Are lesbians more accepted than gay men?
Chicago • It may be a man's world, as the saying goes, but lesbians seem to have an easier time living in it than gay men do.
High-profile lesbian athletes have come out while still playing their sports, but not a single gay male athlete in major U.S. professional sports has done the same. While television's most prominent same-sex parents are the two fictional dads on "Modern Family," surveys show that society is actually more comfortable with the idea of lesbians parenting children.
And then there is the ongoing debate over the Boy Scouts of America proposal to ease their ban on gay leaders and scouts.
Reaction to the proposal, which the BSA's National Council will take up next month, has been swift, and often harsh. Yet amid the discussions, the Girl Scouts of USA reiterated their policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other things. That announcement has gone largely unnoticed.
Certainly, the difference in the public's reaction to the scouting organizations can be attributed, in part, to their varied histories, including the Boy Scouts' longstanding religious ties and a base that has become less urban over the years, compared with the Girl Scouts'.
But there's also an undercurrent here, one that's often present in debates related to homosexuality, whether over the military's now-defunct "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy or even same-sex marriage. Even as society has become more accepting of homosexuality overall, longstanding research has shown more societal tolerance for lesbians than gay men, and that gay men are significantly more likely to be targets of violence.
That research also has found that it's often straight men who have the most difficult time with homosexuality and particularly gay men says researcher Gregory Herek.
"Men are raised to think they have to prove their masculinity, and one big part about being masculine is being heterosexual. So we see that harassment, jokes, negative statements and violence are often ways that even younger men try to prove their heterosexuality," says Herek, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who has, for years, studied this phenomenon and how it plays out in the gay community.
That is not, of course, to downplay the harassment lesbians face. It can be just as ugly.
But it's not as frequent, Herek and others have found, especially in adulthood. It's also not uncommon for lesbians to encounter straight men who have a fascination with them.
"The men hit on me. The women hit on me. But I never feel like I'm in any immediate danger," says Sarah Toce, the 29-year-old editor of The Seattle Lesbian and managing editor of The Contributor, both online news magazines. "If I were a gay man, I might and if it's like this in Seattle, can you imagine what it is like in less-accepting parts of middle America?"
One of Herek's studies found that, overall, 38 percent of gay men said that, in adulthood, they'd been victims of vandalism, theft or violence hit, beaten or sexually assaulted because they were perceived as gay. About 13 percent of lesbians said the same.
A separate study of young people in England also found that, in their teens, gay boys and lesbians were almost twice as likely to be bullied as their straight peers. By young adulthood, it was about the same for lesbians and straight girls. But in this study, published recently in the journal Pediatrics, gay young men were almost four times more likely than their straight peers to be bullied.
At least one historian says it wasn't always that way for either men or women, whose "expressions of love" with friends of the same gender were seen as a norm even idealized in the 19th century.
"These relationships offered ample opportunity for those who would have wanted to act on it physically, even if most did not," says Thomas Foster, associate professor and head of the history department at DePaul University in Chicago.
Today's "code of male gendered behavior," he says, often rejects these kinds of expressions between men.
We joke about the "bro-mance" a term used to describe close friendships between straight men. But in some sense, the humor stems from the insinuation that those relationships could be romantic, though everyone assumes they aren't.
Call those friends "gay," a word that's still commonly used as an insult, and that's quite another thing. Consider the furor over Rutgers University men's basketball coach Mike Rice, who was recently fired for mistreating his players and mocking them with gay slurs.
If two women dance together at a club or walk arm-in-arm down the street, people are usually less likely to question it though some wonder if that has more to do with a lack of awareness than acceptance.
"Lesbians are so invisible in our society. And so I think the hatred is more invisible," says Laura Grimes, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago whose counseling practice caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clients.
Grimes says she also frequently hears from lesbians who are harassed for "looking like dykes," meaning that people are less accepting if they look more masculine.
Still, Ian O'Brien, a gay man in Washington, D.C., sees more room for women "to transcend what femininity looks like, or at least negotiate that space a little bit more."
O'Brien, who's 23, recently wrote an opinion piece tied to the Boy Scout debate and his own experience in the Scouts when he was growing up in the San Diego area.
"To put it simply: Being a boy is supposed to look one way, and you get punished when it doesn't," O'Brien wrote in the piece, which appeared in The Advocate, a national magazine for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
Joey Carrillo, a gay student at Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago, remembers trying to be as masculine as possible in high school. He hid the fact that he was gay, particularly around other athletes. As a wrestler, he says he never wanted to hear someone say, "Oh, THAT'S why he wrestles."
In fact, though more gay and lesbian athletes are coming out in college, gay male professional athletes in major sports have waited to do so until they have left their sport, one of the more recent being Robbie Rogers, an American soccer player who played professionally in England. There have been reports that gay male athletes who are currently playing may be on the verge of going public.
But women have already done so with little backlash.
U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, for instance, came out right before she played in last year's Olympics. WNBA star Seimone Augustus and the league's No. 1 draft pick, Brittney Griner, are some of the more recent female athletes to follow suit.
In Hollywood in recent years, both openly gay men and lesbians have had successful careers. And when it comes to television and movies, it appears there are more high-profile gay male characters.
Still, while many see the two dads on the "Modern Family" sitcom as groundbreaking, others have a sense that the societal discomfort with gay men as parents is at the root of many of the jokes.
"A good portion of that is for comedic effect," says Don Todd, a 32-year-old father in a two-dad family in Orange, Calif. He doesn't think most people would think it was as funny if the characters were two moms.
Herek, the researcher at UC-Davis, has, in fact, found in surveys that heterosexuals think lesbians would be better parents than gay men.
Nancy Dreyer, a mother in a two-mom family, has noticed this in her own life.
"With gay male friends of ours who have kids, people will say, 'My gosh, who takes care of this baby?' as if they're not capable," says Dreyer, whose 57 and lives in suburban Boston.
The assumption, she says, is that men aren't nurturing. And if they're too nurturing, she says, people get suspicious, noting that no one has ever questioned her and her partner about their ability to raise their son, who's now in college.
She's noticed the different ways society treats gay men and lesbians, partly because she has a brother, Benjamin Dreyer, who's gay. The Dreyer siblings say it's difficult to compare their experiences because Benjamin came out in college, and Nancy in her early 30s.
So he was the first to tell their parents. "They yelled at me. They took you to dinner," Benjamin Dreyer, who's 54 and works in publishing in New York City, now jokes with his sister.
Truth was, as a young gay man coming of age as the AIDS epidemic took hold, his parents simply worried, and with good reason, his sister says.
There's little doubt, they both say, that AIDS influenced the perception of gay men.
Benjamin Dreyer says he dealt with societal bias by avoiding it, and surrounding himself with people he knew would be supportive, including his parents, eventually.
But he's also realizing how quickly the need to do that is disappearing. He was surprised and pleased, for instance, when he attended his nephew's high school graduation last year. There, he saw a gay male graduate with his boyfriend, open and accepted by all his peers.
"It's mind-boggling," Benjamin Dreyer says. "It's wonderful."
Carrillo, too, decided to live openly when he arrived at Elmhurst College. He joined a fraternity and even painted a rainbow a common symbol of the gay community on his fraternity paddle. To his surprise, there was some backlash from a couple of his straight fraternity brothers who feared people would think their fraternity was the "gay fraternity."
"There's a long way to go," says Carrillo, who graduates next month. But he still feels hopeful.
"Honestly, I see it everywhere there's progress."