Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Sep 19, 2016

Right Back at You: Understanding LGB Impressions of and Prejudices Toward Heterosexuals

by Angela G. Pirlott
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By Angela G. Pirlott

A wealth of literature documents heterosexuals’ attitudes, prejudices, and discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals (hereafter referred to as LGB)[1]. For example, heterosexuals can have feelings of physical and moral disgust in response to LGB, desire to block LGB from interacting with children, attempt to prevent LGB from having full rights, and commit physically aggressive hate crimes against LGB[2]. But what about LGB’s perceptions of heterosexuals: Do LGB hold prejudices toward heterosexuals?

Research on LGB’s attitudes about and prejudices toward heterosexuals remain largely unexplored. However, in two new studies, my colleagues Marta Rusten, Reese Butterfuss, and I sought to examine LGB’s perceptions of heterosexuals, their prejudices toward heterosexuals, and what might explain these prejudices.

Perhaps unsurprising, all LGB groups felt anger and resentment toward heterosexual men and women (all comparisons are relative to their own group). All LGB groups feared heterosexual men, and gay men also feared heterosexual women. Gay men, lesbians, and bisexual women (but not bisexual men) felt morally disgusted by heterosexual men, and gay men and lesbians (but not bisexuals) also felt morally disgusted by heterosexual women.

What explains these specific emotional reactions toward some heterosexual groups by certain LGB groups? Given the adversarial relationship between heterosexuals and LGB, what are LGB’s attitudes about heterosexuals, and do these perceptions help explain their prejudices toward heterosexuals?

Again, perhaps unsurprising given the often contentious relationship between heterosexuals and LGB, all LGB groups perceived that heterosexual men and women discriminate against them by restricting their personal rights and freedoms (with gay men, lesbians, and bisexual men perceiving this discrimination threat particularly strongly from heterosexual men). In a statistical mediation model, all LGB groups’ anger was partially explained by perceptions that heterosexuals discriminate against them. In addition, these perceptions of discrimination threats explained a large proportion of variance in LGB anger and resentment against heterosexuals—ranging from 4% to 42%, depending on the LGB group and whether the targets were heterosexual men or women.

But some LGB groups’ anger and resentment toward heterosexuals wasn’t explained by these discriminatory actions; some was explained by interpersonal romantic interactions. Bisexual men’s anger and resentment toward heterosexual women was statistically mediated, in part, due to their perception that heterosexual women do not reciprocate their sexual interests, which explained 15% of the variance in their resentment toward heterosexual women.

Perhaps unsurprising given the prevalence of hate crimes against LGB (and particularly high numbers committed by men), all LGB groups also felt heterosexual men were particularly physically dangerous, and this perception statistically contributed to their fear of heterosexual men in particular. Bisexual women and lesbians, on the other hand, also believed heterosexual men to be sexually aggressive, and gay men believed heterosexual women to be sexually aggressive.

Perceptions of these threats to their sexual autonomy also statistically explained, in part, why bisexual women and lesbians fear heterosexual men, and why gay men fear heterosexual women. Perceptions that heterosexual men are physically aggressive (and sexually aggressive for lesbians and bisexual women) accounted for a large proportion of variance in LGB’s fear of heterosexual men, ranging from 23% to 68% depending on the LGB group, and believing heterosexual women are sexually aggressive explained 13% of the variance in gay men’s fear of heterosexual women.

Finally, all LGB groups believed heterosexual men and women hold values and beliefs that oppose their own, try to push their values on them, are closed-minded and judgmental, and aren’t allies of the LGB community—i.e., they felt that heterosexuals undermine their values. The perception that heterosexuals undermine their values statistically explained lesbians’ and bisexual women’s moral disgust toward heterosexual men, and statistically explained lesbians’ moral disgust toward heterosexual women. Furthermore, these perceived values threats explained a significant proportion of LGB’s moral disgust toward heterosexuals—ranging from 3% to 26% of the variance in their moral disgust.

Overall, our studies suggest that, just as some heterosexual individuals espouse stereotyped beliefs about some LGB groups and react to them with emotional biases (e.g., hate, disgust), LGB individuals also hold stereotyped beliefs about and react with emotional biases (here, anger/resentment, moral disgust, fear) toward some heterosexual groups. Furthermore, these emotions and perceptions appear to be driven by functional concerns. Will this group of heterosexual men physically assault me? Will this heterosexual man or woman discriminate against me? Will this particular heterosexual woman reject my sexual advances because I am a bisexual man, or will this heterosexual man make unwanted advances on me (if I am a lesbian or a bisexual woman)? Will they pressure me to conform to their values and lifestyles that I don’t support or judge me if I don’t believe in what they do? When members of LGB groups felt concerned about threats in these domains from heterosexuals, they tended to have negative emotional biases—specifically anger, resentment, moral disgust, and fear—toward heterosexual men and women.

These studies provide a powerful complement to prior research on prejudice, largely due to the framing of the research questions from the perspective of the minority group. Hopefully, by understanding the impressions and emotional biases held by both groups toward each other, we can better understand how to reduce prejudice and discrimination between heterosexuals and LGB.

[1] Although many advocates for social justice include transgender people in discussions surrounding issues with LGBT individuals, I am restricting my discussion specifically to LGB individuals because the primary focus of my work is on understanding sexual orientation prejudices

[2] See Herek, G. M. (2000). The psychology of sexual prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(1), 19-22 for a brief overview of the literature on prejudice and discrimination against LGB. 

Angela Pirlott is an assistant professor at Saint Xavier University whose research interests focus primarily on understanding prejudice and discrimination, particularly based on sexual orientation. You can find out more about her work at


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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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