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College Students’ Attitudes About Lesbians: What Difference Does 16 Years Make?

Author: Bernie Sue Newman

Newman, Bernie Sue. “College Students’ Attitudes About Lesbians: What Difference Does 16 Years Make?” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 52, no. 3/4, May 2007, pp. 249–265. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1300/J082v52n03_12.

ABSTRACT.The article reviews empirical studies on trends in attitudes toward lesbians and gay men and compares data from a 1985 survey of 297 students living in a college residence hall with data col- lected in 2001 when 152 students living in the same residence hall responded to a similar questionnaire. College students in 2001 expressed more accepting attitudes toward lesbians, reported more contact with lesbians, and assessed their parents’ attitudes as more positive when compared with the 1985 sample. Consistent trends in the importance of these variables to the development of attitudes toward lesbians were shown, with gender role attitudes, parental attitudes, and exposure to education and media about gays and lesbians remaining the most important predic- tors. This suggests that strategies that discourage gender role stereotypes and provide educational and media experiences could increase acceptance of sexual minorities. Although gender was significant in 1985, there were no effects of gender in the 2001 sample. Continued study of trends in atti- tudes toward all sexual minorities and attention to the relative importance of gender and gender roles are recommended. doi:10.1300/J082v52n03_12[Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Ser- vice: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: Website: page1image12168 2007 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

Bernie Sue Newman is Associate Professor of Social Work, Temple University. Correspondence may be addressed: School of Social Administration, Temple Univer- sity, 1301 Cecil B. Moor Avenue, 505 Ritter Annex, Philadelphia, PA 19122.

Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 52(3/4) 2007 Available online at
© 2007 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1300/J082v52n03_12 249



KEYWORDS. Attitudes toward lesbians, homophobia, college student attitudes, correlates attitudes toward lesbians and gay men

In the past 30 years, there has been much attention on attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. This body of literature makes it possible to study attitudinal trends revealing gains in individual acceptance of sexual minorities and exposing entrenched values or practices that put lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons at continued risk for con- tinued acts of violence. This study focuses on variables that predict atti- tudes about sexual minorities; specifically on changes in attitudes toward lesbians and their correlates among college students. The study of these variables can point to strategies that might reduce prejudice about homosexuality.

Morin (1977) was one of the first to call for more research about heterosexuals’ prejudice toward homosexuals. He suggested that in light of the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 vote for removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, research should focus on how to reduce discrimination and prejudicial attitudes. Nine years later, Watters (1986) used Morin’s taxonomy in his literature review and reported that between 1979 and 1983, studies measuring attitudes of heterosexuals toward homosexuality increased from 7% to 19%. Studies on attitudes toward lesbians and gay men have become even more widespread in the ensuing years.

College students have been among the most frequently measured group in these social research studies. Two recent trend studies of college student attitudes toward homosexuality show increasing acceptance over time. McCormack (1997) reports that students’ attitudes toward homosexuality showed a lessening of homophobia between 1989 and 1995. More than a third (37%) of 120 college students in 1987 thought homosexuality should be illegal, but by 1991 only 18% (N = 152) and by 1995 a smaller minority of 14% (N = 172) favored keeping homosex- uality illegal. Altmeyer (2001) showed statistically significant decreases in negative attitudes toward homosexuals among Canadian college stu- dents and their parents’ between 1984 and 1998. He also demonstrated that “some attitudes toward homosexuals proved more resistant to change than others” (p. 65). Almost as many parents in 1998 as in 1984 agreed that “homosexuality is an abomination in the sight of God,” as one item states. However, the parents as well as the college students themselves reported an increase in their willingness to associate with

Bernie Sue Newman 251

homosexuals and a decreased concern with their children being taught by a teacher who is homosexual.

These studies of college students can be compared with more recent findings published in the literature. Past attitude studies among college students reflected the public’s view of homosexuality as deviant. For example, Stevenson (1988) cites a 1987 national study of American freshman norms that revealed that 62% of male and 45% of female freshmen agreed that homosexual relations should be prohibited. These negative attitudes toward homosexuals were still strong even in the early 1990s. Haddock, Zanna, and Esses (1993) report that their subjects’ attitudes toward homosexuals were generally negative and more unfa- vorable than their attitudes toward any of the other target groups (English Canadians and Pakistanis) studied.

