Straight People Think Your Gay PDA is Gross, Study Finds

image via shutterstock

Researchers at Indiana University have confirmed what any queer person who’s been on a date in hetero spaces already knew — that a lot of straight people are still rather uncomfortable with public displays of queer love (or lust or like or drunken-poor-decision-making-with-strangers). The study, which appears in the December edition of the American Sociological Review, was a survey of over 1000 individuals designed to gauge the larger public’s perceptions of queer relationships compared to straight relationships. The takeaway of the study? Straight folks are totally okay with our relationships, as long as we don’t try to get married or touch each other in public.

Let’s start with the good news. Straight folks appear to be pretty okay with us having the right to visit our partners in the hospital, take family leave to care for our partners, inherit property from our partners when they pass, and to share health insurance. The researchers of the study initially thought that they’d find that heterosexual people would be less supportive of these kinds of rights, a category they’ve named “formal rights.” But, what they found is that straight people, whether men or women, are just as accepting of granting these “formal rights” to queer couples as they are to unmarried, cohabiting straight couples. That holds for both lesbian and gay male couples. Not surprisingly, queer folks are significantly more accepting of the idea of granting formal relationship rights to other queer folks than straight people are. Encouragingly, there’s also no divide between gay men and lesbians supporting formal rights for each other! (Go Team Rainbow!) The results indicate that queer people are more willing to grant these formal rights to queer couples than they are to straight, unmarried couples. However, they’re still more more accepting of granting straight, unmarried couple those rights than straight men are; the authors suggest this could be because queer folks “may be more sympathetic to cohabiting couples of all types, but especially to other same-sex couples.”

So, the takeaway seems to be that, at least conceptually, hetero people see us as not much different than unmarried straight people. It’s a start. Unfortunately, when they’re confronted with the physical reality of our relationships…well, we’ve got a ways to go.

Way more awesome than hetero kissing. via  shutterstock

Way more awesome than hetero kissing. via shutterstock

Across the board, this study demonstrated that straight people believe that public displays of affections between queer people are less okay than they are between straight people. For the purposes of this study, that includes holding hands, kissing on the cheek, and french kissing. (Can I just say that until I read this study, I had totally forgotten that people refer to making out as “french kissing”?) The study refers to these things as “informal rights.” In yet another confirmation about the creepiness of male gaze, straight men were significantly more okay with public lesbian affection than they were two gay men kissing or holding hands, but still generally less okay with either than straight face-mashing. Straight women appeared to be pretty equally uncomfortable with same-gender public smooching, whether sapphic or not.

Depressingly, queer folks also appear to sometimes view their own public affection as less acceptable. Lesbians appear to view two women holding hands as less acceptable than a man and a woman, but that doesn’t hold true for their views on kissing (whether on the cheek, or full-on makeouts). That seems a little odd, since it’s hard to imagine not feeling comfortable holding my girlfriend’s hand, but being totally cool with sticking my tongue in her mouth in the middle of a park (which is where the study’s hypothetical scenarios all take place). Oh statistics, you can be so weird. Gay men, on the other hand, seem to have perhaps taken on a little more internalized homophobia. In all these situations, they indicate that the affection between two gay men is less acceptable than a straight couple. Much like the formal rights, queer people of all stripes find queer affection to be just as acceptable, regardless of gender. Oddly though, gay men seem to find lesbians kissing each other on the cheek as more acceptable than gay men doing the same. Perhaps that’s just some reflection of the general acceptability of minor physical affection between women. Or, you know, just a statistical fluke. The authors also took note of apparent internalized homophobia but also posit it could be due to concerns for safety, writing:

“This finding may be consistent with ideas of heteronormativity and internalized stigma. Alternatively, if lesbians and gays are keenly aware of same sex couples’ vulnerability to homophobic hate crimes) and harassment, this lower level of approval may be due to safety concerns for the couple rather than internalized stigma or out-group favoritism.”

Perhaps one of the oddest findings of this study is that, while straight people generally find it acceptable to grant formal rights to committed queer couple, they’re still less okay with them actually getting married. With little variance between lesbians and gay men, straight people indicated that it would be less acceptable for a committed queer to get married. Queer people, on the other hand, were totally cool with absolutely everyone getting married, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. It’s nice to see that, despite the occasional inter-rainbow tension, queers appear to supportive of each other’s rights.

As with all sociological studies, this data should be taken with a bit of a critical eye. First, while the study is just now being published, the survey data was collected back in 2010, a time when gay marriage was legal in only six states. So, while this data may have reflected attitudes then, it’s possible and even likely there have been some shifts in that period. Secondly, this study relied on presenting written scenarios in a survey, and it’s possible that being actually confronted with an amorous queer couple may elicit different reactions from people. Regardless, it appears that the queer community has a ways to go in gaining the same degree of social acceptance for our relationships that straight people enjoy. Psychology says that exposure is one of the best ways to break down discomforts. We all clearly need to spend more time sucking face in public. You know, for the greater good.

