How Does Attitude Change Happen?

A tidal wave of acceptance rolls, as same-sex marriage becomes possible in more states, and more highly visible figures (professional sports players, politicians, actors etc.) come out or are out as they rise to success. But this acceptance is far from universal, as seen in the recent legal ruling in Louisiana upholding its same-sex marriage ban. And as we have seen with respect to race discrimination, legal solutions do not magically change all behavior, never mind all minds.

Those in the more conservative/traditional branches of religion seem not yet moved by this tidal wave, but they are hearing its roar and crash. Rabbi Steven Greenberg explains, regarding Orthodox Judaism, ” As a religiously conservative lot, we tend to highlight fear and potential loss more than opportunity. Change is scary. We’re not wrong in claiming that there are prices to pay for grand moves that shift cultural resources in a flash. Orthodoxy as a culture can help us to pay attention to the unintended consequences that every normative change entails.” Given his tradition’s long history, he describes the shift he has seen “…from homosexuality being a demonic evil, to a sinful proclivity, to curable illness and finally to an aspect of the human condition” over 45 years as a relatively quick shift. (Rabbi Greenberg is founder of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBTQ support, education and advocacy organization. You can read his full blog post on Moment.)

Writer Jeffrey Essman belongs to a New York parish that is “…so welcoming as to be nearly a parody of inclusion.” Even so, “I have no problem telling people I’m gay. But it can sometimes be weird telling people I’m a Catholic. Pope Francis’ ‘Who am I to judge?’ remarks, though taken entirely out of context and wildly misinterpreted, have nonetheless reflected a welcome shift in tone. But the shift is not widespread.” (Essman’s article in US Catholic, July 2014, appeared on Susan Cottrell’s Freed Hearts blog.)

Institutional attitude change is the sum of individual attitude changes by leaders and followers. Fast or slow, what are the actions or events that prompt individual attitude change? I think there are three identifiable moments.

First comes discomfort that you can’t avoided, usually because someone who already has approval comes out, challenging the negative stereotypes. Greenberg says, “…the picture of the threatening gay person is being replaced by the lovely couple across the street raising two kids.” As Tana Hall, a therapist specializing in LGBT youth and parents, explained, “Here’s the shocking secret: the Radical Gay and Lesbian Agenda (yes, we do have one!) is to have jobs, have stable committed relationships, maybe buy a house, maybe have some kids and/or a dog, and contribute to society.”

Anyone who stayed awake in Intro Psych knows will recognize cognitive dissonance: human brains aren’t happy holding two ideas which contradict each other, and will suppress or discard one to eliminate the discomfort. But which one stays? “I like watching Ellen DeGeneres, and she has almost as many male guests as female guests” or “all lesbians are aggressive man-haters?” I think it depends a lot on Moments 2 and 3.

The coming out of someone close is Moment 2. After all, “Hollywood people” or “sports stars” or even “American Idol finalists” are not “people like us,” so what goes for them doesn’t really change what is right and wrong in the life I’ve always known… one might conclude. But as soon as someone I already care about personally – a relative, close friend, child of a close friend, trusted colleague – comes out, the cognitive dissonance comes home. Now holding on to the homophobic thought could cost a relationship I value. On the other side of the scale is the potential relationship cost of bucking the tide of others’ opinions. Say the newly out teen’s parents believe this is a phase, best swept under the carpet and countered with lots of exposure to “more positive” role models, and maybe more religious activity. Butting in, in such a situation, would be scary and lonely – which brings us to Moment 3.

Seeing others in the immediate community also showing support makes it much less lonely to let the Moment 2 scales tip. This is why small actions, including word choice, can make a big difference even if they seem insignificant in the moment.

The push in recent years within the LGBTQ communities to come out not just to your friends but in all settings, is enabling more straight people to comfortably, if imperfectly, be allies. That in turn makes it easier for more people to be out in all settings, and Moments 2 and 3 beget each other.

This momentum of individual moments 2 and 3 is why now, 45 years after the Stonewall riots, and 22 years after the first state ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation (Wisconsin) it seems that LGBTQ rights are “suddenly” happening. Same-sex marriage has gained support because straight people know personally more than 1 or 2 people at whose same-sex weddings they would love to dance – and know they won’t be alone on the dance floor.



A note on language:

Screen shot 2013-07-05 at 9.10.38 PM

Photo: John Olsen

Photo: John Olsen

There seems to be a screaming need for a catch-all term for lesbian women, gay men, bisexual people, transgender people, intersex people, asexual people, and those who know they are not strictly heterosexual but unsure or unwilling to identify with other labels. “LGBTQQIAA” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies, and Pansexuals) certainly has inclusiveness going for it, but is unwieldy to say, and difficult to remember in its entirety. There must be a “Saturday Night Live” skit in there somewhere.

We need something which doesn’t come with a risk of leaving someone out every time. Many (especially in the heterosexual, gender-conforming world) use “gay” as shorthand for all who aren’t heterosexual and gender-conforming. Some lesbians use this term this way too, but others take issue, feeling overlooked, and wishing that we could create new language that is gender-neutral or explicitly inclusive. One said, “‘Gay’ is sometimes used to specifically exclude women, so it’s confusing to also use it as shorthand for the whole spectrum plus transpeople.”

“Queer” has many things going for it in  my mind, easily connoting non-majority without being too specific, and carrying some attitude.  One lesbian put it this way:  “Some people don’t like ‘queer’ or ‘queer community’ to be used to describe them, but others like it because it’s taking back the language used against us and making it our own.”  Another said, “I have friends who hate ‘queer’ as an LGBT catch-all because of its definition as weird. It’s derogatory.”

To my ears, this echoes the history of the n-word and makes a non-queer person wonder if our use of it might be insensitive.One of my early interviewees for this book suggested “pride,” as as adjective, as in “the repeal of Don’t-Ask-Don’t Tell came too late for many would-be career military personnel in the pride community.” The immediate association with “pride of lions” seems irresistible. Perhaps there is  smidgeon of defensiveness, but we in the comfortable heterosexual, gender-conforming majority can bear to be reminded of our harsh intolerance of so many years. The only problem, I think, is that it makes everybody else non-pride, and no one familiar with the Disney Empire wants to be a hyena.

I think we should resist lumping together disparate groups whose biggest common ground is simply not being in the hetero- and gender-conforming majority. In particular, transgender and intersex people face a much lower level of general awareness and understanding than gays and lesbians usually have. Thinking consciously about whether something also applies to the other groups might be the beginnings of breaking down some stereotyping. But where a catch-all is truly useful, I vote for “queer.”

While we are on the topic of language, I resist putting “out” in quotation marks, because it conveys a coyness and coded language that I believe we should avoid. Maybe one day the sexual orientation adjectival form will seem archaic, and only the prepositional meaning will remain in common usage. “She’s out now” will always precede something like, “but can I take a message?”