Researchers in the 1970s began to investigate correlates of positive and negative attitudes. These studies showed that females who were less authoritarian, were less religiously conservative, held fewer sex-role ste- reotypes, and had experienced positive personal contacts with lesbians and gay men expressed less prejudice toward homosexuals (Dunbar, Brown, & Amoroso, 1973; Glassner & Owen, 1976; MacDonald & Games, 1974; Milham, San Miguel, & Kellogg, 1976; Nyberg & Alston, 1977). These correlates have also been found in recent studies of atti- tudes toward lesbians and gay men (see Herek, 1988; Hinrichs & Rosenberg, 2002; Kite & Whitley, 1998; Newman, 2002; Newman, Dannenfelser, & Benishek, 2002). Exposure to education about gay and lesbian issues has also been found to be significantly related to attitudes toward lesbians and gay men (Hinrichs & Rosen, 2002; Newman, 1989; Cramer, Oles, & Black, 1997).

Gender has often been explored as a correlate of acceptance toward sexual minorities. Males tend to express more negative attitudes toward gay men than lesbians (Herek, 1988; Kerns & Fine, 1994; Kite & Whitley, 1998; Kyes & Tumbelaka, 1994; Simoni, 1996; Weinberger & Milham, 1979) and females have expressed more negative attitudes toward lesbians than gay men (Herek, 1988; Kyes & Tumbelaka, 1994; Weinberger & Milham, 1979). A few studies suggest that females are more accepting of both gay men and lesbians than males (Donnelly, Donnelly, Kittleson, Fogarty, Procaccino, & Duncan, 1997; Schellenberg, Hirt, & Sears, 1999).

Donnelly et al. (1997) found that female college students were more accepting of lesbians and gay men than male college students. For example, 37% of the young women in their study strongly agreed that they would feel comfortable working with a lesbian, whereas only 9% of the men agreed that they would feel comfortable working with a gay


man. Some responses continued to reflect negative attitudes even among the women. Twenty-seven percent of the female respondents reported that they would not feel comfortable if they learned that their daughter’s teacher were a lesbian. Schellenberg, Hirt, and Sears (1999) showed that females consistently expressed more positive attitudes toward both gay men and lesbians. Regardless of sex, however, juniors and seniors were more accepting than freshmen and sophomores. Male attitudes showed the most dramatic effects in a positive direction over number of years of college completed.

There continues to be a minority of Americans who oppose the rights of gay people. Hate crimes because of sexual orientation continue to be committed, and although the majority of Americans support the civil and social rights of lesbian and gay people (Yang, 1999), a vocal mi- nority continue to condemn the lives of those who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. In the spring of 2003, Sen- ator Rick Santorum (P A-R) equated homosexuality with bestiality and incest (Associated Press, 2003). The Gay/Lesbian Politics and Law Web site and Internet resources list 14 anti-gay conservative organiza- tions. Organized efforts continue to exist to combat favorable treat- ment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people by a minority who openly reject homosexuality.

Despite entrenched negative beliefs, lesbian and gay civil rights organizations have gained ground at many levels in recent years. For- mer President Bill Clinton recognized the voting potential of a gay and lesbian constituency. He brought the words sexual orientation into mainstream politics when during his State of the Union Address to Congress in January 1999, he stated that “discrimination or violence because of race or religion, ancestry or gender, disability or sexual ori- entation is wrong” (Clinton, State of the Union Address to Congress, January 19, 1999, cited on White House Web site). He was the first president to back civil rights legislation for gays and lesbians fighting for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill outlaw- ing discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotions based on sexual ori- entation, extending basic employment protections to gay and lesbian Americans (White House). Although this federal protection has not yet been passed into law, contemporary policies, laws, and social norms have increasingly included homosexuals. Sexual orientation is included in city, state, and organizational non-discrimination laws. Some institu- tions, including some city governments, civil service agencies, univer- sities, and other private and public organizations, recognize single-sex domestic partnerships. According to a National Gay and Lesbian Task

Bernie Sue Newman 253

Force review of policies (Van der Meide, 1999), over 200 local and county laws were found to protect or benefit gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the United States. Fourteen states ban discrimi- nation based on sexual orientation.1 In one of the states, Minnesota, unsuccessful legislation in 2003 proposed to virtually remove all refer- ences to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons in the state non-discrimination laws (Frankel, 2003). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional (Lawrence vs. Texas, 2003). Canada enacted single-sex marriage statutes in that same year. Civil and social rights, benefits, and protections for homosexual persons have dramatically increased over the last 15 years. These changes have culmi- nated in the last 10 to 15 years so that a 2001 cohort of college students would have experienced these changes during their formative years.

