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The aim of the present study was to examine racial differences in women’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men and to offer an understanding of these differences. Participants were 224 18–30 year old heterosexual African American (64%) and White (36%) female undergraduates from a large urban university in the southeastern United States. Participants completed measures of social demographics, sexual orientation, and sexual prejudice. Results showed that African American, relative to White, women endorsed more negative attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. Also, unlike White women, African American women reported more negative attitudes toward gay men than lesbians. Implications are discussed regarding differences in cultural contexts that exist between African American and White women.
Sexual prejudice is pervasive in the United States and abroad and may be manifested in the form of hate crimes and other acts of discrimination toward gay men and lesbians (Herek, 2000; 2007; Takács, 2006; Yang, 1997). However, given that the most severe acts are typically committed by men (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2006; Harlow, 2005; National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs [NCAVP], 2007), much of the research on sexual prejudice focuses on men. Thus, what is known about women’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men is largely derived from comparisons of women’s attitudes relative to the attitudes of men. While the literature shows that heterosexual women are generally more accepting of lesbians and gay men than heterosexual men (e.g., Kite, 1984; Whitley & Kite, 1995), there is likely great variability among women in their attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. In particular, there may be cultural and ecological factors that lead to more negative attitudes toward lesbians and gay men among African American women relative to White women (e.g., Rhue & Rhue, 1997). Based on this literature, the aim of the present study was to examine racial differences in attitudes toward lesbians and gay men in African American and White women who are college students in the southeastern United States. Our intention was to empirically assess attitudes toward lesbians and gay men in a convenience sample of African-American and White females. This study is important because too few studies, both in the United States and abroad, have specifically examined racial differences in sexual prejudice, especially among heterosexual adult females. Hence, this research has the potential to guide and inform future studies that seek to better understand racial differences in sexual prejudice beyond those found for White and African American heterosexual men.
The literature available about sexual prejudice in women reveals that women’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men are only studied in relation to men’s attitudes. More specifically, in college and community samples both in the United States and other countries, heterosexual men, in comparison to heterosexual women, tend to report more unfavorable attitudes (i.e., higher sexual prejudice) toward gay men, while heterosexual women, relative to heterosexual men, tend to report more unfavorable attitudes toward lesbians (Gentry, 1987; Herek, 1988; Kite, 1994; Lim, 2002; Whitley, 1987, 1990). Other studies have not supported this gender difference in attitudes toward lesbians (Herek, 1988; Kite 1984; Kite & Whitley 1996). Nevertheless, research indicates that heterosexual men’s attitudes toward gay men are significantly more negative than heterosexual women’s attitudes toward lesbians (Herek, 2002; Kite & Whitley, 1996).
Despite these comparisons between men and women, there also may be substantial differences between women in their attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. For example, it is likely that women’s attitudes vary greatly across cultural context. Given the lack of research specifically focused on women, it is important to empirically examine possible variables that may be associated with sexual prejudice in women. One variable that might be associated with differences in attitudes toward lesbians and gay men is race. There is some evidence for this suspicion. Ernst, Rupert, Nevels, and Lemeh (1991) found, in a regional, convenience sample of United States employees from the Tennessee Mental Health and Mental Retardation residential facilities that African American women endorsed significantly greater levels of sexual prejudice than White women. However, this study used a one-item measure to assess sexual prejudice and did not distinguish between sexual prejudice toward gay men and sexual prejudice toward lesbians. In a survey by Herek and Capitanio (1999) employing a randomly selected, national probability sample in the United States, African American women reported greater sexual prejudice toward lesbians and gay men than White women. Unfortunately, this study did not ascertain whether these differences were statistically significant. Thus, despite these data, the extent to which racial differences exist in women’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men remains unclear.
