Perceptions of Homosexuality

In May, the Boy Scouts will decide whether to lift their outright ban on openly homosexual scouts and troop leaders. Certainly, as the Supreme Court ruled in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, this decision is ultimately up to the Scouts. We should ask ourselves, however, if barring people from participation in an organization is “morally straight”.

The foundation of the Boy Scouts’ purpose is cultivating moral, self-reliant, young men of character. Certainly, this is a noble goal. The world needs good people. The basis of the ban on homosexuals is to preserve an ideological uniformity; the idea that homosexuality is inherently immoral. Without attesting to the morality of homosexuality, the Boy Scouts should consider whether excluding individuals based on homosexuality is itself a moral act.

We should all agree that cultivating young men, heterosexual or homosexual, into better people is good for society. The question that the Boy Scout leaders must weigh is whether allowing homosexuals into the Boy Scouts will undermine the goal of creating better people. The idea of association with homosexuals having negative consequences is not new, but the psychological analysis of the idea is.

There are three main psychological roots of attitudes toward homosexuals: experiential, defensive, and symbolic. Experiential attitudes derive from specific interactions with homosexual individuals. A person with a positive experience with a homosexual will have a more favorable attitude toward them and vice-versa. Generally, these experiences have an effect of dispelling stereotypes. However, there is also the effect of information biases shaping the recollection of the experience. For example, when a person is labeled a-typical, such as wealthy, people can recall more details about that person that they would normally be unaware of.

Additionally, people retroactively restructure information to fit stereotypes. In an experiment by Snyder and Uranowitz (1978), people were given a description of a person named Betty K’s life. In one scenario they were later informed that she was a lesbian, in another that she was married to a man. In the former case, people were more likely to remember aspects of Betty’s life that fit the stereotypes of a lesbian.

The second root of attitude is defensive. When a person feels that a homosexual is a personal threat, they are likely to have negative feelings about homosexuality. Studies have consistently shown that people who are more confident are less likely to have negative attitudes toward homosexuals. In many cases, people with negative attitudes toward homosexuals are externalizing inner conflicts. These conflicts are not limited to struggles with one’s own sexuality. They can also include men envying homosexuals not being held to the same standard of masculinity, repressed sexuality in general associated with the perception (or misperception) that homosexuals are promiscuous or sexually liberated, and fear of death, stemming from the perception that homosexuals have rejected immortality through childbearing. These issues represent unresolved inner conflicts that have little, if anything, to do with the homosexual individual being projected upon.

The third root of attitude is symbolic. A good example of this is Judeo-Christian aversion to homosexuality. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, homosexual practices were historically associated with idolatry and heresy. This reinforces the idea of homosexual as other, deviant, and undesirable. This fits in to a person’s larger sense of identity. For example, a man who views himself as a fundamentalist Christian would typically view a negative attitude toward homosexuality as a part of their larger identity, while a woman who views herself as a liberal committed to individual rights would see her positive attitude as part of her identity. In this case, the negative attitudes flow from the feeling that cherished values are being violated and illegitimate demands for changing the status quo are being made. The validity of such attitudes is very difficult to determine, as this involves an entire personality of character traits playing on one another.

On the one hand, the demands for change may be legitimate. However, such a determination is at best subjective and dependent upon the audience. On the other hand, the changes may be an overreach, or part of a larger assault on the status quo, and therefore be viewed as unacceptable when taken in the aggregate. The result is a sort of blowback in favor of maintaining all aspects the status quo. These are very serious issues that the Boy Scouts need to consider. It is important that they weigh these things through their own lens, with an emphasis on what is best for the organization. Certainly, this is the time for scouts not only to be “morally straight”, but also “mentally awake”.

Additional Resources

The New York Times, Boy Scouts Say Gay Debate Was Ignited by a Leak:

News Democrat Leader, Boy Scouts Face Mountain of Ideological Uniformity:

CNN, Boy Scout Leaders Put off Vote on Gay Membership:

The New York Times, Studies Discover Clues to the Roots of Homophobia:

Middletree, For Such Were Some of You—How are Christians to Treat Homosexuals?

The Christian Post, How Are Christians to Treat Homosexuals?

Journal of Homosexuality, Beyond “Homophobia”:

Law Review, The Gay Panic Defense:

U.S. Census Bureau, Same Sex Couples:

Cornel University Law School, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale:


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