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Mari Brighe

Mari is a queer lady scientist and educator from Detroit, who skillfully avoids working on her genetics dissertation by writing about queer and trans life, nerd culture, feminism, and science. You can frequently find her running around at science-fiction conventions giving panels on consent culture and LGBT topics or DJing at fantastically strange parties. She is a contributing writer for TransAdvocate, maintains a personal blog at TransNerdFeminist, and can frequently be found stirring up trouble (and posting selfies) on Twitter.

Mari has written 36 articles for us.


  1. It would be interesting to see more recent survey results, but to be honest I’d be surprised if much had changed. I still hear a lot of people say things to the effect of “gay people are OK, I just don’t want to see them be gay”. And sadly, it makes sense to me that queer people have internalised some of that crap because I know still think twice sometimes before holding my girlfriend’s hand in public – even if we’re in a place where different-gender couples are openly making out in a major way (it has never occurred to me to do that in public, I can’t imagine being comfortable with it) – because I suddenly feel hyper-aware of my surroundings and wonder whether this will be one of those times that somebody reacts to it, and then I feel weird about feeling weird because I know I’m not doing anything wrong, but for a brief moment I do feel like I’m doing something wrong and what if I make people uncomfortable, and then I usually decide that it is their problem if they want to feel weird about me holding hands with a girl. I hope there’ll come a time when I don’t have to go through that thought process quite so often.

  2. I’m going to have to find some pearls to clutch, because why are people making out in public? I guess I don’t get that one. Admittedly, as a New Yorker, I do find it really frustrating because our goodnights on a date happen at the train station or the bus stop, rather than in a car or a parking lot. So there’s always a LITTLE more necessity to do a bit of smooching on the street.

    I do think so much has changed since 2010, though. People are seeing it more on TV and in movies, and many more people are now aware (because of weddings, etc) of how many more non-straight folks they know than they thought. (But again, as a New Yorker, I’m well aware that my “people-sampling” isn’t like a lot of the country. But the forward motion does feel like it’s there.)

  3. I’ve definitely internalized this BS. I wouldn’t hold my partner’s hand in public and if I see my queer friends hold hands/kiss/show affection in any way, I kind of inwardly freak out for fear of any potential backlash from others. Damn straight people approval just ruining things.

    • i have 100% internalized this shit. it’s actually the fucking worst.

      yes, i’ve gotten homophobic street harassment in the past and it’s definitely set my default to stealth most of the time, but even in a place where it’s relatively acceptable and cool for me to hold my partner’s hand, i rarely do it. if we do hold hands, i gotta be reassuring myself the whole time that it’s okay, it’s totally fine. but i still don’t like it. it makes me anxious and jumpy and i can’t do it for very long.

      when i see old people, especially old ladies that remind me of my nana, i will not show any public affection for my partner and typically put a few inches of distance between her and me. i literally feel as if the risk of me making this elderly woman uncomfortable is so rude and bad that i have to take evasive measures immediately. when i’m around 20 something couples that are the same age as my partner and i, i feel weird showing public affection and holding hands like they do because something in the back of my head is telling me ‘you’re not like them, you’ll never be like them, you’re like a pretend knockoff version of them’. where does this shit come from, right? i really super don’t like kissing in public, and if it happens, i feel weird and self-conscious and like i’ve done. something. wrong. like i have fucked up somehow by making the people around us uncomfortable and that it’s my fault for doing it. ugh.

      the hilariously ironic part of all this is that i look gay as hell even when i’m on my own. so at the end of the day, people who feel uncomfortable with homosexuals are gonna feel uncomfortable around me, even if i’m minding my own business and just buying milk and sugar. but somehow it’s not until i’m actually “acting out” my relationship that i feel like i am offending people and should subsequently feel guilty about it.

  4. Oddly though, gay men seem to find lesbians kissing each other on the cheek as more acceptable than gay men doing the same.

    I don’t find this odd at all, to be honest, and I think the authors’ reasoning that it could be a result of safety concerns/internalized homophobia is sound. All that hegemonic masculinity and policing means gay men might feel more at-risk to get the shit kicked out of them if they’re seen holding hands. Obviously, this doesn’t mean gay men have it harder than gay women–if anything, it kind of feels like they perceive our displays of affection/ladylove the same way straight people do. Which is to say, “not very seriously.”

  5. Survey shows that queer people are disgusted when straight people make out, whether on TV or in real life. However, PDA when performed by same-sex couples prompt queer people to smile in solidarity.

