Larry Craig Were Gay” on YouTube.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.