LGBT Politics and the Impact of Disgust

Logan Casey is using funding from the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion to examine how emotions spurred by LGBT issues and people affect policy support.

Logan Casey, 2015 Garth Taylor Fellow in Public Opinion. Photo by Kimberly Stakes Photography

Logan Casey, 2015 Garth Taylor Fellow in Public Opinion. Photo by Kimberly Stakes Photography.

The recent resounding failure of a nondiscrimination ordinance meant to protect LGBT workers in Houston caught many by surprise. After all, the right of gays to marry in all states had just recently been established by the U.S. Supreme Court. Houston had elected an openly lesbian mayor three terms in a row. And surveys have shown that workplace protection is one of the LGBT policies Americans favor most.

But Logan Casey, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Michigan (U-M), wasn’t very surprised, particularly once opponents of the measure raised the specter of transgender women “invading” public restrooms. “One of the most important things I’ve learned so far is that policy preferences—people saying, ‘Yes, I support this issue’—are not a reliable indicator of how they actually feel about it,” Casey says. “When push comes to shove, and especially when opposition messaging starts happening, that is not a number you can count on.”

Casey is exploring the underlying feelings that can cause people to vote against policies that benefit the LGBT community. He’s particularly interested in disgust. Research in psychology has shown that if a person is made to feel disgusted, and then presented with a policy to consider, it can affect their support for that policy. Casey wanted to take that finding in a new direction: “What if it’s the case that the politics are actually causing the disgust?” he asks. “So we can’t ever get away from the disgust any time we want to talk about this policy issue. It’s not just incidental, it’s integral.”

For his dissertation, Casey surveyed about 1,000 people using Amazon MTurk, an online sample pool. Casey had participants read a fictional news story about an LGBT-related policy. Then, after thinking back on how the article made them feel, respondents were asked the extent to which they experienced 15 different emotions, rating them from none to extremely. Finally, respondents answered a short series of relevant policy questions, such as; Do you favor or oppose employment discrimination protections for LGB people? And Do you favor or oppose employment discrimination protections for transgender people?

The response? “I learned that, in fact, just a basic story about LGBT politics makes some people feel disgusted, and when they feel disgusted, they are much less likely to support those policies.”

Casey brings to this issue both the desire of a political scientist to better understand the role of emotions in LGBT politics, and the concern of a transman with a personal stake in what this portends for the future. Casey came out as a gay woman in high school and realized he was transgender in his second year of graduate school. “A lot of the things I study are things I’ve personally experienced: homophobia, transphobia, prejudice, disgust,” he says. “Here are things I want to understand more, and here’s my discipline that has good insight into how we answer these questions.”

For his second experiment, Casey is taking his research in disgust a step further to “disentangle people’s preferences towards those particular policy areas from their feelings towards particular people.” This time, about 1,500 respondents will see the same fictional policy article, and will answer the same kinds of questions about emotions and policy support. But while some respondents will see a photo with a person identified as a lesbian, others will see a gay man, or a transgender man, or a transgender woman.

Understanding different feelings towards sub-groups is important, and may, for example, help explain what happened in Houston, Casey says. Although the employment non-discrimination policy there was intended for all stripes of the LGBT community, he says, attitudes towards transgender people drove the results of that election.

Casey is devising one more experiment; it will compare how participants respond on an emotional and policy level to articles accompanied by photos of single gay people vs. photos that raise considerations of sexuality, for example, by showing two gay men kissing. “We know disgust is intimately related to sex and bodies,” Casey says. “So part of the theory that I put forth in the framework of the project is that policies that elicit considerations of sex and sexuality are going to be more likely to elicit disgust.”

Logan Casey at the LGBT Leaders 2015 International Leadership Conference. Photo courtesy of Logan Casey.

Logan Casey at the LGBT Leaders 2015 International Leadership Conference. Photo courtesy of Logan Casey.

Casey’s research is attracting attention. Among many members of the LGBT community and their supporters, he says, his results have been an unpleasant surprise. After all, gay advocates have been buoyed by the many recent and important advances in gay rights; Casey’s work, in some ways, seems like it’s shining a light on the bad old days.

But, in Casey’s mind, it’s necessary to be realistic. He points again to the non-discrimination ordinance loss in Houston. And to the generally enthusiastic welcome given in 2014 to Michael Sam, who was to be the first openly gay NFL football player—enthusiasm that quickly changed to heckling and abuse when Sam kissed his boyfriend on national TV. “How do we explain these things?” he asks. “We have to look not just at policy support, but at the actual feelings underneath what people are saying about their policy preferences.”

Because of these underlying feelings, Casey believes that the LGBT community needs to take a hard look at the rhetoric it has used to advance gay causes in the last 20-30 years. Much of the case for equal rights has been built on the idea that gay people are just like straight people, except for one small thing, he says, and therefore should be granted the same political rights. This “normalizing logic” has been effective, Casey says. But it has limits. “While an increasingly large number of people understand the ways in which gay people are similar to them, except for this one tiny difference, they have a much harder time understanding how trans people are similar to them.”

Given this reality, it might be more productive for the LGBT movement to stop emphasizing the similarities, Casey says. To, in effect, say to doubters, “You might not get it and you might not understand, but that’s okay. You don’t have to get it.”

And this, he believes, may be the biggest contribution of his research: to help craft a new LGBT rights strategy based not on similarities, but on difference. “Just because you happen to disagree with choices I make in my life,” Casey says, “or even if you’re disgusted by my lifestyle, doesn’t mean that I should get fired.”

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