Though limited, these data are consistent with pertinent theory. Specifically, the application of intergroup conflict theories to this literature suggests that African American women, relative to White women, may report higher levels of prejudice toward sexual minorities, particularly gay men. For example, Stephan and Stephan (2000) developed an integrated threat theory of intergroup conflict that addresses an in-group’s perception of realistic and symbolic threat from an out-group. This model combines various theories of intergroup relations and conflict, such as realistic group conflict theory (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961) and group position theory (Bobo, 1988). According to this integrated conceptualization, a group experiences realistic threat when it perceives another group as a threat to its existence, to its political and economic power, and to its physical or material well-being. Additionally, similar to the well established realistic group conflict theory (Sherif et al., 1961), conflict between groups can emerge due to perceived or actual competition for scarce resources.
Such reactions to possible threats may occur among some African American women in response to gay men. For example, African American men who have sex with men or who self-identify as gay may be perceived by some African American women as contributing to the low availability of African American men eligible for marriage (Ernst et al., 1991). African American women may feel that homosexuality, like incarceration, provides another reason for the greater proportion of eligible African American heterosexual women to African American heterosexual men in the marriage pool and the highest rates of unmarried females in the U.S. adult population (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). This imbalance is not limited to single women who have never married but also includes women who are divorced, separated, and widowed. Moreover, it is exacerbated by the fact that most couples select their partners from their same race or ethnicity.
In addition, African American women may attribute the higher rates of AIDS among African American women, relative to women from other racial groups, to African American men who have sex with both men and women (Boykin, 2005), especially given the greater susceptibility of HIV infection from male than female partners. These perceptions may be reinforced by public health professionals and mass media discussions (Malebranche, 2008). For example, Valleroy, Prentiss, MacKellar, and Secura (2000) concluded that there exists a “bisexual bridge,” such that men who have sex with both men and women transmit HIV to heterosexual African American women. Such perceptions may raise concerns among African American women that represent realistic threat within the framework of the integrated threat model (Stephan & Stephan, 2000). In turn, this perceived threat to African American women’s well-being may set the stage for increased negative attitudes toward gay men as an out-group. However, relative to gay men, lesbians may not pose a realistic threat to African American women in terms of competition for resources, economic and political power, or physical or emotional well-being.
In contrast to realistic threat, symbolic threat may be posed by both lesbians and gay men. Symbolic threat (Stephan & Stephan, 2000) describes how perceptions of an out-group’s different beliefs, attitudes, morals, standards, and values may lead to unwanted changes in the in-group’s system of values and culture. Within this framework, perceived differences in the out-group’s worldview (e.g., values, customs, or traditions) represent symbolic threats to the in-group’s worldview (Stephan, Diaz-Loving, & Duran, 2000; Stephan & Stephan, 2000). A perceived threat sets the stage for antipathy toward the out-group (Esses, Haddock, & Zanna, 1993; Stephan & Stephan, 2000).
Such perceptions are particularly likely among African American heterosexual women who, relative to White women, may view both lesbians and gay men as a more significant symbolic threat to their culture. For example, some African Americans may fear that homosexuality in their community represents a threat to traditional values (e.g., notions of family, manhood, moral sexuality) as embodied by African American religious institutions, such as the African American church and the Nation of Islam (Rhue & Rhue, 1997). While Whites may also view homosexuality as a symbolic threat to their cultural and religious values, African Americans may be more socially conservative than whites despite their greater political liberalism than whites. For example, Lewis (2003) examined differences between African Americans and Whites’ attitudes toward homosexuality and gay rights across 31 surveys conducted in the United States since 1973. These surveys generally consisted of national probability samples. Results indicated that, despite their higher likelihood to support laws prohibiting antigay discrimination, African Americans reported greater disapproval of homosexuality than Whites. In addition, homosexuality may challenge patriarchal assumptions about the nature of male and female roles in African American society, such as expected roles of men and women in society and beliefs that sexism and heterosexism are less important than racism (Rhue & Rhue, 1997). Likewise, the contributions of lesbians and gay men to African American culture (e.g., James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin) may be often been ignored or masked (Rhue & Rhue, 1997).
