In the fight for LGBT equality, swaying public opinion is essential. While large scale campaigns and educational programs are important, research shows that most changing of hearts and minds happens one-on-one, when individuals have meaningful interaction with a person in the minority group in question.
This concept is called “contact theory” and was the subject of a talk given at the Michigan Project for Informed Public Policy “Waves of Courage” Conference at Affirmations May 4. Dr. Clinton Anderson, director of the American Psychological Association’s Office of LGBT Concerns in Washington, D.C., spoke of how contact theory works and how LGBT activists can use it to literally change the world one person at a time.
“It’s not just you changing your family’s beliefs,” Anderson said. “They may vote differently. They might encourage others they talk to to vote differently. We know that the ideals of your peers can encourage behaviors and the more support there is for an idea, the more it spreads.”
The key, he said, is knowing how to communicate in a way that “works” psychologically.
Understanding where other people are coming from can help LGBT and allied people know where to start in their approach. Is the person or group being spoken to in need of more knowledge? Or do they need relief from anxiety? Or are they more likely to be moved by empathy?
In some cases, knowledge is power. If someone is in the position where data drives their decision-making, such as legislators or business-minded people, presenting compelling facts can be the way to get them to see your side. Some people prefer logical information over emotional arguments. Knowledge can also be simply presenting the fact that LGBT people exist. It could mean showing someone that they have a gay friend or neighbor, or demonstrating that there are gay scientists, gay artists, gay astronauts, or even gay professional athletes.
Other people are closed off from accepting knowledge because of some anxiety they have. They could have internalized homophobia they don’t understand. They could have fears that were imposed on them by the media or through a non-accepting church. They could fear AIDS, the breakdown of the family unit, rejection from society or even the vaguely oft-cited “gay agenda.” All the facts in the world won’t matter if someone is blocked by their fear.
Anderson encouraged the group to explore ways one could overcome anxiety in others, such as being open to listening to someone talk through their fears without judging them for it. One attendee even recommended having a casual discussion over food, since breaking bread is a long-recognized method of bonding.
Some people simply have no frame of reference on how to relate to LGBT people. They think they have never met a gay person, and they can’t imagine what being gay is like. Or they only have negative impressions of homosexuality. In these situations being able to put a human face to the movement can be effective. Connecting personally with an LGBT person brings empathy to people who were otherwise ambivalent.
“The people who have spoken directly with a gay or lesbian friend or relative about the latter’s experience have significantly more positive attitudes than those who have not,” Anderson said.
Contact theory can reach people in all three ways if the interactions are well-rounded and positive. They can increase knowledge and empathy and reduce anxiety. In the professional realm, there are ways LGBT people and their allies can communicate their psychological knowledge, including facilitating groups (such as in the workplace, school or church), working as community mental health interveners, and serving as an expert spokesperson to the media or by speaking to groups.
Whether it’s in the LGBT community, or between other “in” and “out” groups, research consistently finds that prejudice is reduced by contact between minority and majority group members. The quality of that contact matters as well.
Like Anderson, members of MPIPP understand the value of contact theory in the LGBT equality movement. Working in Michigan, the group has developed a speaker’s program called KUP – the Know Us Project. The project provides training for LGBT people and allies to speak to others, while also giving them the support they need to face whatever reactions might come of it. The program is based on the idea of contact theory and the need for members of the community to better communicate towards the goal of gaining support for equality.
To learn more about MPIPP, visit their website at http://mpipp.org.