Anybody who has ever experienced the feeling of being in love knows that there is no changing your mind about whom you love even if circumstances are not exactly opportune or the other person does not feel the same way. When two people meet and actually do feel the same way about each other it all the more feels like a miracle. I recently attended a Jewish wedding ceremony in Boston, MA and witnessed not only a beautiful ceremony full of old and new traditions, but also an explicit mention of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transsexual community. There was a boy and a girl getting married, expressing concerns for a community they don’t visibly have close ties to. As part of their own ceremony, they wished that the right to marry should be extended to all people regardless of their orientation – and the audience, including an 80-year old man sitting in front of me, applauded and nodded in approval.
Why then did an electoral ballot, Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage in California – arguably the United States’ most liberal state – get passed in the 2008 elections? Why is the State of New York only the 6th state legalizing same-sex marriage, while 12 states prohibit it by statute and 29 do so via the states’ constitution? What forces are at work causing so much anxiety, suspicion and hatred for the LGBT community in some people? Is there any scientific evidence in favor of such discrimination?
Proponents of Proposition 8 generally fall into two camps: either they are placed in the religious far right of the political spectrum and perceive homosexuality as a moral sin, i.e. a violation of established social norms; or they argue that it is a violation of nature, something inherently unnatural as it is not geared towards procreation. Both camps implicitly assume a lifestyle choice versus an inherent trait that people are born with.
Scientific evidence suggests that homosexuality – even though not the norm in the sense of majority – certainly is a natural phenomenon. Research shows that more than 1,500 species of the world display homosexual behavior, yet only one displays homophobia and rejection. No species has been found in which homosexual behavior has been proven to not exist. This suggests that socialization and bias are relatively more important than nature. Alfred Kinsey’s findings from the 1940s and ’50s suggest a continuous scale of sexual preferences among people, rather than the black and white approach customarily pushed forward by religious groups. Across history and cultures worldwide, societies have periodically fully accepted and even welcomed homosexuality. Yet, despite increasing social acceptance of the LGBT community in our own time, stigma, rejection and discrimination persist.
Most people do not perceive an inherently gay trait in other people, nor are they able to distinguish between children raised by a gay or straight couple. Discrimination in this sense is not based on an observable quality, but on disclosure and an abstract, yet subjective, projection of what people think it means to be gay. In general, people tend to construe ‘different’ groups as the ‘distinct other’ to rationalize discrimination. This explains why most people experience significant cognitive dissonance when first confronted with the fact that someone they know well, someone in their immediate family or circle of friends, is gay. We are taught that ‘otherness’ is observable, whereas in reality it is often based on external labeling and stereotype biases.
Social psychology offers various ways to explain the tremendous amount of anxiety that some groups experience regarding the issue.
People tend to construe their reality, i.e. they seek to find evidence to confirm their own beliefs, they invoke ‘normality’ to affirm their own subjective stance and they engage in pluralistic ignorance. Our own beliefs and views about other people become self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling because we readily employ such confirmation biases in dealing with the evidence at hand. In the context of same-sex relationships, stereotypes of ‘short-haired, butch, men-hating’ women and ‘effeminate, promiscuous’ men have long been persistent, shaping attitudes and expectations and being employed readily by lobby groups.
People infer from situations, roles or constructed stereotypes what behavior a particular person is expected to display, thereby reinforcing their own prejudices. However, it is mostly situational factors that determine outcomes rather than inherent traits. This abstraction from a situation or pre-conceived idea to an assumption about a trait is customarily engaged to reduce cognitive dissonance and help make sense of the world. This explains how physical or emotional violence towards LGBT people by otherwise well-adjusted and often very religious members of society persists. People have an inherent drive to see themselves as coherent, consistent and virtuous. Deviations from this self-image tend to be rationalized. Biases and deductions on the basis of stereotypes help to maintain consistency.