Of course, theorists such as Kimmel (1997) and Pharr (1988) asserted that patriarchy and heterosexism are pervasive, and this is undoubtedly inclusive of White majority culture in the United States. However, Tremble, Schneider, and Appathurai (1989) noted that White cultures in North American countries of the United States and Canada are demographically and economically large enough to sustain lesbian and gay subcultures, and much of visible lesbian and gay culture is White. As such, lesbians and gay men may enjoy greater visibility within these cultures, which may facilitate knowledge of and contact with lesbians and gay men among Whites. Indeed, Liang and Amilo (2005) found in a sample of White, heterosexual, predominantly female college students at a large mid-Atlantic university in the United States that increased contact with lesbian and gay male students led to increases in positive attitudes toward lesbian and gay relationships, particularly among women in the sample.
In conjunction with the greater visibility of lesbians and gay men within White culture and the greater capacity of White culture to sustain lesbian and gay subcultures, the specific circumstances of some White women may be such that lesbians and gay men are perceived as less threatening. For example, heterosexual White women, relative to heterosexual African American women, may experience fewer limitations on availability of eligible male partners for marriage (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). In addition, White women comprise 14% of documented Whites living with HIV and AIDS, while African American women 35% of documented African Americans living with HIV and AIDS in the United States (Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, 2007). There is no equivalent public health crisis among White women relative to African American women that might result in fears of contracting HIV from men who have sex with both men and women within White communities. Taken together, these circumstances may reduce perceptions of threat of lesbians and gay men among White women.
Furthermore, it is possible that current political issues in the lesbian and gay rights movement in the United States may affect the attitudes of African Americans toward lesbians and gay men. For example, in 2008, a California referendum popularly known as Proposition 8 was passed that banned gay marriage in the state. Reports suggested that African Americans voted overwhelmingly in favor of the ban (Wildermuth, 2009), with some estimates that up to twice as many African American women, relative to African American men, voted in favor of the ban (Blow, 2008). Thus, the prevalence of sexual prejudice in the African American community may continue to be a major concern, especially politically (Wildermuth, 2009). African Americans may view the lesbian and gay rights movement negatively in part because of comparisons to African American struggles for civil rights (Lewis, 2003; Smith 1999). Such comparisons may be considered as unnecessary and inappropriate if African Americans perceive lesbians and gay men as making unrealistic demands for equal rights as a minority group whose disadvantages are based on sexual preference that cannot be equated with those of a minority group whose disadvantages are based on race (Gates, 1999).
While African Americans may appear to be at odds with gay issues at times, the sociopolitical climate of gay rights may differ for some White women. Historically, lesbians have played a sometimes contested, yet often prominent role in the Women’s Rights Movement and feminism in the United States (Taylor & Rupp, 1993). However, Crenshaw (1989) and Hooks (1981) noted that, historically, feminism and the Women’s Rights Movement have not adequately addressed White privilege and the complexities of issues facing women of color in addition to sexism. For example, issues such as poverty and blame for the purported decline of the African American family were at the forefront of battles fought by African American women, while many mainstream feminists were White, middle-class women who could focus energies more fully on the battle against sexism (Crenshaw, 1989; Hooks, 1981). As such, some White women may have been in an otherwise privileged position to be able to address issues related to heterosexism and sexual prejudice.
Given the literature reviewed, the aim of the present study was to examine possible racial differences in women’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. Prior literature pertinent to racial differences in women’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men has been equivocal and incomplete. However, African American women, relative to White women, may experience more significant barriers to the acceptance of lesbians and gay men. Specifically, the integrated threat theory suggests that African American women, relative to White women, may perceive gay men to be a greater realistic threat to their well-being (e.g., availability of eligible mates, high risk of HIV infection). Additionally, lesbians and gay men may be perceived as a greater symbolic threat to traditional African American culture (e.g., violation of expected gender roles).
In accordance with this literature, the current study examined possible racial differences in attitudes toward lesbians and gay men between African American and White heterosexual college women. The absence of prior studies that separately examined these possible effects among women prompted us to initially consider these potential differences only in college women. Support for our hypotheses among college women would warrant that we further examine such racial differences between women in community samples. Hypotheses were tested by use of Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) to examine main and interaction effects with participants’ race and gender of target (gay men, lesbians) as the independent variables and sexual prejudice as the dependent variable.
