The Hill

Gay PDA Still Inappropriate To Nearly Half Of Heterosexuals, Despite Political Support

kissing
Gay rights are making startling progress in the United States, but are social inequities going the way of racism? Noodles and Beef, CC BY 2.0

While people may support disadvantaged groups in the privacy of a voting booth, they don’t always extend the same level of acceptance out in public. A new study finds that many people who are pro-gay rights in legal matters still explicitly frown upon homosexual public displays of affection.

By many accounts, the LGBT movement is the fastest-growing social movement the U.S. has ever seen. In 1958, for instance, a Gallup poll showed 94 percent of people disapproved of interracial marriage. It took nearly 40 years for the majority to shift; gay rights needed less than 20. Though not all walls have been knocked down, unfortunately.

Long Doan, a sociologist from the University of Indiana and lead author of the study, says straight people may still hold some latent aversion toward gays, even if their political ideology favors greater fairness in issues like gay marriage, adoption, and hospital visitation. “Support for legal benefits for gays and lesbians should not be conflated with favorable attitudes toward same-sex couples in general,” Doan said in a statement.

For their study, Doan and his colleagues surveyed over 1,000 people in a nationally representative dataset. People answered a variety of questions in regard to the fictional daily lives of either a straight, gay, or lesbian couple. They decided on whether the couple should receive certain legal rights, like health insurance and the ability to get married, and whether they should enjoy certain social privileges, like holding hands and kissing in public.

Distinct patterns stood out. Heterosexual respondents were far more likely to approve of social privileges for the heterosexual couple than the gay or lesbian couples, despite more or less mirroring homosexual respondents’ support for legal equality. While 95 percent of straight respondents said the straight couple was permitted to kiss on the cheek in public, 72 percent said the lesbian couple could, and 55 percent said the gay couple could.

Doan and his co-authors chalked this discrepancy up to two possible factors. For one, they speculate it could reveal a last-ditch attempt for a heteronormative crowd to wield some power over a minority group. “Indeed, as some forms of structural discrimination are prohibited, informal privileges might become more important as a way for dominant groups to justify inequality on more subtle grounds,” the authors wrote. In the same way people’s racism has changed from the overtness of a slur to the subtlety of profiling, today’s social inequalities are beginning to slip undercover.

The other explanation is far simpler: straight people are just more used to seeing straight people kiss than gay people kiss. “I think for heterosexual couples, these informal privileges are taken for granted,” Doan told Medical Daily. Across the board, straight respondents approve of straight PDA. But when the script falls apart, and people see the still-foreign site of a gay couple kissing, more deep-seated aversions tend to bubble up, if only because people are afraid of the unfamiliar.

Of particular interest is also the fact homosexual respondents were also more likely to disapprove of gay PDA. Although, Doan and his colleagues suspect this may be evidence that gay and lesbian subjects feared for the fictional couple’s safety and didn’t want to see them be the victims of a hate crime. However logical, the mindset doesn’t necessarily bode well for affecting change, the authors note.

“A sole focus on formal rights may overlook these other potentially subtle, yet important, aspects of marginalization,” they explained in their report. Doan himself called for positive portrayals of gay characters in pop culture as a way to break down the residual walls. In his study, heterosexual people showed such high approval rates for heterosexual PDA because they were used to seeing it, and had grown accustomed to it as scenery in their daily lives.

“When people see these scenarios,” Doan said, “it’s sort of like they’re thinking why is this even something we’re asking about?” If anything, that’s all the gay rights movement has ever asked for: a sense of normalcy.

Source: Doan L, Loehr A, Miller L. Formal Rights and Informal Privileges for Same-Sex Couples: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment. American Sociological Review. 2014.

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