By Chris Crain
More people want to keep gays out of their
neighborhood than they do Muslims, Jews,
immigrants and people of another race. Why?
Who wouldn't want a homosexual for a neighbor?
Our interior and exterior decorating skills are legendary. We keep a tidy lawn and a colorful garden. And in city after city, we renovate and update, raising property values for ourselves and those around us.
To top it off, we're avid neighborhood activists, throwing ourselves into better policing, stricter zoning and removal of "unsavory elements."
Who wouldn't want a homosexual for a neighbor? Plenty of people, as it turns out.
Asked who they would not want as neighbors, one in five residents of Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand said "no" to the gay next door. That's fully double the number who said they wouldn't want Jews or someone of a different race for a neighbor.
The papers may be full of stories about resentment toward immigrants and foreign workers, but gays are less welcome to the neighborhood by more than 50 percent. Even Muslims, with all their bad press, are 25 percent more accepted.
The somewhat surprising findings are from work done by researchers at universities in Northern Ireland and New Zealand. Since few among us would admit outright to being a bigot, these academics found that the best way of measuring bigotry is a more indirect inquiry into what types of people you wouldn't want to live nearby.
If you believe, as many of us do, that homophobia is the last acceptable prejudice, you'll find support in the study. In two-thirds of the countries surveyed, gays were rated the least desirable neighbors, including in the U.S., Canada and Australia, where the numbers who disapproved of gay neighbors were more than double that of Muslims, the next group down the list. Only in a few countries in Scandinavia and northern Europe were we welcomed by almost everyone.
And among the bigots, we were by far the favored target of loathing. In most major Western countries, including the U.S., Canada and Great Britain, more than three-quarters of those who object to at least one minority group also include gays on their list of phobias. That led the researchers to conclude, "Homophobia is, by far, the main source of bigotry in most Western countries."
What, in turn, is the source of that homophobia? Not a person's level of education or income, as it turns out. Age and gender were much better indicators. A New York Times poll released last week backs that up, showing opposition to legal recognition for gay couples running 40 to 50 percent higher among Americans over the age of 30 as it is among those under 30.
It's a pretty safe bet that the 23 percent of Americans who don't want gay neighbors form the bulk of those who also don't want our relationships to receive legal recognition. I've always resisted the idea that opponents of gay rights are bigots. It has struck me as a cheap shot that polarizes the debate, rather than attempting to reason and address concerns. There's not much point in reasoning with prejudice, of course; the whole idea is that it's animus immune to reality.
Religion can be as impenetrable to reason as prejudice, and gay rights opponents have long cited their moral beliefs as justification for our inequality. Still, since I come from a loving, religious family that is steadfastly opposed to my equal rights as a gay man, I've always taken the anti-gay Christians at their word when they swear it's the sin they hate and not the sinner.
So how do they explain the "good neighbor" study's most surprising finding? Deeply religious Christians were less prejudiced against Muslims and immigrants, and much more prejudiced against gays. Do these churchgoers simply ignore Jesus' central commandment to "love thy neighbor"? Or are they figuring that if Jesus commands them to love their neighbor, they hope for Christ's sake their neighbor isn't queer?
As more lesbians and gay men live their lives openly, there's hope the bigotry might fade, as it has on race. The short-lived ABC reality show "Welcome to the Neighborhood" effectively tested out the findings of the "good neighbor" study, letting a group of mildly bigoted Texas neighbors award a house on their block to either a black family, a Korean family, hippies, Wiccans or a gay couple. The series was yanked because it pushed too many racial hot-buttons, but the gay couple won over their skeptical neighbors and won the house, too.
One objection to the show was from "fair housing" advocates, who pointed out federal law prohibits discriminating on the basis of race, religion, and national origin in the housing market. Of course that law doesn't include sexual orientation as a protected category, and absolutely no one is talking about amending it anytime soon.
But as the gay couple on "Welcome to the Neighborhood" proved, the answer to neighborhood bigotry may not be in changing laws, but in changing hearts and minds. We have always been our own best ambassadors, and perhaps if we keep extending our welcome mat, one day more "deeply religious" folks will do the same.