Once in a while, I succeed in talking someone out of their opposition to gay rights, and in doing this, I try to figure out why the person harbors prejudice in the first place. Because bigotry hurts so many people so deeply, it’s tempting to say, “Because they’re jerks, that’s why.” That’s not specific or accurate, though, and if you’re trying to change someone’s mind, “you’re a jerk” isn’t the most persuasive opening statement. Here are some reasons why I think anti-gay prejudice has been so persistent.
I know when you read the title, you probably thought, “Religion. Duh.” It’s a big one, although religion doesn’t always breed bigotry. I was raised a Christian and was a terribly devout child, but never once in my life believed being gay was a sin. Still, lots of people grow up learning that it is, and questioning beliefs can scare people: once you start, where will you stop?
Conservative Christians say of gay-loving Christians like me, “You can’t pick and choose what you believe in the Bible.” The obvious counter-argument, of course, is that every Christian does. For instance, most of us don’t mind if a woman shows up to church bareheaded, or makes an announcement about a bake sale, even though Paul prohibited these things. If someone quotes Leviticus to you, you can ask her which animals she sacrifices after having her period: turtles or pigeons?
I could just tell conservative Christians, of course, that their religious beliefs are irrelevant when it comes to civil rights. However, a lot of people vote according to their faith, and legal advances don’t prevent people from ostracizing their gay children or raising bullies. I think Christians can be particularly effective straight allies. They can remind people that Jesus had nothing to say on the topic of homosexuality, but he went on and on about loving others and not judging.
Being kind of or very gay, and ashamed of it.
We all know about this one. I always think it’s odd that so many people think homosexuality is so transmittable: that teachers might infect their students, for instance. But if someone is occasionally or always attracted to people of his same gender, and believes it would be wrong to act on it, naturally he is going to see openly gay people as a threat and a temptation.
Being really, really straight?
Although I’m basically heterosexual, on the Kinsey scale, I’d be a 1 or 2 rather than a zero. Maybe it’s easier for me not to be prejudiced than it is for a super-heterosexual person who can’t imagine being personally interested in someone of the same gender. This is still a matter of maturity, though: you don’t have to think something sounds fun in order to recognize that it’s fine for other people to do it.
Men feeling vulnerable.
Men are more likely than women to be prejudiced against gay people (Herek, 2003). I think a straight man can be frightened of the idea of a man hitting on him. What if the other guy is bigger and stronger, and he doesn’t take no for an answer? Women are used to this threat, and men often aren’t.
Studies show that men are a little more likely than women to have the childhood experience of being derided as gay–called “fag,” etc.–even if they are heterosexual. I wonder if grown men are be more likely than women to retreat into anti-gay attitudes in order to avoid social stigmatization. Bullying, like much of religion, perpetuates the prejudice.
A boy who is sexually abused by a man may grow up to hold the false notion that gay people are more likely to molest children. His feelings about homosexuality may be tangled up in guilt, pain, and shame.
I think in the end, most prejudice comes down to this last thing:
Fear of people who are different.
It seems like a lot of people who think being gay is wrong don’t know all that many gay people–or at least, they don’t know that they know them. In the U.S., younger people grew up with at least some positive depictions of gay people in TV and the movies, and were more likely to encounter gays and lesbians who were “out,” which may be why you see that big generational divide when it comes to this prejudice. (Pointing this out can really help change people’s minds, too: nobody wants to think her grandchildren will be ashamed of her views.)
The main thing I would say to straight allies is to always make the effort to change a prejudiced person’s mind. Don’t assume he or she is beyond hope. You might be surprised. Even if this person seems to disregard what you have to say, you may plant the seed of an idea that will eventually take root. It’s worth a try.