Trend studies currently reflect increasing numbers of individuals expressing accepting attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. An even larger body of literature has identified variables that consistently predict attitudes toward homosexuality. The body of attitude studies over the last 30 years has varied little in its findings of the common correlates of attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. Some of the most often cited predictors include gender, gender role attitudes, degree of religiosity or authoritarianism, education about this population, and contact with individuals who are lesbian or gay. This study attempts to identify vari- ables most important in predicting attitudes toward lesbians and the amount of change in level of acceptance expressed in a sample of col- lege students in 1985 compared with students attending college in 2001.


The overall research design of this study is a longitudinal trend study measuring the same variables from a cohort of undergraduates in 1985 and then 16 years later in 2001. All data reported were collected at the University of Pittsburgh, a major university in an urban area of western Pennsylvania. The survey questionnaire was distributed by the same researcher in the same college residence hall in 1985 and in 2001. The questionnaire of eight pages measured six of the most commonly found correlates of attitudes toward homosexuals. These variables were gender, gender role attitudes, perceived parental attitudes, exposure to educational and media sources regarding homosexuality, degree of authoritarianism and religiosity, and contact with lesbians. A self-constructed scale of attitudes toward lesbians measured the dependent variable.


Respondents in 1985

All dormitory residents (678) received a questionnaire under their door in 1985. Letters attached to the questionnaire explained the pur- pose of the study. Students were provided an incentive of a ticket to a pizza party when they returned the completed questionnaire. Two hun- dred ninety-seven usable questionnaires were returned, making the response rate 43.8%; four questionnaires (1%) were eliminated because respondents reported themselves as other than primarily heterosexual. Thirty eight percent (n = 114) were males and 62% (n = 183) were fe- males. Sample distribution according to academic year in college was 67 (23%) freshmen, 121 (41%) sophomores, 58 (19%) juniors, and 51 (17%) seniors. The mean age in the sample was 20. No other demographic questions were asked.

Respondents in 2001

All dormitory residents (720) received a questionnaire under their door in 2001. Permission was obtained from institutional review boards and the office of residential life at the university where data were col- lected. Students were provided with a cover letter providing informed consent and a chance to enter a raffle for $50.00 when they submitted their completed questionnaire. One hundred sixty questionnaires were returned (22.2% response rate). Five percent (n = 8) who identified as other than primarily heterosexual were eliminated from the analysis. Fifty-eight respondents (38.4%) were male and 93 (61.6%) were female. Age range was 18 to 28; mean age was 19.8. Thirty-one percent were freshmen, 38% sophomores, 26% juniors, and about 5% seniors. Racial breakdown of respondents was 72.2% White, 18.5% African American, 6% Asian American, and 3% were identified as biracial.


Attitudes toward lesbians scale. This is a self-constructed scale mea- suring respondents’ level of agreement with 12 positive attitudes and 11 items expressing rejecting attitudes. Sample items are, “In a child custody case, lesbian mothers should not be awarded any of their chil- dren.” and “Lesbians should be allowed to legally marry.” The scale was developed by the author with the exception of two items derived from Smith’s (1971) Homophobia Scale and one item chosen from Larsen, Reed, and Hoffman’s (1980) Heterosexual Attitudes toward

Bernie Sue Newman 255

Homosexuals Scale. The three derived items were changed from asking about homosexuals in general to asking specifically about lesbians, so that this scale measured attitudes specifically toward lesbians. Samplealpha equals .81.

Gender role attitudes–Attitudes toward women scale (ATW)–short version (Spence, Helmreich, & Stapp, 1973). This scale “reflects the degree to which the individual holds traditional or liberal views . . . [toward] statements about the rights and roles of women in such areas as vocational, educational and intellectual activities, dating behavior and etiquette, sexual behavior and marital relationships” (Spence, Helmreich,&Stapp,1973).TheshortversionoftheATWscaleconsists of 25 items that maximally discriminated between sexes (suggesting good discriminant validity) and that had the highest correlations with items on the original 55-item version (Spence, Helmreich, & Stapp, 1973). The scale reflects the liberality of respondent attitudes toward gender roles between men and women. Sample reliability in this study was moderate (alpha = .82).