The media have contributed to increased visibility of LGBT concerns. This heightens public awareness of the issues and also, by increasing exposure, is likely to have raised acceptance and empathy. This could have happened in two ways: by changing people’s attitudes through more information, or by shifting the perceived dominant social norm. People tend to reject the unknown. Informative publicity, as opposed to emotion-inciting propaganda, is therefore one policy instrument for change. There are also pressures towards uniformity and groupthink. Studies have shown that beliefs about other people’s actions and/or beliefs are often a more powerful predictor of action than one’s inherent beliefs. Wallach and others find that groups are generally more willing to accept risks than individuals – people find safety in numbers. A perceived shift in the dominant paradigm might therefore shift behavior and attitudes.
Religious groups have traditionally used what Martha Nussbaum terms the ‘politics of disgust’ in their campaigns against the legalization of same-sex marriage or non-discrimination laws. They do so by presenting homosexuality in such a way as to arouse disgust and an emotional response of fear. Emotions have been shown to cause particularly powerful responses in individuals as they appeal to the primate emotional rather than rational brain. Disgust triggers feelings of moral condemnation – a technique strongly misused by interest groups.
Religious objection could be accepted in the sense of homosexuality conflicting with a particular belief system. However, in a largely secular society and particularly a neutral, impartial, rights-based state that holds marriage as a state institution and attaches certain economic, political and societal benefits and rights to it, the argument of pure religious belief does not seem justified – unless we define marriage as a religious institution and tradition. In that case, all couples would need to be civil partnered in order to receive state benefits that are currently linked to marriage. However, the debate in the religious groups arguably runs deeper and is much more rooted in the politics of disgust than superficially let on by the arguments centering on marriage.
Whereas there is no evidence of a direct threat to the institution of marriage from allowing same-sex marriage – indeed, there has been a rising trend of divorce in traditional couples – religious lobbies often blame the greater visibility and voice of same-sex couples for what they perceive as an erosion of values. A fundamental attribution error!
Groups rejecting same-sex marriage and relations on the basis of nature and procreation rely on similarly subjective images based on feelings of disgust as religious groups. Logic would have it that straight childless couples would be confined to civil partnership or even denied that right, if the sole purpose of marriage were to be a safe haven for raising children. Further, couples with children that are found not to provide that haven should also be excluded by that logic.
Increased mental health issues like depression and suicide within the LGBT community are often cited as evidence for wrongfulness and detrimental effects of lifestyle. The fault is attributed to the individual’s preferences and actions rather than his or her societal environment. However, if a society systematically devalues an individual, health problems seem a logical consequence. Seligman, in his model of learned helplessness, links self-perception and self-negation to clinical health problems. Studies also show the cumulative impact of self-definition on achievement. Aronson and Steele in their research on stereotype threat argue that competence is highly responsive to situation and interactions with others.
Abridgment of legal rights and the state’s failure to exercise a politics of equal respect in the form of just laws is not only a failure to exercise empathy – i.e. the capacity to imagine the experience of an LGBT citizen – but a fundamental violation of what it means to be human and to exercise a politics of humanity – the responsiveness to others.
As Isaiah Berlin so eloquently states “all people should have the same right to fashion their own lives as any other people – to choose assimilation, emigration, separation, any option that met the test of a self-chosen life”. If we accept freedom and liberty as the guiding principles of the constitution and define liberty as John Stuart Mill in the negative sense as the absence of constraints on, or interference with, agents’ possible actions, then it would be hypocritical not to extend this freedom to all members of society. All discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation betrays these very principles. Empathy and respect are core liberal aptitudes – this means the capacity to be open, receptive, and unafraid in the face of opinions, temperaments, and passions alien to one’s own.
Social psychology suggests that people do not naturally strive for this type of openness. However, it also shows that they can be ‘nudged’ to do so. Congratulations to the happy couple that so successfully did during last month’s wedding!
Juliane Kaden is an IPS student, focusing on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
 Bagemihl, Bruce. 1999. Biological exuberance: Animal homosexuality and natural diversity. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
 “1,500 animal species practice homosexuality.” http://www.news-medical.net/news/2006/10/23/20718.aspx (Accessed June 3, 2011).
 Cialdini, Robert. 2009. Influence : Science and practice. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson Education.
 Wheatley, T., and J. Haidt. 2005. “Hypnotically induced disgust makes moral judgments more severe.” Psychological Science 16: 780-784.
 Dweck, C.S., and E.L. Leggett. 1988. “A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality.” Psychological Review 95(2): 256-273.