Same-sex marriage legalization associated with reduced implicit and explicit anti-gay bias
Eugene K. Ofosu, Vanier Scholar, McGill University
“…given the direction of society, for the court to have allowed the process [same-sex marriage legalization] to play out the way it has may make the shift less controversial and more lasting”
– President Barack Obama, on Same-sex marriage legalization.
The evolution from the decriminalization of same-sex relations to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States slowly unfolded over a half century. This change was spurred by civil lawsuits, legislation, and deliberations in the hearts and minds of the people. In our paper, “Same-sex marriage legalization associated with reduced implicit and explicit anti-gay bias” (Ofosu, Chambers, Chen, & Hehman, 2019), we explored the role that same-sex marriage legislation specifically played in changing individuals’ anti-gay prejudice.
Norms are the implicitly and explicitly conveyed rules of society that govern our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In democratic societies, policies and legislation can be perceived as norms. Accordingly, could same-sex marriage legislation change peoples’ attitudes, even on this deeply entrenched political view? Due to how same-sex marriage unfolded in the U.S., staggered over time across many states, it served as an optimal natural process to study how reduction in intergroup bias and social change may be engendered.
Same-sex marriage became functionally legal in the U.S. by one of two pathways: either by a state-level verdict/legislation or by the U.S. Federal Supreme Court’s verdict of Obergefell v. Hodges. Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003, with 34 additional states and DC legalizing same-sex marriage at the state-level years following. The remaining 15 states without state-wide legislation adopted the “law of the land” in 2015 after the Supreme Court’s legalizing same-sex marriage. To test our research question, we geolocated approximately one million individuals who had completed measures of anti-gay prejudice online between 2005 to 2016. Through this process, we could essentially compare the trend in anti-gay prejudice over time, both before and after same-sex marriage legislation had been passed. A change in this trend would be evidence the legislation itself was causing this change.
Our analyses revealed that although anti-gay prejudice – implicit and explicit – was decreasing prior to same-sex marriage legalization, it decreased at a faster rate following legalization. Thus, it appears that decreasing anti-gay prejudice might have served as impetus and momentum for legalization, which in turn further changed people’s attitudes. This pattern of results implies a bidirectionality in the relationship between social norms, legislation, and individuals’ attitudes.
Thus, this project revealed strong evidence that laws and legislation, functioning as a norm, can cause changes in individuals’ prejudices, even on topics highly politicized and controversial.