Kristin J. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kristin J Anderson Ph.D.

"Benign" Bigotry

The Benign Bigotry of Pride Month News Coverage

Do Gays Flaunt their Sexuality?

Posted Jun 22, 2009

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month. This month Pride parades and other celebrations are occurring in towns and cities all over the U.S. and in many parts of the world. The typical news coverage of Pride contains images of lesbian bikers in full leather gear, drag queens wearing giant fuchsia colored wigs and sky-high platforms, and young gay men dancing in leather underwear. Missing from the coverage are the participants and spectators many of whom are folks who look suburban, corporate, academic, working class, and otherwise "ordinary," and families who come to the parade with diaper bags and strollers.

While the Pride parade participants who are shown add some much needed fabulousness to the typical news day, covering such a narrow band of participants perpetuates a common stereotype about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people: that they flaunt their sexuality.

Research from cognitive and social psychology can help us understand how specific depictions of LGBT people perpetuate people's stereotypes about them. First, people are more likely to remember information consistent with their stereotypes than information inconsistent with their stereotypes. If the images you see in Pride coverage are consistent with your beliefs about LGBT people, you are more likely to remember them than if they contradict your beliefs. Because mass media tend to show stereotypical portrayals of lesbians and gay men, viewers tend to find that the depictions provide support for their stereotyped beliefs. Second, people tend to remember and are influenced by vivid images because vivid images create a striking and lasting impression on the viewer. The coverage of Pride is vivid indeed. Finally, because representations of LGBT people are still much less frequent in mass media and popular culture than representations of heterosexuals, these vivid images of Pride celebrations are more memorable than, say, vivid images of heterosexuals at a Mardi Gras celebration. 

All of this amounts to the common belief that LGBT people flaunt their sexuality--that LGBT people are too open, outrageous, and inappropriate about their sexuality. Many heterosexuals claim, "I don't have a problem with gays as long as they don't flaunt their lifestyle. They should keep their private lives to themselves." Those who believe that LGBT people flaunt their sexuality do not recognize the effect that news coverage of only a small segment of the LGBT community contributes to their understanding of who LGBT people are.

They also do not recognize the extent to which heterosexuals flaunt their sexuality. Take a look at the front page of your newspaper, the headlines on your favorite news site homepage, turn on your TV, or rent a film. Heterosexuality is everywhere. From entertainment news, to reality TV, to morning talk shows, to nighttime talk shows, viewers are subjected to heterosexual kissing, sexual intercourse, marriages, music videos, and on and on. In real life, heterosexuals flaunt their lifestyles by wearing wedding rings, hand holding, hugging, and kissing in public, talking about their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives, and on and on. In the workplace, heterosexuals openly discuss their relationships, their weekend plans, they display pictures of their spouses, hang wall calendars with pictures of the other sex, flaunt their lifestyle by bringing their other sex partners to office parties, and on and on.

As a social psychologist who studies subtle forms of prejudice, I have identified this form of reverse and unfounded accusation as an instance of benign bigotry. Benign bigotry describes the kind of bigotry that appears harmless and even innocent but its resulting behavior and thinking are pervasive. Benign bigotry describes subtle prejudice--prejudice that is automatic, inconspicuous, indirect, and often unconscious and unintentional. Benign bigotry is no less harmful than any kind of bigotry. In fact, it is a particularly insidious and harmful form of prejudice. Laws do not protect against benign bigotry, but it occurs every day, and because of its covert nature, it is difficult to observe and frequently goes undetected by both perpetrator and victim.

The belief that LGBT people flaunt their sexuality is a dangerous one. The idea that they are inappropriate in their public displays of their sexuality influences parents who question whether or not their child is safe with a lesbian teacher, or gay coach. It affects people's belief in whether or not LGBT people should serve in the military. And it affects whether or not LGBT people are judged to be "normal" enough to have the same civil rights as heterosexuals, and whether or not they deserve the same humanity.

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