Sexual Minority Report: a survey of Student Attitudes

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Over the past 40 years, scholars have produced significant amounts of research on homosexuality. In recent decades, sociologists have understood homosexuality to be a social construction rather than a biological occurrence, although there is still research of from both theoretical perspectives. (see: Ashworth and Walker 1972; Risman and Schwartz 1988; Simon and Gagnon 1967).

Ashworth and Walker (1972) and Risman and Schwartz (1988) argued that the ideas of the social construction of homosexuality emerged as a homosexual culture development. As a homosexual identity emerges, homosexuals distinguished themselves from heterosexuals and this clarifies the differences between the two cultures. Therefore, the construction of homosexuality is socially constructed and it deviates from the hegemonic norm of heterosexuality. Homosexuality operates as a social construction in which deviation from the norm is labeled by society as problematic.

Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS) and other public opinion polls, DeBoer (1978), Yang (1997), and Loftus (2001) found similar patterns in the American public’s ideas of homosexuality over the past twenty years. According to De Boer (1978), American attitudes towards homosexuality did not change dramatically between 1970 and 1977; homosexuals were discriminated against more than other minorities and the public did not think that anything should be done to end the discrimination. Using updated survey data, Yang (1997) found that American attitudes were sharply conservative during the 1980s but gradually became more liberal toward homosexuals during the late 1980s and early 1990s. This gradual liberalization, as Yang (1997:480) noted, “applies to attitudes toward more specific protections such as job and housing rights, as opposed to broader civil rights protections.” Even though there was an increase of general liberal attitudes, there was not, and still is not, an overall acceptance in mainstream American society of homosexual culture. One of the reasons that this change in acceptance among some Americans is occurring may result from changing attitudes of other issues, such as sexual morals. According to Loftus (2001), along with the attitude shift of the “morality of homosexuality,” there was also a simultaneous shift in “beliefs about the morality of sex outside of marriage, political views, and tradition religious beliefs” (p. 778)

The liberalization of views of homosexuality is linked to several key factors such as urbanization and a person’s moral stance. Stephan and McMullin (1982) found that the liberalization of traditionally conservative topics is correlated to the size of the city and population in which a person was raised. The increase of suburbanization could account for the slow, but increased liberalization throughout the mid-1980s to the 1990s. As more people are exposed to homosexual communities, they become better informed about this group of people and therefore more accepting. Stephan and McMullin (1982) noted the size of the city during an “early learning” period has much more of an impact than a current city size.

Religion also plays a role in the early development of ideas of homosexuality. Weeks (2003:106) described the “absolute morality” that is deeply rooted in the Christian faith as having a strong influence on society in general. It is extremely difficult for a religiously based community to modify the ideals of morality intrinsic to the community. Even if the attitudes change over time about homosexuals as people, the overall acceptance of homosexuality still remains negative based on the religious morality.

College campuses can also be a place where a homosexual culture is considered to be deviant and feared by mainstream culture by the heterosexual students. Hill et. al (2002), Rankin (2001), and Fassinger et al (1995) found that students who are part of the homosexual culture fear for their safety on campus, are rejected by others, and lack administrative support on issues concerning homosexuality and homophobia.

Some scholars focused on how homosexual communities are formed in order for homosexuals to have a supportive environment and to find social acceptance (Ashworth and Walker 1972). Risman and Schwartz (1988) argue that homosexual communities are developed both from “a push from society in general and a pull toward positive reinforcement from one’s own” (p. 143). At a smaller college campus homosexual communities are more visible and can result in negative reaction from the overall community. The support from the community is important for the development of an individual. Rankin (2001) found that there are many factors that make a campus a supportive or unsupportive environment for homosexuals. For Rankin, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of both students and faculty create a community that can either be positive or negative for homosexuals. The environment depends on the people in the community. Therefore, as the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors change in a community (or society), the support or exclusion of homosexuality can vary from time and place.

The Saint Mary’s College community is unique because it is a small, all-women’s, Catholic, liberal arts college located in the Midwest. The religious affiliation of the college may have a profound affect on the attitudes towards homosexuality. Also, because students who attend grew up in cities of all sizes, there may be a correlation between the city size and the size of the Saint Mary’s community.

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