Misconceptions still drive anti-gay prejudice
November 19, 2001
There is good news for people who care about equality. The American public is becoming more accepting of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that three-quarters of survey respondents say they would support anti-discrimination measures for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals when it comes to issues like housing and employment. A majority also says they wouldn't mind an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual teacher or doctor.
As a gay man, I'm glad to see these changes. But at the same time, I recognize that we have a long way to go. One-fourth of the respondents feel that greater acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality is "bad for the country," and more than half oppose same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, three-quarters of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals say they have experienced verbal abuse because of their sexual orientation, and one-third report physical attacks.
Why does this divide exist, and why is there such strong discrimination in a country that holds equality in such high regard? To answer those questions, it helps to take a closer look at some other numbers the Kaiser study found: 62 percent of respondents say they know someone lesbian, gay or bisexual -- a big increase from 24 percent in 1983. These same people also tend to be more accepting. But on the flip side, people who say they don't know anyone who falls into these categories are among the least likely to be accepting.
That's a statistical picture of what many gay, lesbian and bisexual people discover in our daily dealings with others. Familiarity breeds not contempt but greater acceptance. Opposition to sexual differences comes from people who know the least about them.
People with bigoted attitudes don't base their opinions on what they know, but on what they think they know. They judge us not by who we are, but by what they've imagined us to be.
I've seen this myself. For every gay person, daily life requires "coming out" if you want to be honest with others.
Usually when I have come out to friends, relatives and co-workers, it hasn't been a problem, but sometimes people respond with a look of surprise or discomfort.
I don't know exactly what they're thinking, but I do have a pretty good idea what they're not thinking.
They're not thinking that being gay involves a whole range of feelings besides sexual attraction.
They're not thinking about what an accomplishment it is for two women or two men to hold a relationship together without much outside support, and sometimes in the face of outright hostility.
And I know they're not thinking about details like the fact that my boyfriend and I met in college and have been together for more than 10 happy years.
They're not thinking about those things because they don't know about them. And maybe -- often thanks to religious teachings that have been selectively used to justify prejudice -- they don't even want to know about these things.
It's easier to think that homosexuality is just about sex, but that's just as strange as thinking that heterosexuality is just about sex.
The Kaiser study is a snapshot in time. One day most people will be surprised that half the country used to oppose simple fairness for lesbians and gay men.
Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis., whose work on gay issues has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Salon.com, the Advocate and a variety of gay publications around the country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.