Love Wins, Sex Doesn’t: The Role of Disgust in Public Opinion and LGBTQ Politics

On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. For many, this decision was emblematic of the enormous and seemingly rapid gains made by LGBTQ people over the past thirty years. Yet just a few short months later, the LGBTQ community in Houston, Texas experienced a startling defeat when anti-discrimination protections – a policy issue that enjoys supermajority support in every state in the nation (Flores et al 2015) – were rejected 61%–39% at the ballot, following egregiously transphobic, bathroom-centered campaign advertisements. Since then, so called “bathroom bills” have been introduced in states and municipalities throughout the country, most notably North Carolina’s HB2.

The specificity of this moment – the sudden hyper-visibility of trans issues and bathroom panic coming on the heels of legal marriage equality – exemplifies the complex, often conflicting roles of emotions in prejudice and politics. Indeed, the attainment of legal marriage equality reveals (or calls attention to) the failings of normalizing, assimilationist rhetoric, and the significant opposition that remains to LGBTQ people and issues. I argue that the emotion of disgust, a powerful and particularly embodied emotion, has played a critical role in the history of LGBTQ politics in America, and, I argue, continues to do so today as an important and underappreciated source of this continued opposition.

Scholars in psychology, political science, and other fields have demonstrated that feeling disgust leads to harsher moral judgments, increased prejudices, avoidant and distancing behavior, and “resistance to rational argument” (Cunningham et al 2013; Dasgupta et al 2009; Inbar et al 2009; Olatunji 2008; Terrizzi et al 2010). The avoidant behavior is particularly relevant, given that one of the central strategies of the gay movement has been the use of contact (Stone 2012) to reduce prejudice toward LGBTQ people. In other words, disgust contributes to prejudicial attitudes toward out groups (including sexual minorities) and deters the very behaviors (e.g., contact) often relied upon to combat these negative attitudes. Additionally, disgust has been used to pass legislation and encode prejudice into political and social institutions (e.g., Canaday 2011; Foucault 1978; Nussbaum 2004; Rubin 1984). This illustrates how disgust operates both as a psychological phenomenon that structures interpersonal interactions, and as a sociopolitical norm that is taught, learned, reinforced, and embedded in cultures and institutions.

This project directly examines how disgust affects contemporary support for a number of important LGBTQ policy issues, as well as how disgust is elicited by these same issues. Using a series of original experiments, I illustrate the connection of disgust to contemporary opinions toward LGBTQ people and issues. I demonstrate that even considering LGBTQ policy issues directly elicits disgust, and that different LGBTQ policy issues elicit varying levels and intensities of disgust. I then show that these disgust reactions correspond to declines in support for LGBTQ policies, particularly those that would benefit transgender people (and transgender women especially). I also offer both theory and evidence about the kinds of policies and people for whom these effects are greatest: policies that are more associated with sex acts or sex changes are more likely to elicit disgust.

Finally, I draw on theories of affective economies (e.g. Ahmed 2004) to illustrate one (flawed) way to counter the politics of disgust: I recount the evolution of opinion and policy success on gay marriage, and argue that gay marriage advocates only became successful when they centered love and “normalcy” in their arguments, rather than earlier frames of civil/equal rights. I conclude by arguing that LGBTQ advocates will need to develop different persuasive tactics that more directly confront the impact of disgust moving forward, particularly in the face of the growing number of “bathroom bills.”

Overall, the implications of the project suggest that people who continue to feel disgust, even after (or perhaps because of) the attainment of legal marriage equality, may be much more difficult to persuade – in sharp distinction to the conventional wisdom that public opinion toward LGBTQ people will continue its rapid progress. In short, for LGBTQ politics, the influence of disgust means a very different and more difficult future than both activists and scholars currently imagine. At the same time, understanding how disgust affects beliefs and behaviors can help guide future efforts in understanding public opinion on LGBTQ issues, and can help advocates calibrate their strategies more effectively, and without reliance on assimilationist tactics.

Rationale for Inclusion

This proposal is for a standard style academic presentation, but would also be easily suited for an informal roundtable contribution or whatever best suits the conference’s needs.

This project would be well suited to the conference due to its focus on understanding this current turning point in LGBTQ politics and anticipating the political landscape that lies ahead. I argue that understanding this turning point critically depends on understanding the underlying emotional components, particularly disgust, of attitudes toward LGBTQ people and issues. This work sheds light on how marriage equality and bathroom bills can exist contemporaneously, and even be supported by the same individual (i.e. a person who is both pro-marriage equality and against trans-friendly bathroom policies). Additionally, in my work I strive to connect feminist and queer theory and critical conversations within LGBTQ activism with scholarship and methods in political science and psychology. This mirrors the conference’s aim of highlighting the future of LGBTQ scholarship as well as activism.

Additionally, the theory of this project also provides a framework for examining the influence of disgust in other political domains, such as immigration or racial politics (e.g., Hancock 2004). The findings suggest that continued success for the LGBTQ movement – and any other movement that confronts disgust – will require the understanding that disgust influences many beliefs and opinions, even among presumed supporters, and that new strategies based on engaging this difficult emotion will be vital.


Part of panel Meaning, Framing, and Emotion in LGBTQ and anti-LGBTQ Politics
October 1, 2016, 16:45–18:30