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Americans Warming Up To Marriage Equality, Still Grossed Out By Same-Sex Public Displays Of Affection

Utah plaintiffs Moudi Sbeity and Derek Kitchen kissing at a marriage equality rally in October. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICK BOWMER
Utah plaintiffs Moudi Sbeity and Derek Kitchen kissing at a marriage equality rally in October. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICK BOWMER

Though support for LGBT legal equality continues to climb, that doesn’t mean that Americans are comfortable with LGBT people in their everyday lives. A new study from Indiana University finds that people who identify as heterosexual are significantly less comfortable seeing same-sex couples’ displays of affection than they are supporting those couples’ legal rights.

For example, about 70 percent of straight respondents supported inheritance rights for gay and lesbian couples, which was actually about the same for heterosexual couples. But while 95 percent approved of seeing a different-sex couple exchange a kiss on the cheek, only 55 percent approved the same for a gay couple and 72 percent for a lesbian couple.

The divide was similar for French kissing, which enjoyed 50 percent approval for different-sex couples, but only 22 percent for gay couples and 26 percent for lesbian couples.

Straight men were largely responsible for the split between male same-sex couples and female same-sex couples. They were much more comfortable overall witnessing lesbian behavior than witnessing two men exchanging affection.

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That split was also evident on the basic question of marriage equality. The study found that 53 percent supported marriage equality for male couples, but 59 percent supported marriage equality for female couples (99 percent approved marriage for different-sex couples).

The fact that support for public displays of affection was higher than for legal equality is somewhat encouraging, but the gap between what’s okay for different-sex couples and what’s okay for same-sex couples indicates that there are still many cultural barriers to acceptance of LGBT people.

And some of that intolerance is also internalized by LGBT people. The study also interviewed people who identify as gay and lesbian, and they were also less supportive of same-sex couples’ public displays of affection. For example, 45 percent thought it was acceptable for different-sex couples to French kiss in public, but only 39 percent believed it was acceptable for a gay couple to do so. Lead researcher Long Doan told the Chicago Tribune that he believes this suggests that “they’re afraid of the negative backlash that gay and lesbian couples may experience.”

Doan also noted that the disconnect between straight respondents’ support for certain legal rights compared to marriage itself suggests that heterosexuals conceptualize marriage more as about intimacy than about legal rights and protections.