The Gay Agenda Follows a Gay Syllabus

A new study published in The Journal of Social Psychology examines subtle homophobia in the classroom. The study, conducted by professors at the University of Houston, surveyed 622 undergraduate students to find how sexual orientation, gender and political ideology intersect when opinions are formed about professors. Unlike its obnoxious older sister, subtle prejudice masquerades as egalitarianism and can be easy to dismiss. Using similar studies that tested racial discrimination, the authors set out to uncover how subtle prejudice operates, specifically looking to see if students who held anti-gay feelings used typographical errors and political ideology as excuses to malign the professor.

Each student was provided with one variation on the same syllabus for a course called “Psychology of Human Sexuality.” Syllabi differed by gender (marked by pronouns and gendered names), sexual orientation (identified by membership in professional organizations and family details) and political ideology (conveyed in tone about sexuality), as well as the presence or absence of typographical errors. They were then asked to respond to a questionnaire regarding the professor’s knowledge, warmth and bias.

In a second study, students were further divided on homonegative and modern homonegative scales to see if more pronounced differences arose. If, like me, you weren’t sure what these two scales mean, here’s a quick primer from the article:

“Like modern racism, which regards racism as a thing of the past and presumes that African Americans would succeed if they just tried harder (McConahay, 1986), modern homonegativity rejects lesbians and gay men on the grounds that they attempt to obtain special privileges because of their orientation, or because it is believed that they flaunt their sexuality. Modern homonegativity emphasizes the social importance of assimilation on the parts of lesbians and gay men, rather than all-out rejection.”

The researchers found that students viewed gay professors as more biased than their straight counterparts. While this isn’t really unexpected, not all the study’s findings were so predictable. Conservative gay men were viewed to be more biased than liberal gay men while liberal lesbians were seen as more biased than conservative lesbians. Straight professors, on the other hand, received no different bias assessment according to their political leanings. Homonegative and modern homonegative students were less interested in taking the course regardless of the professor. Because I know you all love grammar, you’ll be happy to know that typos were universally reviled.

In an email from Kristin Anderson, one of the authors, she said that the study “raises questions about the ability of some students to learn from minority professors. Even when there is no evidence of bias, students believe that minorities bring political baggage into the classroom, whereas whites, men and heterosexuals bring with them the cool heads of objectivity.”

The belief that individuals who belong to unmarked majorities are more objective is one of the trademarks of subtle prejudice. The fact that Judge Walker’s ability to rule on Prop 8 was called into question illustrates just how pervasive and problematic this type of discrimination can be. On a more day-to-day level, maybe you can relate to having your participation or concern written off for being “too emotional” or “too personally invested” in an issue. The reality is that when it comes to social change, there’s a place for everyone who wants in, not just the heroic, objective [fill-in-the-blank majority member] father figure looking out for the underprivileged.

Acknowledging that subtle discrimination exists is the first step toward dismantling it. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get someone on board with an idea that requires them to question their assumption that our society is thoroughly equal. Perhaps, through knowledge uncovered in studies like this one, one day we can become that society.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 308 articles for us.


  1. I really wish people would pay attention to these studies and not suggest that racism or homophobia don’t exist (in circumstances when it is not blatant). This just reinforces the fact that people need to be conscious of, and conscious in considering, their privilege. I go to a liberal Ivy and the number of times I’ve heard stuff like, “why isn’t there a white culture organization” or “why don’t be have a straight students alliance” is beyond not funny. I want to shout, “That’s what THIS WHOLE PLACE is!”

    • Yes, definitely this. Also, the people who say “racism is dead because our president black!” Those people a) obviously have no clue about race relations in our country & b) often assume that racism only means prejudice against the black community.

  2. I think this study is really interesting and important.
    I don’t really have any other comments to add, I just freaking love Kristin Anderson and Melinda Kanner. They published a different study to disprove the myth that feminists are “man-haters” a few years ago that was really popular and are (obviously) really into social movements.
    Female researchers rock, obvs.

    (other study:)

  3. this makes me really sad. i wonder how we are going to reset society and change the idea of “default person” from upper middle class white heterosexual male to… well, no default. humans as humans with specific characteristics that don’t require generalization.

  4. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve definitely seen this in college. Not about sexual orientation (because the professors who are gay DO NOT tell the students) but women, and minorities, definitely. No professor is liked by everybody, but I’ve definitely noticed that the students who dislike the women and minority professors usually use some kind of bull political excuse. Regardless of the fact that most of the profs are politically liberal anyway, the white guys never get accused of being socialists.

    • Yeah, same. Actually, in 6.5 years at university, I have only been taught by ONE non-white person, so . However, I usually find that the women are stereotyped more often, and also that their authority is more widely second-guessed and students don’t treat them with the same instant respect that male academics seem to receive.

  5. I’m gay and I teach college students and I am not in the closet at work. I’m thinking about handing this article out to my students after a few weeks of class this fall. I am teaching a class on race and ethnicity and it could be good for a week in which we read stuff about modern racism to see how these ideas can extend to other marginalized social groups. Could make for an interesting discussion.

    • I totally read your username as “Merlin” and was like “HOLY CRAP, ANOTHER AWESOME GAY WIZARD.”

  6. I wonder though if students who actually had a gay professor would change their minds over the course of the class. because just giving them a syllabus really measures nothing but their bias. its possible that actually meeting a real person and interacting with that person over the course of a semester would ultimately affect the preconceived notions of the students.