Educational and media influences regarding homosexuality. This variable was measured by a 23-item inventory that asked respondents to indicate if they had experienced certain educational and media expo- sures to information about homosexuality. Their responses reflect the relative degree of education about and media exposure to homosexual- ity. Respondents were asked to indicate if they (1) had taken any educa- tional courses in high school or college that included information about homosexuality; (2) if in the last year they had read general newspaper or magazine articles about homosexuality; (3) if they had heard of or read any books that included themes of homosexuality; (4) if they had seen or heard of any television shows; and if they had seen or heard any movies. Items were scored as 0 for no and 1 for yes. Sample scores ranged from 0 to 15.

Contact with lesbians. Extent of contact with lesbians was measured by asking respondents to identify the number of lesbians they know at present among their friends, family members, fellow students, co- workers, and other acquaintances, and the number of lesbians they knew when they were in high school. Response choices for each item were none, 1 to 3, 4 to 6, 6 to 10, or more than 10. A mean score was calcu- lated by adding ordinal scores. Scores were rank ordered from a score of 2 (knowing no lesbians at present or in high school) to 10 (knowing more than 10 lesbians in both high school and at present). The majority of students knew 1 or more lesbians both in high school and at present. Only 16% (n = 24) reported knowing none.


Authoritarianism–The potentiality for fascism(F-) scale (1985 study only). Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, and Sanford (1950) devel- oped this scale following World War II as a measure of the degree of authoritarianism expressions of attitudes associated with political conser- vatism, moral rejection of the unconventional, and prejudice toward out groups. This scale was used in the 1985 study except for one item refer- ring to the “pre-war” regulation of Germany. Each item had five response options on a Likert-type scale of agreement. Sample items are “Most of our social problems would be solved if we could somehow get rid of the immoral, crooked, feeble-minded people”; “The wild sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was tame compared with some of the goings-on in this country, even in places where people might least expect it.”

Religiosity composite scale. Religiosity2 was measured by Faulkner and Dejong’s (1966) eight-item religiosity Guttman scale. Sample items ask respondents to indicate one of six statements that most clearly describe their ideas about the Deity. Another item asks them to select from four statements expressing views on the Bible. Theoretical range on the scale is from 1 to 5 with higher scores indicating greater religios- ity. The sample mean score was 1.5 (S.D. = .28). A Guttman model of reliability analysis produced a Lambda of .81.

Parental attitudes toward lesbians. Parents’ attitudes toward lesbians were measured by two items developed by Glassner and Owens (1976), which were adapted to ask respondents about their parents’ attitudes toward lesbians. “How would you characterize your mother’s/father’s attitude toward lesbians?” Response options were accepting, partially accepting, neutral, partially rejecting, and rejecting. Parents’ attitudes toward lesbians were combined because respondents reported similar attitudes from both parents. (Pearson r = 0.70, p < 0.01). Therefore, the score for each respondent’s report of his or her mother and father’s score was calculated by summing both scores. The respondents’ mean score with respect to both parents’ attitudes toward lesbians was 5.5, S.D. = 2.3, on a scale of 2 to 10.


Comparison of the findings of the 1985 survey with its reproduction in 2001 allows for examination of changes and similarities in the sample distribution scores for the correlates of attitudes toward lesbians. Gender differences for the two time periods are presented for each correlate with

Bernie Sue Newman 257

a summary of these differences presented in Table 1. The degree of over- all acceptance toward lesbians is also compared between 1985 and 2001.

Differences Between 1985 and 2001 Sample Scores

Attitudes toward women. The 1985 sample mean score on the attitudes toward women scale of 3.8 (S.D. = .55) is similar to the 2001 sample mean score of 3.9 (S.D. = .41) on a scale of 1 to 5. Females held more pro-feminist attitudes toward women than did males in 1985 as well as 2001. The 1985 female mean of 4.0 is similar to the 2001 female mean of 4.1. In 2001, the sample mean for males is 3.8 compared with 3.4 for males in 1985. The difference between males and females was signifi- cant in both time periods, (p < 0.001) reflecting consistency in more liberal attitudes among females, but little overall change in college stu- dents’ attitudes toward women in the 16-year interim.

