Why in-group leadership matters
In their book, Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights, researchers Brian Harrison and Melissa Michelson offered their own model for how public acceptance towards homosexuality has advanced so quickly—one that emphasizes in-group leadership from people like Portman.In an experiment they performed with a gay rights organization called One Iowa, some phone-banking volunteers identified themselves on the line as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and some did not. Unexpectedly, they found coming out to strangers on the phone did not necessarily boost support for the organization’s goal. In fact, “individuals identified as previous supporters of marriage equality were less likely to donate to an LGBT+ equality organization when the caller self-identified as an LGBT+ individual.” In the course of the book, Harrison and Michelson review the results of several experiments where they found that the most effective tactic was to deploy an in-group social leader to persuade people within their group about the value of LGBT+ rights
“I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way. Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. ”
In one study, they gave participants paragraphs arguing in favor of marriage equality. Some of those participants received a pro-equality message that was identified as coming from a professional athlete, while others were told the message was coming from a general supporter.The researchers found that respondents “exposed to the Professional Athletes paragraph were more supportive of marriage equality compared to the placebo, increasing support by more than 10 percentage points among Sports Fans and by just over eight percentage points among non-Sports Fans.” In another experiment, the researchers offered an argument in favor of marriage equality that came from either a “concerned citizen” or from Reverend Richard T. Lawerence, a Baltimore-area pastor. They found that “religious participants exposed to the quotation attributed to Reverend Lawrence were more likely to say that they supported marriage equality, more likely to say that they would likely vote for a ballot measure in their state establishing marriage equality, and more likely to approve of gay and lesbian parenting.” Their data led Harrison and Michelson to argue that “the rapid change in opinion on marriage equality occurred because over time, individuals were nudged by members and leaders of their social groups to reconsider their existing opinions.”
It’s difficult, even for the researchers, to say for sure if grassroots coming out drove elite conversion to the cause of gay rights—or if causality went in the other direction. What is clear is that a combination of greater exposure and contact with gay and lesbian Americans, alongside social cues by in-group leaders, were associated with a large decrease in bias among Americans
Lessons for building other bridges
What lessons can be drawn from the success of the gay rights movement? Can increased visibility and contact help reduce bias against other groups as well?
There is at least one group that specifically borrowed “coming out” as a tactic: undocumented migrants in the immigrant rights movement. In the past few years, as rhetoric against “illegals” heated up, more and more people stepped forward to say that they, too, arrived in the United States without documents, often as children.
In 2015, Laura Enriquez and colleagues studied how the immigrant rights movement adopted the tactic from the gay rights movement. “The successful use of ‘coming out’ within the gay rights movement was precisely why undocumented immigrant youth activists elected to borrow the term for their purposes,” says Enriquez, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. “Both groups were trying to build empathy, break down stereotypes, and demand social inclusion.”
As Tessa Charlesworth notes about her study, attitudes toward the disabled haven’t seen much change—but there is a movement toward adopting gay-rights tactics in disability rights. As GLAAD says in its annual report, “The amount of regular primetime broadcast characters counted who have a disability has slightly increased to 2.1 percent,
but that number still vastly underrepresents the actualities of Americans with disabilities.” Around 20 percent of Americans have some form of disability, and more and more people appear to be speaking up about it on social media, coming out as physically or mentally disabled in order to reduce stigma
Of course, some differences can’t be hidden, making representation a key issue. Becky Curran is a “little person” who works to increase the representation of disabled people in television programming.
“There are only 30,000 little people in the United States,” she says. “So, that means most people in the country have not come across a little person in real life unless it is directly around them where there’s a family member or friend or stranger that happens to live in the area.”
She notes that there are a number of challenges to increasing disabled representation in the media, including a perception by producers that there is a high “cost of accommodation” for a disabled actor. Curran said one of the biggest issues in casting right now is finding child actors with disabilities.
“None of us can promise that it’s a sustainable career because you may get a gig right off the start…or it may be a pilot that flops,” she says of the challenges of the Hollywood job market. “But if you think about it, everyone has to start somewhere.”
There are signs change may be afoot. Peter Dinklage, a little person, is one of the stars of the hit fantasy show Game of Thrones and also had a role in the Oscar-nominated film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Dinklage reflects on how important it is to offer positive representation.
Not to get too political about it, but it’s a stereotype that still exists. Dwarf tossing still exists. There are still people of my size dressing up as elves at Christmas time. And if everybody continues to do that, then it won’t stop. But my daughter doesn’t think I’m a mythical creature. Unicorns don’t exist, but I do. It’s tricky, what we put out there, to perpetuate for future generations.
Perhaps Dinklage will prove to be the Ellen Degeneres of disability. As a blogger at the Ruderman Foundation argues, we might need a Will & Grace for the disabled—a mainstream, prime-time show where disabled characters are at the forefront, to help expose viewers to the lives of people who are different from them.
So, what are we to make of the fact that the perception of discrimination is rising, while attitudes seem to be improving in areas like sexuality and race? It is possible that these are simply two sides of the same coin. While American society is growing far less homophobic and racist, we are more attentive to the homophobia and racism that still exists.
At the same time, greater diversity and a reduction in social bias may cause a small group that clings to bias to feel under greater threat, which may be one of the reasons we see a spike in hate crimes.
In addition, it’s important not to overstate the findings of the Harvard study, as bias does remain a persistent problem. “At baseline, most people have preference for the dominant or high-status group,” says Charlesworth. “So most people have a preference for, say, white Americans, for straight people, for younger people, for thin people, for light-skinned people, for able people, those are what we see across the board.”
The good news is that according to this study, the trends are moving in the right direction. “Over time, though, those preferences are weakened so people are becoming more equivalent, essentially,” she concludes. “They’re showing less preference for one group over the other.”
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