Coming Out Can Reduce Sexual Prejudice

Heterosexuals With Personal Contact Have More Positive Feelings toward Lesbians and Gay Men

    Research by a UC Davis social psychologist indicates that lesbians and gay men who come out of the closet to their heterosexual friends and family members help to create more positive attitudes toward homosexuality.

"Heterosexuals with a gay friend or relative have significantly more favorable attitudes toward lesbians and gay men as a group," said Dr. Gregory Herek, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis and principal investigator for the national opinion survey, published in the April, 1996, issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

With co-author Prof. John Capitanio, Herek reported that simply having personal contact with a lesbian or gay man does not necessarily affect heterosexuals' feelings about gays and lesbians. Rather, heterosexuals tend to hold favorable attitudes if they know two or more gay people, if those people are close friends or immediate family members, and if there has been open discussion about the friend or relative's sexual orientation.

Past studies – including a 1993 paper that Herek published with Eric Glunt in The Journal of Sex Research – have shown a relationship between heterosexuals' attitudes and their contact experiences. The 1996 study, however, is the first to probe the specific conditions under which contact appears to change attitudes.

Open Discussion Is Important "Direct disclosure of one's homosexuality – talking about it openly – appears to play an important role in changing attitudes," said Herek. By directly discussing her or his sexual orientation, Herek suggested, a lesbian or gay man can help a heterosexual loved one to reach a better understanding of homosexuality and what it means to be gay. She or he can answer questions and break down stereotypes.

At the same time, open discussion can preserve and even strengthen the relationship.

"Coming out is a highly intimate disclosure," noted Herek. In many situations, he said, revealing such information can strengthen a relationship, provided that gay men and lesbians do it in a sensitive way.

Herek suggested that lesbians and gay men who are preparing to come out to a heterosexual friend or family member think carefully about the best way to break the news.

"When they first recognize their own sexual orientation, most lesbians and gay men need some time to get used to it," noted Herek. The same is true for heterosexual friends or family members, he said.

"For heterosexuals, finding out that a loved one is gay may be a big surprise. It forces them to change their expectations. They need time, information, and understanding."

Cause and Effect Relationship Works Both Ways   Herek stressed that the study's design does not permit a definite conclusion that having contact causes heterosexuals to change their attitudes.

Indeed, the survey indicated that a cause-and-effect relationship between contact and attitudes works in both directions. According to Herek, when lesbians and gay men have a choice, they are more likely to disclose their sexual orientation to members of groups that are generally tolerant of homosexuality. These groups include women, liberals, and the college educated.

But while gay men and lesbians tend to come out to people whom they expect to respond positively, Herek also observed that heterosexuals who have had past contact hold more favorable attitudes regardless of their sex, political beliefs, schooling, or other background characteristics. Moreover, those with contact appear to develop even more favorable attitudes over time, Herek said.

Herek noted that the benefits of coming out were apparent for virtually all the demographic groups that he and Dr. Capitanio examined. "Whether we looked at the attitudes of men, the highly religious, the elderly, or practically any other group, those reporting personal contact expressed more favorable attitudes toward gay people than did those without contact," said Herek.

"The only group for which the difference between those with and without contact was small," said Herek, "was African American respondents." He explained, however, that many of the Black survey respondents who knew a gay person reported that their contact had been with a distant relative or acquaintance. Those with a close friend who was gay generally had positive feelings toward gay people, which is consistent with the other survey respondents, he said.

Coming Out Is Risky   Despite the study's findings that disclosure promotes attitude change, Herek warned that coming out also carries risks. Many heterosexual Americans hold strongly negative feelings toward homosexuality, he noted.

The study found, for example, that two-thirds of the U.S. public feels that homosexuality is wrong, 60% feel that it is disgusting, and only about one-fourth believe that it is a natural expression of sexuality. These attitudes are strongest among heterosexuals who say that they do not know anyone who is lesbian or gay – about two-thirds of U.S. heterosexual adults, according to Herek.

"Many gay men and lesbians meet with rejection, discrimination, and even violence when they come out," Herek noted. Job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legal in most states, he said, and antigay hate crimes are common throughout the United States.

Other Findings   Among the survey's other findings were that heterosexuals are twice as likely to know gay men as lesbians, that most heterosexuals reporting contact know two or more gay persons, and that the most common form of contact is with an acquaintance or casual friend. About 4% of the relationships reported were with an immediate family member, such as a child or sibling, according to Herek. About one-fifth were with a close friend, and more than half were with acquaintances.

The survey's findings are consistent with an established social psychological principle that, under the right conditions, contact between members of majority and minority groups can reduce prejudice against the minority group. This "contact hypothesis" has been used to explain changes in attitudes toward racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, according to Herek. The new study indicates that it applies to heterosexuals' attitudes toward gay people as well.

The study consisted of two national telephone surveys between 1990 and 1992. 538 adults were interviewed in the first survey, and approximately 70% of them were reinterviewed for the second survey. The margin of error due to sampling is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

For more details, see:   Herek, G.M., & Capitanio, J.P. (1996). "Some of my best friends": Intergroup contact, concealable stigma, and heterosexuals' attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(4), 412-424.

Herek, G.M. (1997). Heterosexuals' attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: Does coming out make a difference? In M. Duberman (Ed.), A queer world: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies reader (pp. 331-344). New York: New York University Press.

  How widespread is sexual prejudice?
  Are some groups of people more prejudiced than others?
  What are the motivations for sexual prejudice?
  Does coming out reduce sexual prejudice?
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