    Sample size: me. Have you seen the way straight people kiss? Guhhh-ross.

  6. Imagine a study about Americans’ thoughts on terrorism, but all data was collected prior to 9/11. Which is what this study seems to be.

    If the survey data, and all survey data was collected in 2010, this study has no scientific validity other than being a snapshot of what people thought of LGBTQ people and issues back in 2010, as it doesn’t take into account the ongoing period that started in 2011 which saw the repeal of DADT, legalization of gay marriage by popular vote in several states, the increase in inclusion of LGBTQ characters On TV and discussion of LGBTQ issues in the media.

    Which is why I find the title of this article misleading. It should rather have said “Back in 2010, Straight People Thought Your Gay PDA is Gross”. There are a myriad of studies that show attitudes have changed dramatically since then, most remarkably, 14% of the Silent Generation (those born between 1928/45) changed their minds about gay people and marriage equality.

    That is not to say things are perfect and we now live in a world that is 100% rosy and beautiful and everyone loves the gayz and so on. Far from it. However, I believe it is irresponsible draw that strong a conclusion from a study that is not based on current data.

    My two cents.

  7. Thank you! This topic consumes me lately.
    I’m writing this on a bus in Vietnam, with my girlfriend to my right on a separate bunk. We’re travelling for two months now and have ten months to go. PDA normatives dictate our days, whether it’s sussing out whether I can sneak a kiss on the cheek at a bar or cover our hand holding with my scarf on a beach, we police our bodies for our own sake.
    Whether we beautiful queers live in ‘modern’ western cities or are travelling the world, the frustration and sometimes consequent internalised homophobia, of hiding our hands is still very real.
    As soon as I get to a place that I feel I won’t be attacked or grossly offend another culture with our affection, I will kiss and hold and love my girlfriend in public and consider it a thoroughly enjoyable political act!

  8. I used to think I had never internalized any homophobia. In a way, it is true. I wasn’t raised with religion at all, so I truly don’t understand the fear or reality of being rejected by one’s religious community, religious family, or God(s). Many of my friends have discussed this experience over the years, and I never manage to understand it. I simply don’t have the fear that I am wrong or evil or going to hell. Therefore, I had concluded that I didn’t experience internalized homophobia.

    While that may be the case for religion-related internalized homophobia, it actually isn’t the case in other ways. I am terrified of PDA. I never realized it until my last girlfriend. She had a lot of privilege I never had, and I suspect this is at least part of why she felt so safe being out. I never realized how closeted I was until I met her. Even in open-minded areas, I felt at least somewhat uncomfortable, but in conservative areas, I flat-out refused to hold her hand or stand too close. I’m not sure if that would really be categorized as internalized homophobia though. I have no problem with being gay. It is more that I fear for my safety.

  9. I’m pretty sure this study offered a poor sample. I skimmed through it and saw that they had distinguished people’s gender, sexual, and religious identities as well as vaguely mentioning race, education, and political affiliations, but I did not see mention of where they were from.

    I want to mention that I would have liked to see this study distinguish how particular races felt about queer relationships, but I understand this was *supposed* to “gauge the larger public’s opinion” rather than narrowing it down into groups.

    But the part that bothered me most about this was, what I was left to assume, a poor sample due to the fact that there was no mention of where respondents were from. Though I live in New York, where you are relatively free to do what you want without fear of judgment or consequence, I am from and still spend a good amount of time in Tennessee. I can assure you that the attitudes are very different in regards to queer relationships there. As someone who has the privilege and curse of invisibility, I often get to see people’s true feelings about the LGBT community. It is actually surprising how often these matters come up. The worst insult you can say to a man is “You’re gay” and many people still thinks it’s disgusting and unnatural.

    I have gotten into big arguments with my girlfriend, who lives in Tennessee, because I want to live in the suburbs, but she wants to live in Midtown, the most gay-friendly area of our city. This is because she is worried about how our neighbors will feel about us. The fact that she is so concerned about where to live is a massive indicator of the general attitude towards gays there.

    Returning to my point, this study was probably biased and didn’t show the general attitudes towards queer relationships in 2010. I expect the results would have been very different if they had gotten more respondents from across the nation.

  10. Well, I’ve kissed many girls in public and did not give a crap.
    However, I did realize in 2012, there used to be hetero women sticking their heads into our faces just to show their ugly disgusted faces. Now in 2014, a lot of strangers thought my gay PDA was cute so I’m guessing the world is becoming more open minded. The only people who has a problem are old people.

  11. Gay in theory not in practice, right?

    That’s funny. The one thing I do get is girls being comfortable kissing but not holding hands. Holding hands is a longer activity, super in public, and even if it’s curious looks or double takes, not homophobic ones, you will get looks.

