Understanding the Link between Beliefs about Gender and Attitudes toward Homosexuality
Most research investigating prejudice toward the LGBT community has been conducted in Western countries, especially North America and Western Europe. Research findings have generally shown that people who have negative attitudes towards gay men and lesbian women tend to want to preserve a heteronormative system—that is, a social system that promotes heterosexuality as the normal (or preferred) sexual orientation. Specifically, in Western countries, endorsing traditional gender norms (believing, for instance, that men are meant to be strong and powerful, whereas women should be nice and passive) is strongly related to having negative attitudes toward homosexuality and people who are gay.
But given that most studies involve Western research participants, we do not know whether these findings apply to attitudes toward sexual minorities in general and across different cultures. So, Alexandra Suppes, Jaime Napier, and I investigated whether the same pattern of results held beyond the Western world. We collected data from 23 countries, which included both Western and non-Western populations.
Furthermore, we assessed attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women separately. Most studies have focused either exclusively on men or asked about “homosexuality” in general, which people tend to assume refers to gay men (and not women), a phenomena known as lesbian invisibility. To be sure that we had a full picture of attitudes toward both gay men and lesbian women, we asked separate questions about participants’ attitudes about homosexual men and women. We also were interested in how sexual prejudice differs between women and men, as studies conducted almost exclusively in Western countries show that men harbor stronger anti-gay attitudes than women.
Our findings revealed many similarities across countries but also some interesting differences. We found that gay men are disliked more than lesbian women across every country in our sample. We also found that, in line with previous research, endorsing traditional gender norms was associated with anti-gay attitudes—toward both gay men and lesbian women—in every Western country in our sample (which included Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the USA). Traditional gender norms were associated with anti-gay attitudes in some non-Western countries as well, namely Russia, South Africa, and Turkey.
However, the pattern was less clear in other places. Specifically, in South Korea, endorsement of traditional gender norms was not related to attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women, and in Japan, gender norm endorsement was weakly related to attitudes toward gay men but not attitudes toward lesbian women. And in China and India, the reverse pattern emerged—people who most strongly supported traditional gender roles had the most positive attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women.
What might these findings mean for understanding prejudice toward homosexuals? Many researchers have assumed that gay men and women are disliked, at least in part, because they are perceived to violate traditional gender norms. Our research shows that beliefs about gender norms and attitudes about sexual orientation are not related in the same way in all cultures. Indeed, the connection between gender norms and sexuality-related attitudes exists across myriad cultures and, thus, is unlikely to be due to a particular religion or cultural orientation. Furthermore, gender norms and sexuality are not associated in the same way in India and Southeast Asia (that is, China, Japan, South Korea) as in other countries. Considering that India and China together represent over 36% of the world’s population, this means that a substantial number of people do not associate gender and sexuality in the way that psychologists have assumed.
Keep in mind that the fact that the link between gender norm endorsement and sexual prejudice varied to some degree across countries does not mean that people do not endorse traditional gender norms or exhibit sexual prejudice is absent in these places. China was extremely high on gender role endorsement. Sexual prejudice in Southeast Asia was somewhat higher than it is in many Western countries, but not markedly so.
This work should be a springboard for more research into the nature of people’s beliefs about gender and sexuality, especially in understudied populations, as well as a starting point to rethink how and why these two sets of beliefs are linked the way they are in the Western world. For example, why do attitudes about gender predict attitudes about sexual minorities so well? What is the connection between gender and sexuality in people’s minds, and how did it become so pervasive?
For Further Reading
Bettinsoli, M. L., Suppes, A., & Napier, J. L. (2020). Predictors of attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women in 23 countries. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(5), 697-708.
Gordon, A. R., & Meyer, I. H. (2007). Gender nonconformity as a tar- get of prejudice, discrimination, and violence against LGB individuals. Journal of LGBT Health Research, 3, 55–71.
Herek, G. M. (2004). Beyond “homophobia”: Thinking about sexual prejudice and stigma in the twenty-first century. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 1, 6–24.
Weinberger, L., & Milham, J. (1979). Attitudinal homophobia and support of traditional sex roles. Journal of Homosexuality, 4,237–253.
Maria Laura Bettinsoli received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Padua in 2016 and is currently a Post-Doctoral Associate at New York University Abu Dhabi. Her research focuses on social psychology, and specifically on stereotyping and categorizing processes of stigmatized group members.