“Outing” gays and lesbians has always been a controversial practice, especially when done without the outed person’s consent. But even when an individual outs him or herself, some people argue that outing is inappropriate because of the negative stereotypes that are evoked. But there’s a subtler sort of outing as well: even if a person is publicly out, not everyone is immediately aware of it. While most Americans know that Ellen DeGeneres is a lesbian, fewer people might be aware that Alice Walker is too. While they might know Freddy Mercury was gay, they might not know about Cole Porter.
It might seem rather pointless for every news report about Alice Walker to mention her sexual preferences, but those in favor of this subtler sort of outing suggest that it can improve the public impression of gays and lesbians. Up until now, there hasn’t been much science to back that claim. What we do know is that people who have gay and lesbian friends and family members tend to show less bias against them, both overtly and in implicit bias tests. Does simply seeing or learning about famous people who are gay or lesbian also decrease bias?
Nilanjana Dasgupta and Luis Rivera recruited 127 heterosexual people via newspaper ads to participate in a paid study. The participants were divided into two groups: one group viewed pictures and descriptions of 15 flowers, while the other saw photos and short biographies of famous gays and lesbians. They were then given an Implicit Attitude Test.
You can try the test for yourself at Project Implicit, but here’s a quick summary of how it works. First, you’re shown pictures of homosexual couples or heterosexual couples: the task is to press a button as quickly as possible when you you see each face (E for a homosexual couple or I for a heterosexual couple). Next you’re shown a set of words, some good and some bad (love, joy, friend, hate, vomit, bomb), and again, you’re asked to press a designated key for each type. Finally, the tasks are combined: “When you see a homosexual couple or a good word, press the E key” and “When you see a heterosexual couple or a bad word, press the I key.” Then the tasks are reversed, so good words are associated with heterosexual couples and bad words are associated with homosexual couples. Reaction times are measured, and when a particular association results in a faster response time, then participants are said to have an implicit attitude preferring that association.
They were later asked how many close friends and family members they had who were gay or lesbian. The researchers used that data to divide respondents into two groups: low- or high-contact with gays and lesbians. Here are the results:
As expected, the respondents with high contact with gays and lesbians scored lower overall on implicit bias against gays and lesbians. However, just viewing the photos and biographies of gay and lesbian individuals reduced the implicit bias scores of the low-contact respondents to a level that’s not significantly different from the high-contact group. Implicit bias is not an easy thing to manipulate, so these results are dramatic. Even people who claim that they are not racist or sexist will usually show significant implicit biases.
But implicit bias is still a different thing from overt bias. Just because you have an involuntary, brief mental hesitation doesn’t mean you’ll act one way or another in real life. So the researchers asked the same participants to return a week later. First they responded to a quiz to ensure that they remembered the brief biographies (or flower descriptions) they had read the previous week. Next they filled out a “ballot” indicating their political preferences on a wide array of issues. Intermixed into the ballot were several questions about gay-related issues, such as same-sex marriage, gay/lesbian adoption, and job discrimination. The respondents said how likely they’d be to vote for each measure on a scale of 0 (very unlikely) to 6 (very likely). Here are those results:
Once again, there was a significant difference in the low-contact group, with significantly more pro-gay voting for the people who had seen the biographies of admirable gays and lesbians. Again, these results were indistinguishable from the high-contact group.
So it appears that even brief exposure to “outed” gays and lesbians can have a significant impact on bias — both implicit and explicit. It’s no small wonder, then, that anti-gay activists would prefer for famous gays and lesbians not to publicly out themselves, and for news organizations to sweep this information under the rug.
Dasgupta, N., Rivera, L.M. (2008). When Social Context Matters: The Influence of Long-Term Contact and Short-Term Exposure to Admired Outgroup Members on Implicit Attitudes and Behavioral Intentions. Social Cognition, 26(1), 112-123. DOI: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.1.112