Specifically, the present study advanced the following hypotheses:
African American women will report greater sexual prejudice toward both lesbians and gay men than White women.
There will be an interaction between race and gender, such that African American women will report more negative attitudes toward gay men than toward lesbians.
Participants were 224 self-identified heterosexual women between the ages of 18 and 30 who were recruited from the Department of Psychology undergraduate research pool at a large urban university in the southeastern United States. The psychology department is one of the largest in the liberal arts college and reflects the broad regional diversity of the undergraduate students. Participants responded to an announcement titled, “Cultural Differences in Social Attitudes.” All participants received partial course credit for their participation.
As recommended by Savin-Williams (2006), participants’ heterosexual orientation was determined via their responses to the Kinsey Heterosexuality-Homosexuality Rating Scales (KRS; Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948). More specifically, among self-identified heterosexual participants, a heterosexual orientation was confirmed by endorsement of exclusive heterosexual arousal to men (i.e., no reported sexual arousal to women) and sexual experiences that occurred mostly or exclusively with men. As noted by Savin-Williams (2006), sexual orientation is most reliably assessed when multiple components of sexual orientation (e.g., arousal, behavior, self-identification) are congruent. Moreover, based on work regarding sexual orientation identity, Savin-Williams (2006) suggested that the highest priority be given to indices of sexual arousal instead of self-identification and reports of sexual behavior. Indeed, these latter components of sexual orientation are more susceptible to social context effects, self-report biases, and variable meanings. For example, prior sexual experiences with members of the same sex may represent sexual experimentation without attendant arousal to members of the same sex.
Using these criteria, 72 participants were removed from subsequent analyses because they did not endorse exclusive sexual arousal to males and sexual experiences that occurred mostly or exclusively with men (Savin-Williams, 2006). There was a statistically significant difference between African American and White women in regard to the number omitted based on these criteria. Of the initial sample, 26.4 % of African American women and 42.9% of White women were excluded due to their responses on items regarding sexual arousal and experience (χ2(1) = 5.17, p <.05).
In addition, three participants were removed due to computer malfunctions. Given our intention to examine differences between African American and White women’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men, 19 additional participants who did not identify as African American or White were excluded from further analyses. Removal of these 94 participants resulted in a final sample of 130 women (83 African Americans and 47 Whites). Other groups were not included because it was not feasible in this study to adequately sample and represent the degree of heterogeneity in groups such as Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Latinos (i.e., different cultural backgrounds and nationalities within each group; different levels of acculturation due, in part, to length of time spent in living in the United States, etc). See Table 1 for demographic characteristics of the sample. Approval was granted for this study by the university’s institutional review board.
Participants completed self-report measures adapted for computer administration via MediaLab 2000 (Empirisoft Research Software, Philadelphia, PA). Each item and set of instructions was presented sequentially on the computer screen for every self-report measure.
This self-report form obtained information such as age, years of formal education, self-identified sexual orientation, self-identified racial membership, and relationship status.
A modified version of this instrument was used to assess prior sexual arousal and experiences. This 7-point scale asks participants to rate their sexual arousal and behavioral experiences from 1 (“exclusively heterosexual”) to 7 (“exclusively homosexual”). As noted previously, only participants who reported exclusive sexual arousal to males and behavioral experiences that were mostly or exclusively with males were included in the analyses (Savin-Williams, 2006).
This 10-item Likert-type scale assessed sexual prejudice specifically toward gay men. Scores range from 10 (extremely positive attitudes) to 90 (extremely negative attitudes), with higher scores reflecting higher levels of sexual prejudice toward gay men. Sample items include “I think male homosexuals are disgusting” and “Homosexual behavior between two men is just plain wrong.” Internal consistency for this measure typically exceeds .80, which was consistent with the present study (α = .88).
