Limits to Same-Sex Acceptance

Photo by See-Ming Lee, Flickr CC. Click for original.
Ryan and Michael share a moment of PDA. Photo by See-Ming Lee, Flickr CC. Click for original.

In President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, he heralded progress for same-sex couples as a “story of freedom,” pointing out that seven-in-ten Americans live today in a state where gay marriage is legal. However, to what extent are Americans’ attitudes toward gay and lesbian couples keeping pace with these institutional changes? Does legal same-sex marriage mean general acceptance of gay and lesbian couples?

In the American Sociological Review, Long Doan, Annalise Loehr, and Lisa Miller investigated two facets of attitudes toward gays and lesbians: 1) formal rights, operationalized as support for partnership benefits (e.g., family leave and insurance benefits), and 2) informal privileges, operationalized as acceptability of the couple’s public displays of affection (e.g., kissing and holding hands in public). The authors also examined support for the couples’ right to be legally married. The researchers used an experimental vignette design to capture attitudes about three types of couples: cohabiting (unmarried) gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples.

The researchers found that heterosexual respondents did not favor heterosexual couples when it came to formal rights, but they were less likely to approve of informal privileges (public displays of affection) for homosexual couples. This pattern applied for gay/lesbian respondents, who were also less approving of same-sex public affection than heterosexual PDA—possibly evidence of internalized stigma. Finally, the authors found that hetero- versus homosexual respondents view marriage differently: heterosexuals are more likely to view marriage as an informal privilege, homosexuals are more likely to view marriage as a formal right.

Although the U.S. has made quick and major strides when it comes to the legal rights of gays and lesbians, social acceptance is not complete. Prejudice persists in subtle, multidimensional ways.