Public Opinion and Discourse on the Intersection of LGBT Issues and Race

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A growing number of advocacy organizations are working at the intersection of racial justice, sexual orientation, and gender identity, challenging the myths and biases that continue to hamper the rights and opportunities of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people, especially LGBT people of color. The meta-analysis of public opinion research included in this report shows that Americans are more open to issues of LGBT equality than at any time in our history. Some segments of the population, however, including those who can usually be counted upon to support the rights of victims of discrimination, continue to harbor reservations about granting lesbians and gay men full equality, particularly when it comes to marriage equality. Anti-LGBT biases, including within the African-American and Latino communities, have created divisions and stymied collaborative activism and advocacy. The human cost of these divisions is high. Many LGBT people of color experience marginalization from the mainstream as a result of both their race and their sexual identity, as well as a compounding marginalization from within their own racial and ethnic communities because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The result is a “double-outsider” status in which individuals are systematically separated from the already-diminished opportunities that might exist within their own communities.

Creating a more responsive and supportive media environment — one that conveys the movement’s values, concerns, and solutions, and accurately portrays LGBT people of color — is vitally important in breaking down the barriers that keep people apart and prevent communities of color from wholeheartedly embracing the movement’s goals. Media representations of people and issues have important effects. Research shows that depiction in the media, especially distorted portrayals, affects public perceptions, which ultimately have a real impact on people’s lives every time their fate depends on how they are perceived by others (e.g., Dong & Murrillo, 2007 or Entman & Gross, 2008). Research also provides evidence of the potential of media representation that is fuller, more accurate, and more sympathetic. Political scientist Shanto Iyengar’s influential study (among others) of the effects of television news choices on viewers’ attitudes shows that news stories about racial discrimination help reduce the tendency to blame individuals for outcomes. To the contrary, coverage of black poverty focusing on individuals rather than larger trends or forces increases the degree to which viewers hold individuals responsible for racial inequality.

Ethnic and new media play an integral part in the media terrain. According to New America Media, the fastest growing sector of American journalism is ethnic media, with more than 3,000 outlets in the United States. In addition, a survey shows that African Americans and Latinos are significantly more likely than whites to believe that they can help get the word out about a social issue or cause through online social networks (58 percent and 51 percent, respectively, vs. 34 percent of whites).

The research findings described in this report build on other recent research commissioned or supported by the Arcus Foundation: in-depth interviews, a national survey, a series of focus groups of African Americans conducted in 2007-2008, and a study of the relationship between racial justice organizations and LGBT communities completed in 2010. This report takes a close look at the roles ethnic and new media are playing today in both perpetuating and challenging negative stereotypes. The report includes four studies:

  • What Americans Think about LGBT People, Rights and Issues: A Meta-Analysis of Recent Public Opinion;
  • Coverage of LGBT Issues in African-American Print and Online News Media: An Analysis of Media Content;
  • Coverage of LGBT Issues in Latino Print and Online News Media: An Analysis of Media Content; and
  • Online Discourse about LGBT Issues in African-American and Latino Communities: An Analysis of Online Discourse.

Each study has its own Findings section, but there are themes common to all that bear mentioning. These commonalities suggest that although each type of media merits its own specific, culturally sensitive strategy, coordinated strategies may also be appropriate and effective. In no particular order, we present some highlights:

  • Pro-LGBT spokespeople predominate in both the African-American and Latino print media by a wide margin.
  • The storylines in all three types of media tend to focus on LGBT-specific issues like marriage equality, homophobia, and the “down low lifestyle.” Few articles place LGBT people and issues within a broader societal context.
  • There is some narrative overlap. The clash of values between equality, human rights, and dignity on the one hand, and morality, “natural law,” and God’s will on the other is present in both the African-American and Latino coverage. Both communities are wrestling with this apparent contradiction, and in both instances religious leaders are the primary promoters of homophobic ideology.

The full report takes a close look at current public opinion and the role of ethnic and new media in both perpetuating and challenging myths and biases about LGBT people. Because the meta-analysis of public opinion was based on a synthesis of existing opinion research, we were limited by the data in our ability to analyze the views of all demographic groups on all issues. Whereas surveys often include adequate samples of African Americans and, more recently, Latinos to disaggregate their views, this is generally not the case with Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other groups. Wherever the data allowed, we have analyzed separately and together the views of each identifiable demographic group for this report. There is a paucity of research particularly on Asian-American attitudes towards LGBT issues.

Finally, this report at times uses different terms to describe the same racial categories in an attempt to be consistent with the terminology used in each study that is cited, when applicable. The public opinion research component of the report uses the racial categories utilized by the federal government, which have been largely adopted by opinion research. The categories are defined as follows:

  • White: any person who self-identifies as white only and non-Hispanic
  • Black: any person who self-identifies as black only
  • Hispanic: any person of any race who self-identifies as Hispanic
  • Asian: any person who self-identifies as Asian only

This research was conducted by Loren Siegel (Executive Summary, What Americans Think about LGBT People, Rights and Issues: A Meta-Analysis of Recent Public Opinion, and Coverage of LGBT Issues in African American Print and Online News Media: An Analysis of Media Content); Elena Shore, Editor/Latino Media Monitor of New America Media (Coverage of LGBT Issues in Latino Print and Online News Media: An Analysis of Media Content); and Cheryl Contee, Austen Levihn-Coon, Kelly Rand, Adriana Dakin, and Catherine Saddlemire of Fission Strategy (Online Discourse about LGBT Issues in African American and Latino Communities: An Analysis of Web 2.0 Content). Loren Siegel acted as Editor-at-Large of the report, with assistance from staff of The Opportunity Agenda. Christopher Moore designed the report.

The Opportunity Agenda’s research on the intersection of LGBT rights and racial justice is funded by the Arcus Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are those of The Opportunity Agenda.

Special thanks to those who contributed to this project, including Sharda Sekaran, Shareeza Bhola, Rashad Robinson, Kenyon Farrow, Juan Battle, Sharon Lettman, Donna Payne, and Urvashi Vaid.

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