Although pernicious in any form, prejudice against gay people is not evenly distributed. Men hold more anti-gay attitudes than women, and these attitudes are particularly directed toward gay men rather than lesbians. As evidence of this trend, consider the close relationship between homophobia and men’s sports, where prejudice against gay and bisexual male athletes is disproportionately common.
As a researcher at the Kinsey Institute, I am especially interested in the relationship between sexuality and evolution. I want to understand how the challenges faced by our ancestors leave traces in our brains and behaviours today. Why is it that men seem to be particularly inclined toward prejudice against gay men? How might the legacy of our ancestors contribute to this modern bias?
Contrary to common assumptions, these patterns cannot be reconciled with a purely religious understanding. If religion were the only contributing factor, gay men would not experience more animosity than gay women. Moreover, because women tend to be more religious than men on average, if religion were the sole cause, we would expect women to hold more anti-gay attitudes than men. But they don’t. So how can we make sense of this pattern of homophobia?
At least a portion of this anti-gay bias can be understood as the product of males policing peer behaviour by penalising those who do not conform to warfare-oriented conceptualisations of masculinity. This trend is particularly evident in physically aggressive sports like football, where contexts mimic warfare and require traits traditionally considered masculine. As American sociologist C. J. Pascoe has revealed in her 2007 book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, men often hurl homophobic insults at one another to critique effeminate behaviour rather than to derogate sexual orientation per se.
Across human history, wars have primarily been fought by groups (or coalitions) of men. Even among humans’ closest relatives, chimpanzees, groups of males violently defend their territories against other males, which suggests that male group-based aggression extends quite far back into our evolutionary history. Estimates indicate that nearly 20–30% of our male ancestors died in intergroup conflicts. Genetic analyses of human Y chromosomes (which are passed directly from fathers to sons) reveal that groups of men who succeeded on the battlefield replaced the losing groups of men in the gene pool. In other words, the coalitions of men who were successful in warfare not only survived but reproduced with local women and passed on their genes. Success on the battlefield was thus highly consequential. Humans today are the descendants of those men who managed to dominate their opponents in war.
With their lives on the line, our male ancestors would have preferred fellow soldiers who possessed traits conducive to success on the battlefield. All else being equal, it is reasonable to expect that such success would have been more common among men who were dominant, strong, fearless and had a high tolerance for pain (traits that still compose societal notions of masculinity today). Men would have chosen fellow warriors with these traits over those who were submissive, weak, fearful or easily hurt. Thus, those groups of men who succeeded in warfare (and reproduced) would assess other men for their ability to help the group triumph, preferring and deferring to those with attributes advantageous in war.
Men’s anti-gay attitudes are a modern relic of these interpersonal preferences for promoting successful armies. A few years ago, Bo Winegard, Roy Baumeister, Ashby Plant and I conducted a series of studies aimed at understanding this bias. We asked men to provide their assumptions of a hypothetical gay man and a hypothetical straight man and found that compared to the straight man, the gay man was presumed to be weaker, more submissive, less assertive, and more likely to cry when hurt. These are all traits that go against social expectations of traditional masculinity. Indeed, our findings revealed that men assumed that the gay man was less masculine and more feminine than the straight man. Thus, modern conceptualisations of what makes a real man are still based on traits that were historically useful in tribal warfare—men use one another’s sexual orientations to make assumptions about their combat-relevant traits.
Subsequent studies revealed that men’s social preferences centred more on these masculine attributes than on sexual orientation specifically. When presented with more direct evidence of warfare-relevant traits, such as physical strength, we found that men cared less about one another’s sexual orientation per se. Men actually preferred a gay man who was strong, courageous, etc., over a straight man who was weak or fearful. This suggests that men tend to use one another’s sexual orientation as a rough proxy for their ability to contribute to aggressive male coalitions rather than valuing the orientation in itself.
We also found that men’s negative assumptions about gay men were specific to contexts that most closely mimicked warfare, requiring physical formidability or fortitude. Indeed, men assumed that gay men were equally proficient at business and more proficient than straight men in other scenarios. When the nature of the competition required traditionally masculine traits like physical strength, men attended to the available cues of masculinity. But when we asked our male participants which men they would like as teammates for a poetry competition (i.e., something requiring a skillset quite different from historical warfare), we found that their preferences shifted. Men more strongly preferred the feminine man as a teammate in a poetry contest than in a physically demanding contest like basketball. Again, they did not show a preference for straight over gay individuals. Rather, men selected partners based on cues of that person’s ability to contribute to the group’s success.
These patterns help make sense of why homophobic rhetoric is more common in athletic settings and particularly within physically aggressive male sports. These contexts mimic warfare and require traditionally masculine traits. Indeed, in our studies, men who were more involved in contact sports tended to hold the most negative assumptions about gay men’s abilities to contribute to traditional armies, presuming that gay men are especially lacking in strength, dominance and assertiveness. This finding suggests that the more a competition mimics warfare, the more men will attend to cues of one another’s masculinity. Because men use sexual orientation as a rough proxy for one another’s warfare-relevant traits, these homophobic insults may be men’s way of saying, be a better warrior; don’t let the team down.
That men’s preferences with regard to their same-sex teammates shifted based upon the nature of the competition offers reason for optimism. In today’s modern world, many competitive ventures do not necessitate hand-to-hand combat, physical strength or pain tolerance. Fortune 500 companies, for example, do not succeed because their CEOs and employees are good spear-throwers or grapplers. They succeed because they select individuals who are intelligent, diligent and cooperative. In these contexts, evidence suggests that men’s preferences for traditionally masculine peers should diminish. As men attend to whatever traits are useful for the competition at hand, we should expect their notions of masculinity to broaden in tandem with the nature of society’s competitions. Preferences for traditionally masculine traits, which contribute to anti-gay sentiments, should thus decline as we move away from battlefields and towards lionising those who make valuable contributions in medicine, science, computing and the arts.
To aid in this process, we can also take steps as a society to further reduce male anti-gay bias. If such hostility is rooted, at least partially, in assumptions that gay men lack traits useful for historical combat, then we can broaden conceptualisations of masculinity by highlighting and rewarding contributions outside these narrow contexts. For example, high schools could award greater esteem to success in debate, computing and drama by publicising such competitions more widely. Schools could be ranked on their successes across numerous domains. Contact sports might still provide one contributory metric, but if it were made salient to students that the school’s prestige depended upon success across varying domains, many more students, with their diversified talents, would be appreciated.
Another avenue would be to encourage more men who have demonstrated their skills in traditionally masculine contexts like athletics and the military to come out as gay or bisexual. Based on our findings, if these men have already demonstrated their courage and formidability (i.e. their coalitionary value), their sexual orientation should be less consequential. Professional athletes like Michael Sam and Ryan Russell have already begun to pave the way in this area. They serve as role models, reminding men that heterosexuality is not synonymous with either masculinity or with the ability to contribute to a team. By drawing attention to their contributions on the field alongside their sexual orientation, we can begin to dissociate heterosexuality from assumptions about physical and mental fortitude.
Strict notions of masculinity may have been useful historically when groups were highly dependent upon the courageous and skillful defence from their warriors, but such circumstances are not often the case today. Thankfully, we are living in the most peaceful and prosperous time in history. Nonetheless, society tasks men with continually demonstrating they are formidable warriors, even when we are not at war. In a modern environment, these expectations penalise men who have talents or traits beyond those advantageous in physical combat. Men’s brains may bear relics of this historical legacy of intergroup warfare, contributing to modern anti-gay sentiments. Fortunately, we can take steps to change this, because today’s coalitionary success is contingent upon the multifarious contributions of innumerable talented individuals.