This 10-item Likert-type scale assessed sexual prejudice specifically toward lesbians. Responses range from 10 (extremely positive attitudes) to 90 (extremely negative attitudes), with higher scores indicating higher levels of sexual prejudice toward lesbians. Sample items include “Female homosexuality is an inferior form of sexuality” and “Lesbians are sick.” Internal consistency coefficients for this scale typically exceed .85, which was consistent with the present sample (α = .87).
Upon arrival to the laboratory, one of two White, female research assistants greeted participants and led them to a private room where they provided informed consent. The research assistant told participants that the purpose of the study was to assess the association between cultural differences, social attitudes, and relationship behavior. Participants were then informed that they would asked to complete several questionnaires on a computer, and that this process would take approximately 20 minutes. All participants were informed that they could refuse to answer any question without penalty. Next, participants individually completed self-administered measures, including the demographic form, KRS, ATGS, and ATLS. While additional questionnaires and procedures were completed, they are unrelated to the present study and, therefore, are not reported. Finally, participants were debriefed, compensated with course credit, and thanked for their participation.
As shown in Table 1, African American and White women did not differ significantly on demographic variables of age, years of education, and relationship status. However, there was a statistically significant difference between African American and White women in average yearly income (F = 5.14, p <.05).
Given the use of Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) in a sample that included more African American women (n = 83) than White women (n = 47), tests of statistical assumptions of equal variance (i.e., Levene’s test) and normal distribution (i.e., Kolmogorov-Smirnov test) confirmed that these assumptions were not violated. Relative to White women, African American women were expected to report higher levels of sexual prejudice toward both lesbians and gay men. A 2 (race: African American, White) X 2 (target gender: gay men, lesbians) mixed model ANOVA with target gender as the repeated measure revealed a significant main effect for race (F(1, 128) = 21.64, p <.001) and target gender (F(1, 128) = 26.74, p <.001) on sexual prejudice. As shown in Table 2, these results indicated that African American women reported higher levels of sexual prejudice than White women and that, overall, participants reported higher levels of sexual prejudice toward gay men than lesbians.
Additionally, it was hypothesized that there would be an interaction between race and target gender such that African American women would report higher levels of sexual prejudice toward gay men than toward lesbians. In contrast, as part of the hypothesized interaction, White women were not expected to report differences in sexual prejudice toward gay men compared to lesbians. Consistent with this hypothesis, the 2 X 2 ANOVA revealed a significant Race X Target Gender interaction, F(1, 128) = 9.48, p <.01. Simple effects were probed using a series of one-way ANOVAs with sexual prejudice as the dependent variable (see Table 2). Results showed that African American women endorsed significantly higher levels of sexual prejudice toward gay men than toward lesbians, F(1, 82) = 39.27, p <.001. In contrast, White women did not endorse significantly different levels of sexual prejudice toward lesbians and gay men. Consistent with the main effect of race, results also indicated that, relative to White women, African American women reported significantly higher levels of sexual prejudice toward gay men (F(1, 128) = 23.59, p <.001) and toward lesbians (F(1, 128) = 16.60, p <.001). Given the statistically significant difference between African American and White women on average yearly income, we repeated these analyses using this as a covariate. These analyses yielded essentially the same results.
The purpose of the present study was to examine the extent to which African American and White women differ in their attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. To our knowledge, the present findings are the first to show that African American women, relative to White women, endorsed significantly more negative attitudes toward both lesbians and gay men. These results are consistent with Ernst and associates (1991), who found in their regional, convenience sample that African American women, relative to White women, reported greater levels of sexual prejudice toward lesbians and gay men in general. It was further hypothesized that African American women’s attitudes would be more negative toward gay men than toward lesbians. No such differences were expected among White women. To our knowledge, the present results are the first to support this hypothesis. Given that heterosexual women have been shown to report more positive attitudes toward lesbians and gay men than heterosexual men in both college and community samples in the United States and abroad (Gentry, 1987; Herek, 1988; Kite, 1994; Lim, 2002; Whitley, 1987, 1990), the detection of racial differences in sexual prejudice toward lesbians and gay men in this study suggests possible sociocultural influences on attitudes toward lesbians and gay men.
