In 1977, 41 percent of Americans thought that gay or lesbian relations should be legal. By 2015, 68 percent thought so. In 1996, just 27 percent favored same-sex marriage. By 2016, 61 percent did (Gallup, 2016). Why have these attitudes changed? For many reasons, but psychological science has contributed in three important ways.
First, psychological studies disproved the belief that homosexuality is related to mental illness and criminality. Until the 1950’s, most homosexual persons studied by psychologists and others were prisoners or mental patients, so it was easy to conclude that these were linked.
Evelyn Hooker, a brave psychologist at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), began undoing this belief in the early 1950s. A gay former student told her, “Evelyn, it is your scientific duty to study men like me.” Hooker agreed, “
He’s right — we know nothing about them.” (cited in Burr, 1993). When she told the psychiatry department chair she wanted to study normal homosexuals, he replied, “There is no such person!” (Hooker, 1993, p. 450).
Her work was difficult. Gay males she wanted to test feared she would betray their confidentiality. If she did, their “occupations and very lives were at risk” (Hooker, 1993, p. 451). Neither government nor businesses would hire homosexual persons.
Hooker gave the Rorschach test to thirty homosexual and thirty heterosexual males. Three Rorschach experts tried to distinguish the responses of the two groups but could not (Hooker, 1957). Many later studies with other measures led to the conclusion that homosexuality had no related pathology,
and that gays and lesbians function equally well in work and in loving relationships. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases. This recognition that homosexuality is not associated with any pathology has helped foster its acceptance.
A second contribution by psychology is the discovery that homosexuality is largely determined by heredity, not just a free choice. This discovery is important, as support for the rights of homosexual persons is strongly linked to the belief that it is something individuals are “born with” (Gallup, 2007). Most gay men and lesbians believe they have “no choice at all” in their sexual orientation (Herek, Norton, Allen & Sims, 2010).
In the 1990s, evidence for the inheritance of homosexuality grew rapidly. Bailey and Pillard (1991) compared the sexual orientation of male identical twins, fraternal twins and adopted brothers. They reasoned that if homosexuality is shaped by genetics, more closely related people should be more alike in their sexual orientation.
Their findings showed that about 70 percent of homosexuality may be directly attributed to heredity. Later studies concurred, although the percentage was sometimes higher, sometimes lower. A network of genes, variations in maternal hormones during pregnancy, and their interactions may all play a part. There are perhaps multiple biological origins of homosexuality (Ngun & Vilain, 2014).
Far more Americans now accept that homosexuality is not just a choice. The percentage who believe homosexuality is something one is “born with” was just 13 percent in 1977 (Gallup, 2007), but in 2015, 51 percent believed that gays and lesbians are born as such (Gallup, 2015).
A third major way that psychology has advanced the rights of homosexual persons is by turning the lens on those with strong anti-homosexual attitudes.
The term “homophobia,” was introduced by Weinberg (1972). Based on his work with therapy patients, Weinberg concluded that anti-homosexual attitudes are often a real phobia, based upon a repressed fear that one is unconsciously homosexual.
As experimental support, one study found that the penises of men with strong anti-gay attitudes became somewhat erect when they were shown a videotape of homosexual behavior, but those of other men did not (Adams, Wright & Lohr, 1996).
However, given limited evidence that anti-gay attitudes are a true phobia, most psychologists use the term “anti-homosexual prejudice.” Psychologists have learned quite a bit about its correlates and dynamics. Those who are anti-homosexual persons are also more likely to be racist, anti-feminist, and ethnocentric (McFarland, 2010).
The strongest psychological predictor of anti-gay attitudes is the “authoritarian personality,” a cluster of attitudes that includes submissive attitudes toward strong leaders, a desire to punish all who violate conventional moral codes, and strong fear that conventional morality is breaking down (Whitley, 1999).
In summary, the acceptance of homosexual persons continues to advance, and the work of psychologists has contributed substantially. Psychologists have shown that homosexuality is not associated with mental illness or criminality, is largely determined by heredity, and that anti-homosexuality is related to other prejudices and to authoritarianism