Authoritarianism. The sample range for mean scores on the 27-item F-Scale (Adorno et al., 1950) used to measure authoritarianism in the 1985 study was between 1.92 to 4.63 on a scale of 1 to 5 (sample mean = 2.99, S.D. = 0.42). Authoritarianism was a statistically significant predictor of attitudes toward lesbians in the 1985 study (Beta = 1.8,p < 0.001). Degree of authoritarianism and religiosity expressed by respondents was significantly correlated (r = 0.35, p < 0.001). The asso- ciation of religious beliefs and authoritarianism has been found in past

TABLE 1. Mean Scores by Gender




Attitudes toward women



Parent attitudes toward lesbians

1985 Men Women

3.4 4.0

3.0 3.0 1.4 1.5 3.2 3.5

t-Value 10.27***

1.05* 1.97** 1.19*

2001 Men Women

3.8 4.1

– – 1.4 1.6 5.6 5.4


– 1.45**



Note: The higher the score the more liberal attitudes are toward women; the more authori- tarian, the higher the degree of religiosity, and the more accepting of lesbians.

*Not significant.
**p = 0.05, ***p < 0.001.


studies (Byrne, 1966). The 27-item F-scale used to measure authoritari- anism in 1985 was considered dated because the items were developed in the 1940s. The strong positive correlation (r = 0.35, p < 0.01) with religiosity and the strong bivariate relationship between attitudes toward lesbians and religiosity (r = 0.36, p < 0.001) in the 1985 study made the eight-item religiosity measure a viable substitute for authoritarian- ism in the 2001 study.

Religiosity. Religiosity scores in 1985 and 2001 were almost identical. The theoretical range for the eight-item religiosity scale is between 1 and 5, with higher scores indicating greater religiosity. The sample mean scores in 1985 and 2001 were both 1.5 (S.D. = .285 in 1985; S.D. = 2.86 in 2001). Females reported slightly greater religiosity than did males at both time periods (1985 female mean = 1.53, male mean = 1.45, t = 1.97, p = 0.05; 2001 female mean = 1.57, male mean = 1.45;t = 2.5, p < 0.05).

Exposure to topic of homosexuality. Only one person in the current sample had no education or media experiences with the topic of homo- sexuality. The average number of education and media exposures out of the 23 was 6.5 (S.D. = 3.1). Just as in 1985, the vast majority of respon- dents had experienced some exposure to education and media.

Contact with lesbians. Only 32% of the college sample knew one or more current acquaintance who was a lesbian in 1985; the reverse was true in 2001. In the current study, 68% knew one or more lesbians. High school contact with lesbians was even more atypical among the 1989 college student report. Sixteen percent of the sample had contact with at least one lesbian during high school in 1989. A little over 65% of the college students in 2001 had known one or more lesbians during high school.

Attitudes Toward Lesbians

Attitudes toward lesbians also changed markedly. In 1985, the mean score on attitudes toward lesbians was 2.9 (S.D. = .64) compared with a mean score of 3.7 (S.D. = .65) on a scale of 1 to 5 with higher scores denoting greater acceptance of lesbians. Attitudes were slightly below neutral on average in 1985 and slightly above neutral in 2001.

The biggest change is reflected in parents’ attitudes toward lesbians. Respondents’ assessment of their parental attitudes appeared more lib- eral in the more recent study in which 22.2% of parents were considered accepting or partially accepting and another 25% neutral. The mean in 1985 was 3.5 (S.D. = 2.0), but was 5.5 (S.D. = 2.3) in 2001 on a scale of

Bernie Sue Newman 259

2 to 10. This reflects somewhat more liberal attitudes when compared with the 1985 data. Comparison of the modal scores in the two periods reflects this change as well. The mode for parental attitudes toward les- bians was 2.0 (both parents rejecting) in 1985. The mode had become 6.0 (both parents neutral) when measured in 2001.


It was the purpose of the multivariate analyses to better understand the relative influence of those variables which have been established as correlates of heterosexual attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. This study specifically focused on the predictors to positive and negative attitudes toward lesbians among the college cohorts in 1985 compared with those in 2001. Multiple linear regression analyses with all variables entered on the first step were computed.