As such, these findings must be understood within their ecological, cultural context. Given the aforementioned theoretical underpinnings of integrated threat theory (e.g., Stephan & Stephan, 2000) and the factors that present challenges to African American women’s acceptance of sexual minorities, particularly gay men, the present results are not surprising. For example, Rhue and Rhue (1997) discussed the particularly meaningful components of African American culture that may help to explain racial differences in attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. Although some of these factors are not unique to African American culture (e.g., religious views, social attitudes about etiology of homosexuality), they may collectively set the stage for greater sexual prejudice among African Americans. In contrast, ecological factors more common in White culture, such as prominent visibility of the predominantly White lesbian and gay subculture, sizable resources useful to combat heterosexism (Tremble, et al.,1989), and broad cultural influence of feminism (Taylor & Rupp, 2005), may facilitate acceptance of lesbians and gay men among White women. Although White lesbians and gay men continue to face sexual prejudice, they may experience a greater advantage than minority lesbians and gay men given the impact of such contextual factors of mainstream White gay culture on the general White population. While the African American community has many strengths and supports to help its lesbian and gay members deal with racism and discrimination within American society, more progress may be needed regarding attitudes toward lesbian and gay men, including those who are African Americans.
While the present study provides evidence of racial differences between African American and White women toward lesbians and gay men, some caveats should be noted. Because the present study relied on a convenience sample of college women from the southeastern United States, the generalizability of these results is weaker than if probability methods (e.g., random household telephone surveys) had been used. Also, our ability to recruit women from other racial/ethnic groups was reduced because African Americans represent the vast majority of nonwhite students in our college population. However, given that attitudes toward social issues are generally more liberal on college campuses than in the general population of the United States (Astin, 1977; Dey, 1996; Pascarella & Terenzine, 1991), differences observed in the present sample are particularly noteworthy. Specifically, racially-based departures from more liberal attitudes on certain social issues (e.g., lesbian and gay issues) suggest the powerful influence of sociocultural factors unique to women from specific groups (e.g., African Americans). Furthermore, the present study was not able to shed light on how women’s attitudes toward gay men and lesbians would be influenced by the target’s race. Future studies might consider examining the target’s race (e.g., guided imagery, vignettes, videos) in order to address this concern. Finally, there were proportionally more White women who endorsed sexual arousal and experiences that were not exclusively heterosexual than African American women. While an explanation for this finding is unclear, it may reflect a more negative stigma for endorsing non-heterosexual arousal or behavior among African American women.
In conclusion, the current study provides salient evidence of racial differences in sexual prejudice between African American and White college women. Results help to clarify previous findings that left a great deal of ambiguity about the extent to which attitudes toward lesbians and gay men may vary among women. These findings provide the impetus for future studies to examine specific cultural and contextual influences underlying these racial differences. Indeed, racial background reflects more than just one’s specific racial membership. Rather, it is determined by multiple aspects of an individual’s racial experiences, and these aspects may be separately and differentially associated with attitudes toward gays and lesbians. In addition, future studies should also examine other major components of sexual prejudice within racial groups, for both White and non-White women. For example, given the many different subgroups (e.g., age, social class, etc.) of both African American and White women, it may be useful for future researchers to examine within-group differences for both races to shed further light on specific factors that promote and maintain sexual prejudice. Moreover, any of these effects may be influenced by one’s gender. Thus, it will also be important for studies to examine the joint effects of race and gender on attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. Broadly, this research has the potential to guide and inform future work that seeks to better understand the influence of racial background on sexual prejudice. Ultimately, an understanding of these factors can inform efforts aimed at reducing discrimination and violence toward lesbians and gay men that is often rooted in sexual prejudice (Diaz, Peterson, & Choi, 2008; Parrott, 2008).
This research was supported by grant R01-AA-015445 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.