A new study suggests that the way to combat homophobia is to talk nicely to people opposed to the civil and human rights of LGBT people. We all knew this, of course—but it has some profound implications.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, looked at what happened when straight and gay canvassers were sent into conservative neighbourhoods in California to have a 20 minute conversation with anti-gay voters about what marriage equality meant to the canvasser. The result was fascinating: The gay canvassers made long-standing change to voters’ attitudes, but the straight canvassers’ change was more temporary. Moreover, entire households changed after speaking to a gay canvasser, but that didn’t happen in households visited by straight canvassers.
According to Dave Fleischer, director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Vote for Equality and Leadership LAB programs, which is where the study began, this is how they effected change in voters: “Our team had heartfelt, reciprocal and vulnerable conversations on the doorsteps of those who opposed marriage for same-sex couples, and volunteers who were LGBT came out during their conversations.”
It’s already been a very well-documented fact that when people know real LGBT people, they’re far less likely to be prejudiced against them, and far less likely to oppose their civil and human rights. In general, it’s very difficult for people to hate other people in the first person—my friend, my brother, my aunt, my boss, etc. This study shows that LGBT people talking even to strangers can reduce prejudice and opposition.
This suggests that the long term strategy to reduce anti-LGBT prejudice should be based on coming out everywhere to everyone—hardly radical news, that. But the study has demonstrated real, tangible, and long-lasting benefit from having those heartfelt conversations.
The study also suggests that the most effective strategy is for LGBT people to talk about ourselves and for ourselves, that allies—no matter how sincere and passionate—just aren’t as effective and creating change in attitudes. I’d love to know if this is true for other minorities, too.
Obviously, this strategy has nothing to do with our professional adversaries, who have a variety of motivations for attacking us. When they’re motivated by money, religious or political fervour, or the pursuit of power, even the most profoundly heartfelt conversations aren’t going to change anything, as Mark Joseph Stern sarcastically pointed out in his piece about this study on Slate.
The thing is, as long as our adversaries keep us in the third person—those homosexuals—they can delay and deny us our full and equal citizenship; in fact, they can even roll them back, and they frequently do. If we can get ourselves known in the first person, we can defeat our professional adversaries. When we do, they’ll move on to other targets or whine impotently, and pathetically, in a dark corner somewhere.
It all begins with talking.