Q&A with the Chronicler of Homophobia's Disappearance

Eric Anderson, a sociology researcher at the University of Bath, says that homophobia is fading fast in the U.S. and U.K. (Image credit: Grant Peterson.)

Eric Anderson is a running-coach-turned-sociologist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom who recently announced some head-turning news: Homophobia in high schools and universities in the U.K. has dropped so low that young straight men are completely comfortable with kissing one another. That includes what Anderson dubs "sustained" kissing, or what a layperson might call "making out."

According to Anderson, the findings reveal a generation gap between adults who grew up in homophobic culture and youth who find it incredible that homosexuality was ever stigmatized, much less illegal. LiveScience caught up with Anderson by phone in San Diego, where he was attending a conference, to talk gender, sexuality and sports.

Q: You started your career as a running coach. How did you become a sociologist?

In 1993, I came out of the closet as an openly gay high school coach. After two years of escalating symbolic violence, one of my athletes was brutally beaten by a homophobic football player. That event made the national media, which thrust me into the spotlight, and I found myself being utilized by the press. My relationship to the press grew from one solely based on sport to one in which gay issues took center stage. I realized if I'm going to represent the gay community, and if I'm going to fully understand what's going on here, I need to do my Ph.D. in sociology studying sport, masculinities and sexualities.

Q: There is a stereotype that sports can be homophobic and violent. What have you found in your research?

Here's the thing, when I first started researching gay male athletes in 1998, I expected their stories to be as horrific as the one I had from 1993 to 1995. But things had changed. Athletes were coming out of the closet, and they were having successful experiences on their teams without violence. In fact, I've been studying gay male athletes in both the U.S. and the U.K. for 12 years now, and there's not been a single case of violence that I'm aware of.

I have some new research coming out quite soon that shows quite the opposite, that when an athlete comes out of the closet, it bonds his team closer together. Self-disclosure brings about self-disclosure, and that makes people feel closer to each other. 

Q: Does your research have implications for "don't ask, don't tell" [the American military policy that allows gay members to serve only if they keep their sexuality secret]?

Absolutely. "Don't ask, don’t tell" is a dinosaur. To assume that all military men are homophobic is a gross stereotype. It's a completely unfair stereotype to think that they're not professional enough to work with gay people, that they don't have gay family and friends, that they didn't grow up in high schools with gay mates and gay teammates. The reproduction of "don't ask, don't tell" is an old gray-hair-driven phenomenon.

Q: You moved to the U.K. six years ago. How are the U.S. and the U.K. different in terms of homophobia?

Well, on quantitative studies, the United Kingdom comes out about 20 to 25 percentage points better on the same questions about homophobia in comparison to the U.S. And this is a trend that has basically stayed the same for 25 years now.

Whatever is going on in the United Kingdom, you can expect to see it go on a few years later in the United States. Metrosexuality, certainly a phenomenon that Americans are now familiar with, it didn't start in Manhattan. It started in Europe, and it started in England, in terms of English-speaking countries. And then it migrated over to the U.S. a few years later.

The research that I do in the United Kingdom, I also conduct in the United States, and I find that there's a little bit of a lag, but the United States is making incredibly rapid progress, particularly amongst their youth, on issues of sex and gender.

Q: What does a decrease in homophobia mean for how society views masculinity and femininity?

In the 1980s, homophobia was so extreme that heterosexual men were at a loss to prove that they weren't gay. One cannot prove a negative, and so heterosexual men have had to prove and reprove and reprove their heterosexuality. They would do this through multiple mechanisms, but one of the mechanisms was to police their gendered behaviors, police the way they moved their bodies, police how emotional they were with other men, and police how tactile they were with other men.

When you live in a culture that is very aware that homosexuality exists — all Western cultures today — and is very homophobic — this is America, 1988 — you can expect men to have a very narrow range of gendered behaviors. However, if you live in a culture that's incredibly homophobic, like almost all Islamic countries today, but they don't actually think that their friends or their family could be gay, well, then, their gendered behaviors aren't so policed.

So there was a particular time period, and I call it a period of high homo-hysteria, in the United States in the 1980s, in which for the first time everybody became aware that homosexuality existed en masse. And we couldn't deny this, because normal American men were dying in normal American families of AIDS. It opened up the door to the realization that anybody could be gay. That sent men into a tizzy trying to show that they weren't one of the anybodies that could be gay.

And then, after 1993, homophobia starts to dissipate at a very rapid rate, and now, today's youth, they don't care so much. And that's given them a whole new terrain of behaviors to express.

Q: We touched on some surprising findings of your work on athletes and homosexuality, but what other important behaviors have you found?

Well, the findings are only surprising to those who are 25 or 30 years of age and older. They're not really surprising to 17-year-olds. That's not to say that this new attitude exists in all demographics in all spaces in all places. But it is to say that it's a growing emergence and [homophobia] is particularly unacceptable in white, urban middle-class youth.

So some of the other interesting findings are, we've got openly gay athletes playing on teams and being successful. We've got straight men bonding more, being emotionally intimate with each other, developing bro-mances. We've got straight men cuddling, holding each other, spooning, in England. Some of that is occurring in the United States, though not as often.

Q: Given the current awareness of anti-gay bullying among high school kids in the United States, it may be a surprise to hear that homophobia is decreasing. Are these incidents remnants of homophobia or is something else going on?

Bullying is not on the rise. The media's willingness to call the kids who committed suicide gay is.

Homophobia is on the decline, but it's not gone. Kids will always kill themselves, including gay kids (as sad as that is), and when it's a gay kid, we will look for bullying as a cause. The encouraging aspect here is that the media is now reporting these, and there is an overwhelming and positive response.

Q: My last question is a simple one: What do you do when you're not doing sociology?

I don't think that there's ever a time I'm not doing sociology. I can't shut my brain off. Even when I'm on a holiday or just socializing, I'm constantly monitoring what's going on and discussing it in my head about what the hell I see going on.

But other than that, I'm a runner. My partner and I like to travel quite a bit. We like to lie on the couch and watch TV and I don't know, go clubbing? We're gay boys, we like to go clubbing.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.