September 12, 2011

Do Our Evaluations Based On Sexual Orientation Vary By Race?

A new study reveals that the effect of sexual orientation on our evaluations of others may vary by race.

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We know well from research and news stories that individuals are treated differently and afforded different opportunities because of their sexual orientation.  In particular, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people often face unfair treatment, prejudice, and discrimination because of their minority sexual identity, while heterosexual people do not face such disadvantage.

Evaluations Based On Sexual Orientation

In a recent post, I wrote about how people evaluate others differently on the basis of sexual orientation.  Increasingly, we know that LGBT people are evaluated more harshly than are heterosexuals.  We know from countless studies that these evaluations depend upon gender, so researchers typically use separate measures to assess attitudes toward lesbians and attitudes toward gay men.  Some even use separate measures for bisexuals.  But, what we have yet to learn is whether evaluations based on sexual orientation vary by race and ethnicity.

Do Those Evaluations Vary By Race?

In a two-part study, a team of psychologists at the University of Toronto tested undergraduate students’ response times and favorability toward a set of pictures of black and white men.  The pictures were 104 headshots of men taken from internet dating sites.  In the first study, 31 college students (mostly women) were asked how likeable these men seemed in their opinion.  In the second study, 50 college students (mostly women) were instructed to push or pull a joystick when a black or white face appeared on a computer screen; this was a test of how quickly the participants responded.  Also, in Study 2, participants were asked to rate how likeable the men pictured are in their opinion.

The respondents were asked to take note of whether the men pictured were white or black.  However, the respondents were not told that half of each group of men identify as heterosexual and the other half as gay.  Interestingly, among white men, gay men were rated as less likeable, yet among black men, gay men were rated as more likeable than heterosexual men.  So, the authors argue that these findings demonstrate that the effect of sexual orientation on the participants’ evaluations depends on race; black gay men are rated as more favorable than black heterosexual men, but the opposite pattern was found among white men.

But, How Do We Know That This Is About Sexual Orientation?

The researchers in this study did not provide any information about the sexual orientation of the 104 men pictured.  And, at the end of the studies, no respondent noted that they processed such information in their evaluations — rather, they paid attention to the men’s racial identity as instructed by the researchers.  But, if the participants did not consciously consider whether the men were heterosexual or gay in these experiments, how do we know the differences found are truly the effect of sexual orientation?  The researchers argue that the participants unconsciously processed information about the men’s sexual orientations.

Outside of announcing our sexual orientation or wearing clothing that indicates our sexual identity (e.g., a rainbow t-shirt), how do others know whether we are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual?  Many in research, the media, and popular culture have discussed the existence of gaydar, which is the ability to determine whether a person is not heterosexual.  Many point to gender non-conformity as the most obvious indicator that a person is bisexual, lesbian, or gay.  While lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) adults were more likely than heterosexual adults to be gender non-conforming in childhood, by no means is gender non-conformity limited to LGB people.

Beyond behavior, many scientists have attempted to determine if their are biological differences between heterosexuals and lesbian/gay/bisexual people: finger length, swirl of one’s hair, hormones, brain size and structure, finger print, facial features, and so forth.  Others have focused on linguistic or speech pattern differences by sexual orientation, and even the Facebook friends you have.  But little conclusive evidence has been found, and much of these are characteristics that we cannot actually see on a person’s body.  Indeed, there are no agreed upon markers on the body that indicate that a person is heterosexual or not.

But, Sexuality Is Complex!

To argue that gay men have larger hypothalamuses than heterosexual men misses a lot of complexity in sexual orientation.  Are we referring here only to gay-identified men who are exclusively attracted to men and have only had sexual and romantic relations with men?  What about bisexual men?  What about heterosexual-identified people who are attracted to both women and men, or those who have had any sexual encounters with their same gender?  The way that the multiple dimensions of sexuality sometimes do not neatly align — namely attraction, behavior, and identity — complicates theories and research on sexuality that simply state that gay and heterosexual people differ.  And, what does this complexity mean for how sexual orientation affects our evaluations of others?

What We Can Learn From This

I have noted in many of my posts that, to better understand sexuality, we must understand how it intersects with other aspects of society and our lives: race and ethnicity, gender, age, social class, nationality, religion, body size, and so forth.  These studies provide even greater weight for moving to a more complex, inclusive view of sexuality.

In past studies of evaluations, black people are typically rated as less likeable than white people, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are rated as less likeable than heterosexual people.  But, how do race and sexual orientation operate simultaneously?  Should we assume that those who are a minority on both accounts — black lesbian, gay, and bisexual people — are liked the least?  And, that those who are in the dominant group for both are liked the most — white heterosexuals?  The studies’ findings suggest it is not as obvious as one might think.

Clearly, we need to continue to attend to the way that race and sexuality intersect, as well as the ways it intersects with gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, and so forth.  For example, under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military policy that discharged service members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, most of the recent discharges were women and racial and ethnic minorities.  This is an example of the way that gender intersects with sexual orientation and race intersects with sexual orientation.  In particular, a policy that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation intersected with discrimination on the basis of race and on the basis of gender.  More recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that black gay men are being disproportionately affected by HIV.  That is, we can see how a group that is disadvantaged in terms of race and sexual orientation are being hardest hit by the epidemic.

We can take from this that sexuality, in its own right, is complex and multidimensional.  But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg once we consider the way sexuality intersects with other important dimensions of difference and inequality.