1985 results. The original multiple linear regression entered seven independent variables: attitudes toward women, parental attitudes toward lesbians, religiosity, authoritarianism, gender, contact with lesbians, and educational and media exposures to the topic of homosexuality. Two of the seven predictors (contact with lesbians and religiosity) pro- duced non-significant Beta coefficients. Therefore, a second multiple regression analysis was computed using only those five predictors, which contributed significantly to the variance in attitudes toward lesbians. These five independent variables were regressed on attitudes toward lesbians to produce an adjusted R-square of .43. Respondent sex-role attitudes appeared to be the most important predictor to atti- tudes toward lesbians (Beta = 0.43, p < 0.001) followed by parents’ attitudes toward lesbians (Beta = 0.29, p < 0.001). Greater exposure to educational and media sources which include information about homo- sexuality (Beta = 0.15, p < 0.01) and lower degree of authoritarianism (Beta = 0.18, p < 0.001) also contributed significantly to more positive attitudes toward lesbians. Gender of respondents produced a significant coefficient as well (Beta = 0.17, p < 0.01).

2001 results. A multiple linear regression analysis was computed with five independent variables entered in one step on attitudes toward lesbians in the current analysis to produce an adjusted R-square of .47. Respondent sex-role attitudes appeared to be the most important pre- dictor to attitudes toward lesbians (Beta = 0.44, p < 0.001) followed by parents’ attitudes toward lesbians (Beta = 0.29, p < 0.001). Religiosity (the 2001 substitute for authoritarianism) produced a Beta coefficient of


0.23, p < 0.01 and exposure to education and media influences was also significant (Beta = 0.16, p < 0.05). Neither gender nor contact with les- bians contributed significantly to variance in attitudes toward lesbians.

The multiple regression analysis in 2001 reflected several consistent trends when compared with the 1985 analysis (see Table 2). The overall amount of variance in the two analyses was comparable with the five variables entered accounting for around 45% of the variance in attitudes toward lesbians in both 1985 and 2001. Attitudes toward women re- mained the most influential predictor with parental attitudes toward les- bians continuing to be second in importance. Authoritarianism in 1985 and its correlate religiosity in 2001, as well as exposure to education and media, held the same relative places in predicting attitudes toward lesbi- ans in both time periods. Contact with lesbians was not significant in either analysis. The singular variable with different results was gender, which produced a significant coefficient in 1985, but did not contribute to the variance in attitudes toward lesbians in 2001.

This longitudinal trend study has several limitations. The 2001 study is not an exact replication of the 1985 study in sample size or characteris- tics. The samples were similar, but not identical, in age, gender, or year in college. One variable, race, was measured only in the 2001 study. Other limitations include a nonrandom sample of college students and a mod- erate response rate in 1985 and a relatively poor response rate in 2001. Some groups of students living in the residence hall and many groups of college students in general were not represented. All measures relied on

TABLE 2. Results of Multiple Regression Analysis on Attitudes Toward Lesbians



Sex role attitudes
Parents’ attitudes toward lesbians Religiosity/Authoritarianism 0.23 Exposure to education and media 0.16 Gender 0.11 Contact with lesbians 0.05

Adjusted R-Square (2001) = 0.47; Adjusted R-Square (1985) = 0.43.

Standardized Beta Coefficient




1985 2001

0.43 0.001

0.29 0.0010.18 0.010 0.15 0.050


0.001 0.001 0.001 0.010 0.010


0.44 0.29

0.17 ns
– ns ns


Bernie Sue Newman 261

self-report. The estimation necessary when reporting number of educa- tion and media contacts or contact with lesbians makes these two mea- sures imprecise.


The sample of college students in 2001 expressed more positive attitudes about lesbians than the sample in 1985. Attitudes were slightly below neutral on average in 1985 and slightly above neutral on average in 2001. This suggests a trend of increasing acceptance of lesbians during this 16-year period.

Parental attitudes as perceived by the students reflected even greater change. This is consistent with Altmeyer’s (2001) finding of statistically significant decreases in negative attitudes toward homosexuals among the parents of Canadian college students between 1984 and 1998. Par- ents’ attitudes certainly had more room for improvement in the current study. Although student attitudes in 1985 were slightly below neutral, they reported their parents to be rejecting of lesbians on average. By 2001, students’ perception of their parents’ attitudes toward lesbians had moved to neutral indicating greater acceptance. It is also of interest that parental attitudes were significant predictors to student attitudes in the multiple regression analyses of both time periods. Perhaps, universities whose climate is not accepting of sexual minorities should include par- ents in their strategic efforts to reduce prejudice.

