Fighting a Boogeyman: How Gut Reactions Slowed the LGBT Rights Movement

"It's a good thing you came out as a homosexual after your grandpa died."

Looking back, this was a weird addendum to my coming-out conversation with my grandmother. She had approached me to let me know that she'd heard that I'd come out as "a homosexual." She'd told me that she loved me and had said that I didn't have to lie to her about anything and that I could bring home boyfriends for the holidays. Really, it couldn't have gone better -- until she added the line about my grandfather.

My family didn't really talk about gay people one way or the other, so I really had no idea how some of my extended family would react when I came out. I do remember my grandfather telling a story about standing up and walking out when his church debated whether to allow gay preachers. He thought the debate was unbelievable, actually talking about the acceptability of homosexuality in the house of his Lord. The idea was intolerable, disgusting. He couldn't sit there; he had had to leave.

However, it's unfair to speculate on how he might have reacted to my sexuality, because I never gave him the chance. He might have been fine with it. I only share this story now to illustrate how far we've come as a nation. The majority of my grandfather's generation, the so-called "greatest generation," shared his views on homosexuality. For them it was morally wrong -- and, frankly, just plain gross.

This disgust has played an important role in the efficacy of the LGBT rights movement. People tried to argue their way toward equality, but until very recently it got them nowhere. Our early activists were fighting more than ideas; they were fighting something deeply ingrained. How do you fight a gut reaction? I recently stumbled across an opinion piece on moral psychology in The New York Times by Jonathan Haidt that helped answer that question. In short, you can't.

Haidt argues that when it comes to moral arguments (like opinions on homosexuality), people just aren't rational; they won't listen to reason. To investigate this hypothesis he's performed many experiments in which people take a moral stand against, say, incest and then listen to him counter every rational argument they have against it. In the end people tend to say things like, "I can't give you a reason. It just feels wrong." His research indicates that people listen to their guts, not their heads.

Haidt specifically addresses gay marriage in the piece, saying that the only way to change public opinion on homosexuality is to remove its stigma. He writes:

Older people, who grew up in an environment where homosexuality was hidden and shameful, often still feel a visceral disgust at the thought of it. But younger people, who grew up knowing gay people and seeing gay couples on television, have no such disgust. For them, the arguments are much more persuasive.

As a gay man I find it hard to believe that some people have a deep, ingrained, unchangeable aversion to LGBT people. The phrase Haidt uses is "visceral disgust." I just don't get how my existence makes skin crawl and stomachs turn. I'll never understand how going about my day makes people want to puke. But I don't have to understand it; I only have to accept it. If I need examples, I only have to read some of the bigoted comments posted on HuffPost Gay Voices pieces.

Luckily, things are changing. There are fewer and fewer people who feel a deep-seated aversion to homosexuality ("feel" being the operative word in that sentence). People have opinions, but that gut reaction seems to be dissipating. From today's opponents you frequently hear, "I don't have a problem with gay people. I just think it's wrong." Although annoying, this opinion represents amazing progress.

Moreover, most of my straight friends don't think or feel anything about me being gay. They give it about the same amount of thought as they give to me being a lefty. They are shocked to learn that my gayness could still get me fired in many states and that I can't give blood or donate sperm because I might have some super-secret, undetectable strain of HIV. They get angry and say, "Dude, that's fucked up."

Given last month's election, it's safe to assume that that more people than just my friends have that reaction. Before election night I had little doubt that the American people would vote against my rights once again, but much to my surprise/glee/freakout, I was wrong. This time, in four different states, the American people decided that LGBT citizens were not second-class. A president who openly supported LGBT rights was reelected. These were clear signs that, finally, the tide were turning, and that from here on out, only more people would support equality. The battle for hearts is over. We've won.