      • This study might be the first step in trying to measuring that, but the students didn’t actually meet any professors face-to-face. I’m betting that Caitlin’s question is the next question they’ll try to answer, if they continue this thread of research.

      • Oh oops, I misread that. Yeah, this study measures that bias, but only as it relates to textual cues. The results may be totally different if they read the syllabus as the professor stood at the back of the room quietly.

  7. “Because I know you all love grammar, you’ll be happy to know that typos were universally reviled.”

    Finally, EQUALITY!

  8. interesting. i’m a college professor and am out to my students, even the young ones (frosh and soph). i’d love to know if they find me biased. what’s hard is that i don’t teach anything to do with race, ethnicity, or social issues at all (think science geek), which makes discussing as part of a typical class more difficult.

    i don’t really announce that i’m gay, but if it comes up, i certainly don’t shy away from saying anything. i figure i can mention my partner as casually as my colleagues mention their spouse. at this point… most students know on the first day of class cuz word travels fast among students. you’d think if they had some baggage, they just wouldn’t take my classes.

    i also wonder about the role of age and year in school. freshman and seniors interact much differently with me and grad students are a whole ‘nuther story.

    i know i’ll be thinking about it in the fall on the first day of class. thanks for posting the article.

    • There is a library’s worth of queer theory scholarship on the issue of queer professors coming out to their students. I’m wracking my brain to remember if I’ve ever seen anything about queer STEM profs, but I don’t think I have? I’m a little bit ashamed to say I haven’t thought about it either. Interesting situation, though.

      I’m gonna go poke around and see if I can find anything.

  9. Ah inclusivity. Oh, it’s now called bias. I meant bias.
    There’s definitely no one more objective than a privilege-denying white dude. Nope. Not at all.

  10. “Straight professors, on the other hand, received no different bias assessment according to their political leanings.”

    This is unrelated to bias, but I want to point out that students assess professor’s competence as a teacher based on their gender, too. In studies similar to this one (which I don’t have on hand but can dig up if anyone’s interested), dudely professors are consistently rated higher on content knowledge and the ability to challenge students. Lady profs are consistently rated higher on warmth and approachability.

    Women who deviate from normative femininity consistently get shitty reviews across the board. If you’re, say, a feminine-looking woman who isn’t maternal with your students, you’ll be rated as unapproachable and cold, even though you keep office hours, chat with students before and after class, take questions/comments during class, offer help constantly, etc. Your male counterpart who does all the same things will be rated significantly higher on approachability and warmth. Students expect female profs to be motherly; when they fail to meet that expectation, they’re “bitchy.”

    REALLY interestingly, butchy women are rated like men: they’re seen as more competent, more keen on their subject, and middingly warm and approachable but not “bitchy”.

    • Oh, student perceptions of butch profs was an incidental finding in a 1989 study by Martha Marinara, discussed in her 2000 paper with Michelle Gibson and Deborah Meem, “Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality.” So the finding hasn’t been fully explored, as far as I know.

  11. This is so interesting.

    I had one out gay professor in college and I knew he was gay and probably so did everyone else, but I do not recall him ever actually saying “I’m gay”… it was more like he mentioned his partner sometimes. He taught Russian, so I’m not exactly sure how he could be biased… but he was my absolute favorite professor throughout college.

    However, I never thought about the minorities as being biased. Maybe it’s because my major was Spanish and basically at least 3/4 of my professors were some type of minority. Maybe it’s because when they were biased, they were obviously biased and said so. But you know, I’m not sure it affected their ability to teach. It struck me as these professors (and even teachers in high school) telling us that they didn’t agree with something, but that we should learn about it so that we can make our own decisions and learn both sides of the argument.

    Maybe it’s just me and I’m just really accepting of other people and their differing views. I mean, at some point in my life, I’ve probably agreed with anyone because I’ve changed my opinions so much. Who am I to judge?

  12. This:
    In an email from Kristin Anderson, one of the authors, she said that the study “raises questions about the ability of some students to learn from minority professors.”

    is a deeply concerning statement.

    Next, lets suggest that because we care about our students ability to learn we must give preference to white males in hiring because they are best suited for our students needs.


  13. oh my gosh, i get so paranoid about this in my own circle of friends. i feel like i cant get too excited about LGBT accomplishments or even really talk about them around my straight friends because they’ll discount me as being “too emotional” or “too personally invested”.

    • I lost (count as lost) a friend of nearly a decade because I came out. She felt I was too aggressive because of my coming out letter and pro-equality posts.

      I wish I had come out when I was in my teens or early 20s.

    • “i feel like i cant get too excited about LGBT accomplishments or even really talk about them around my straight friends because they’ll discount me as being “too emotional” or “too personally invested”.

      This reminds me of this one time I was arguing with an evangelical christian about gay rights and he accused me of being another straight woman positioning herself as a champion for equality. UGH. Is there some middle mark that I’m missing?

  14. I think this has a lot to do with gays and non-caucasians still positioned as ‘other’ in society. I’m no sociologist, but I just think that the average person subconsciously is wary of the opinions of those who are not like them. I know I certainly am (maybe I even have prejudice towards heteros?)

  15. I hear this from one of my roommates all the time…”You’re too emotional about it, you need to be objective.” SO frustrating.

  16. there are some pretty gay profs at my school, and it’s no biggie. but its pretty easy to out at art school in vancouver.

    that said, women artists/gay artists are judged differently than male/hetero artists. so its not a problem of homophobia so much as that your art will always be seen through a feminist/homo lens, whether your work is touching on those topics or not.

Comments are closed.