Although there was increased contact with lesbians in both high school and college years reported by the 2001 sample compared with the amount of contact reported in 1985, this variable did not have much impact on the change in attitudes toward lesbians. It was not a signifi- cant predictor in either time period. It may be that although students are more aware of lesbians, and lesbians are more open about their identity, this contact is not always of the type that reduces prejudice; that is, equal status contact in situations that involve a shared identity (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2004). Hinrichs and Rosenberg (2002) reported that quality of the interaction predicted positive or negative attitudes. Herek (1988) found that it was contact with friends who were lesbian and gay that made a difference in acceptance. Contact of any kind as measured in this study may not be the type of contact that promotes positive atti- tudes, but the development of genuine relationships between heterosex- ual and homosexual peers may create increasing acceptance.


The continued influence of educational and media exposures to attitudes toward lesbians, although moderate in size, should not be overlooked. This socialization factor has great potential impact on indi- vidual and societal attitudes toward any group of outsiders (Becker, 1963). Its effect can be positive or negative. Recent trends in visual media and publication of written media appear to portray the lives of the lesbian and gay population in ways that are more balanced than ever before in our history. This can be an opportunity for further positive change. Certainly, the kind of systematic knowledge gained when lesbian and gay issues are included in coursework has been shown to be an effective tool for decreasing prejudice (see, for example, Cramer, Oles, & Black, 1997).

There were comparable patterns produced in the regression analysis despite the time lag of 16 years. Parental attitudes toward lesbians, atti- tudes toward women, authoritarianism/religiosity, exposures to educa- tion and media that presents information about homosexuals, and amount of contact with lesbians had similar relative influence in 1985 as in 2001. The amount of variance that these predictors accounted for was close across the 16-year span, and the degree of importance of each pre- dictor was duplicated with one exception. Although gender was a sig- nificant predictor of attitudes toward lesbians in 1985, it did not account for a significant amount of variance in attitudes toward lesbians in 2001.

What might this signify? Although gender did not predict attitudes toward lesbians in the 2001 study, being male or female made a signifi- cant difference in respondents’ attitudes toward women. That is, females continued to express more liberal attitudes toward women than did males. The distributions of scores for female respondents were almost identical in 1985 and 2001, whereas there was a slight improvement in male scores. It could be that this slight increase reflects more positive attitudes toward women among the college males in this sample, and this accounts for the increase in their acceptance of lesbians between the two time periods.

On the other hand, perhaps it is society’s greater tolerance toward those who are gay that encourages most people to be more accepting, regardless of gender. Yang’s (1999) review of national polls revealed that public opinion in American society has reached a majority in favor of civil and social rights for lesbian and gay persons.

It is also possible that gender was not a correlate in 2001 because attitudes were measured about lesbians and not gay men. A number of studies have found that males express more negative attitudes toward gay men than they do toward lesbians (Herek, 1988; Kerns & Fine, 1994; Kite & Whitley, 1998; Kyes & Tumbelaka, 1994; Simoni, 1996;

Bernie Sue Newman 263

Weinberger & Millham, 1979). Previous studies have found that gender role attitudes or sexism can be an important correlate of attitudes toward gays and lesbians, especially for men who hold restrictive gender role attitudes (Harry, 1995; Kite & Whitley, 1996). Perhaps it is attitudes toward gender roles that are the more critical variable when compared with the influence of respondent gender.

The increasing acceptance demonstrated in this trend study of two samples of college students is encouraging. Moving from the negative side of neutral to the positive side seems to be a meaningful change in growing comfort and tolerance for lesbian women. Future studies need to document further trends in attitudes toward gay men and bisexual and transgender persons as well as lesbians. In addition, the relative impor- tance of gender and gender roles as influences on positive attitudes toward sexual minorities continues to deserve investigation.


  1. Only three of those states include sexual identity in their nondiscrimination law.

  2. Authoritarianism and religiosity were measured in the 1985 study. The 1950

Adorno F-Scale was used. This measure was dropped because of its high correlation with religiosity and its length and datedness.


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Associated Press (2003) Sen. Rick Santorum’s comments on homosexuality in an AP interview. Tue., April 22, 2003. Available at: file=/news/archive/2003/04/22/natio. Retrieved October 16, 2003.

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