September 24, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice #2: Allies

Posted at 12:56 pm (Pacific Time)

Last week, I argued we should base campaigns to eradicate sexual prejudice on methods we know will work. In that entry, my first on this topic, I focused on the importance of heterosexuals not only knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but also talking directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority. Thus, the goal of getting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to speak with loved ones about their experiences — making the connection between what happens to “gay people” in the abstract and what happens in one’s own life — should be the foundation of any anti-prejudice campaign.

In today’s entry, I’ll discuss a second building block in such a campaign: enlisting sympathetic and supportive heterosexuals, often called “allies,” to influence the attitudes of other heterosexuals.

Allies come from many demographic groups, but the largest and most consistently supportive segment of the population is heterosexual women. In study after study, heterosexual women — especially Latinas and non-Hispanic White women — express substantially less prejudice against sexual minorities than their male counterparts.

There are many reasons for the gender gap in sexual prejudice. For example, all else being equal, gay men and lesbians are more likely to come out to heterosexual women than to men, which fosters more favorable attitudes among females. (There is also a cyclical effect: heterosexual women’s more positive attitudes, in turn, make sexual minority individuals more likely to come out to them.) And many heterosexual males, feeling pressured to prove they’re “real men,” often do so by attacking what they perceive to be the antithesis of masculinity, namely, gay men.

Regardless of its underlying sources, the gender gap is real and anti-prejudice campaigns should use it. We can expect a dramatic reduction in discrimination, violence, and hostility toward sexual minorities if large numbers of heterosexual women effectively communicate a simple message to their straight husbands, boyfriends, sons, and fathers: “Sexual prejudice is wrong and I won’t tolerate it.”

What about male allies? Here are two strategies for locating heterosexual men to communicate the anti-prejudice message (especially to their straight male friends). First, recruit heterosexual men with gay friends and family members. Second, reach out to men in demographic groups that tend to have lower levels of sexual prejudice. These include men with college degrees, younger men, urban dwellers, political liberals, members of liberal religious denominations, and the nonreligious.

As with women allies, the men’s message to their friends and relatives should be that sexual prejudice is wrong and they won’t tolerate expressions of it.

To sum up thus far, a campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should harness the power of two key groups to change the attitudes of the people close to them: sexual minority individuals and heterosexual allies, especially women. I’ll expand further on these ideas in a future entry.

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