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Lesbians more accepted than gay men around the world, study finds

The study explored attitudes toward nonheterosexual men and women in 23 countries and found "gay men are disliked more than lesbian[s]" in every country.

A new study exploring the attitudes toward nonheterosexual men and women in 23 Western and non-Western countries found lesbians are more accepted than gay men around the world.

“We found that gay men are disliked more than lesbian women in every country we tested,” according to the study, which was conducted by three New York University psychologists and published in the December issue of the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.

Sexual minorities face pervasive discrimination and hostility globally, with same-sex sexual activity still illegal in approximately 70 countries.

Broadly, the study found that “attitudes toward sexual minorities are robustly related to beliefs about the gender system, more broadly.”

The study defines “gender norms” as “widely shared societal and cultural beliefs distinguishing personality traits, behaviors, and interests as appropriate and desirable for either men or women but not both.” It says that gender norms “prescribe behaviors that fuel a heteronormative system — that is, men and women conforming to norms are seen as ‘complements’ to one another, and this makes heterosexual coupling seem necessary and normal.”

In places like the Netherlands where people are more accepting of gender norm violations, better known as gender nonconformity, there is an association with “positive attitudes toward sexual minorities.” The converse is also largely true: For instance in America, college students who endorsed “traditional gender arrangements” were more likely to report negative attitudes toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Maria Laura Bettinsoli, the study's lead author, said she and her colleagues were surprised "at the consistency of the relationship between gender norm endorsement and sexual prejudice."

"Even though there were some non-Western countries that did not conform to the pattern, the majority of countries did," she said in a statement.

Indeed, in countries including China and India, the survey found that strong gender norms are actually associated with greater tolerance of homosexuality — that is, people with the strongest beliefs in how men and women should behave were more likely to tolerate homosexuality, the opposite of the West, including the Americas and Western Europe.

The report speculates that in some Eastern countries, “both gender norms and nonheterosexuality are considered ‘Western’ (or, perhaps, capitalist) concepts, and those who are pro-Western are more likely to feel favorable toward both.”

Men vs. Women

The study’s findings also suggest that “men are more likely to be both the targets and perpetrators of sexual prejudice.”

In all 23 countries studied, the report found "gay men are rated more negatively than lesbian women,” and that trend was almost entirely driven by the views of men, except in Poland, Hungary and Russia, where women also assigned gay men high negative ratings. In the United States, men who are anti-gays largely direct their prejudice toward gay men, while women who are anti-gays direct their prejudice more equally toward gay men and gay women, the study found.

“In other words, harboring prejudicial attitudes toward sexual minorities is part of the social construction of what it means to ‘be a man’” in many Western countries, according to the report.

In January 2019, the American Psychological Association’s first guide to issues specific to men and boys warned that “traditional masculinity ideology” — what some characterized as “toxic masculinity” — “has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict and negatively influence mental health and physical health” and linked it to both homophobia and misogyny.

Global snapshot

The study also shed light on some contours of global homophobia. In Russia, perhaps unsurprisingly due to its 2013 gay propaganda law, “positive attitudes toward sexual minorities” are the lowest of the 23 countries surveyed. A 2018 survey conducted in Russia found that nearly two thirds of people there believe that LGBTQ people are seeking “to destroy the spiritual values generated by Russians, through the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”

It also placed American attitudes toward lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the context of other countries around the world: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Great Britain, Spain and Sweden all have more positive attitudes toward sexual minorities than do Americans.

Respondents in Brazil, China, Hungary, Japan, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey all reported more negative attitudes toward gay people than the U.S., while attitudes in France, Germany, Italy, and Mexico largely mirrored America’s.

In conclusion, the study's authors underscored the "important phenomenon" uncovered in their report regarding the differing views of gender norms in the East and the West and how they relate to views on sexuality.

"This work should be a springboard for more focused inquiries into conceptualization of gender and sexuality in understudied populations and to rethink how these things are conceptualized in the Western world," the study stated.

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