    Unless you’re doing the arm locking thing that you do with friends then nobody would even look but that’s what you do with friends..

  12. Yes, yes and I really think it’s gross when hairy guys run with their shirts off. We can’t all have what we want.

    Go cry in a corner straight people, no one cares.

  13. Guess I’m the opposite, straight public affection really bothers me, while same-sex ones get a head turn followed by internal “oh no, it’s cute” from me because it’s not really a thing you see every day, or even every month.

    The disapproval of gay marriage, but approval of “formal rights” to gay married couples actually makes sense from an American cultural standpoint. Generally as Americans we are pretty hesitant to disallow our fellow citizens basic rights, but on the other hand, allowing gay marriage to continue will increase visibility and representation. And gay visibility/representation is something straight people generally do not want, for the same reason why they ask “What will I tell my kids when they see gays in public or on the teevee?”:

    Their problem with it isn’t that “my kids won’t understand, how do I explain it oh gosh it’s so difficult???”, but rather “I don’t want my kids to know this thing exists because kids are impressionable and will start considering being gay, and I can’t live with that possibility”, as well as “if gays turn my kids gay that will spell the end of our family lineage as well as the survival of the human race”.

    Because it’s not like overpopulation is a problem, or that being gay precludes anyone from having kids, or that gayness is a lifestyle choice as simple as changing your tastes in music or favorite food. Why bother operating with logic, when nobody will think of the children!

  14. Additional evidence supporting this study:

    I can confirm that while watching the most recent episode of Gotham, at the end when there was a kiss between two ladies, both my mother and sister exclaimed, “That’s gross!”

    Don’t mind me, the lesbian, sitting right here guys…

  15. I guess I’m lucky enough to not have much internalized homophobia – from day one in my current (first queer) relationship, I’ve been absolutely delighted to hold my girlfriend’s hand and kissing her in public. I guess that my rational is that I’ve done it with boys in the past, so I’ll do it with her.
    But also – there’s the “I wish I saw more queer PDA” because maybe it would have been easier for me to articulate to myself my own interest in girls if I’d seen more girls kissing and holding hands in the middle of parks when I was growing up. I want girls to see my relationship and think “this is possible, this is not bad” – we talk a lot about media representation being important, even essential, to creating a narrative for queer kids to follow. But I would argue that it is as important, or perhaps MORE important, for kids to see that narrative play out in real life, in their park, on the bus they take every day.

  16. If this is true, then what explains the existence of barsexuals who make out with other women in front of everybody to get attention for themselves? POSITIVE attention, mind you. Such as cheers, encouragement and even spurring other drunk, straight women to start making out with THEIR friends for attention. It’s hard to believe. As for gay men not kissing in public, I think it’s because they might be more likely to be subject to violent gaybashing, in sheer number and the severity of attack. Why? Because of misogyny, which is part and parcel of homophobia. In Western Society, ESPECIALLY in America If a man doesn’t adhere to the emotionless, logician, hypermasculine machismo ideal pushed in North America, then Being “feminine” or “acting like a bitch” is the worst thing a man can do and a lot of men feel that gay men, ESPECIALLY feminine gay men, pose a threat to THEIR masculinity, although they won’t admit it. Anyway, interesting survey.

    • this comment is horrible and biphobic. no bi women i know personally do this and bi women are not straight women as the structure of your sentence proposes. (“other straight women”)

      • The commenter said “barsexuals” not “bisexuals” (I misread it the first few times as well), and I think the example was given to disprove the assertion made in the headline–that straight people think same-sex PDA is gross.

        I’ve seen plenty of women–mostly straight-identified–do this as a laugh and I think it proves two things separately: that it is more socially acceptable for women to be physically affectionate (or whatever you want to call making out at a bar for male-attention), and that bi-erasure, including not taking bisexuality “seriously,” is a real thing.

  17. Yeah, who cares what other people think of you. There will always be people who judge you unfairly because it’s entertaining and we all do it. You can’t please everyone, so it’s better just to accept there will be people who don’t approve of all aspects of you and give yourself the freedom to be true to yourself. Don’t let people control your thoughts and actions, especially people who don’t even know you or can’t understand you.

    That being said, I’m the type of person that thinks, if you really like someone, the intimate behavior should be about the two of you, not the two of you and the general public, so I interpret public displays as ingenuine and possibly sprouting from insecurity to have others see that someone loves you, but that’s just me and my filter based on my unique past. I’m a quality time person, so I’d rather share those moments with my partner in privacy and quiet.

    Also, I think it may be natural to find the sexual orientation that doesn’t match you to be gross. It’s certainly not a turn on, so why would you want to see it?

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