“Dude, you gay?” Perceived Male Sexuality as a Function of Social Environments

H. Oakes

Homohysteria—the fear of being perceived as gay—holds powerful sway over many men. It thrives in cultures with high levels of homophobia and a perceived association between gender atypicality and being gay (Anderson, 2011). The result is a societal notion of masculinity that is linked to the performance of rigid gender roles and the espousal of homophobia. Despite the well-documented association between gender and perceived sexuality, homophobia in America has declined dramatically since the late 1990s. Anderson (2011) theorizes that the impact of this decline should be a weakened association between gender atypicality and perceived sexuality, but no research has formally tested this hypothesis.

Accordingly, I conducted five studies (N = 1459) to test Anderson’s (2011) hypothesis. I randomly assigned participants to read about a high school where homophobia among male students was highly prevalent or non-existent. All participants then read one of three profiles of ‘Steve’, a gender atypical male student from the school who explicitly states he is straight. After reading the high school description and Steve’s profile, participants rated their perceptions of Steve’s sexuality. Across all five studies, people were more likely to perceive Steve as straight and/or less likely as gay when he was situated in the non-homophobic (vs. homophobic) environment.

In two final studies (N = 1082) I used a mediation model to test whether features of the social environment accounted for my results. I found that people who read about a homophobic environment tended to perceive a greater likelihood of Steve’s peers questioning his sexuality should they learn about his gender atypicality, which in turn predicted their greater perceived motivation for Steve to conceal his gender atypicality.

This research establishes the robust effect that non-homophobic social environments weaken the association between gender atypicality and perceived homosexuality among men. It further suggests this association is weakened by people’s recognition that men have less motivation to conceal their gender atypicality in non-homophobic environments, partially because their sexuality is less likely to be questioned by their peers as a result of it.

I believe this research has important implications for all men, not just sexual minorities. Weaker associations between gender and perceived sexuality should translate into wider definitions of masculinity and more flexible gender roles. This greater flexibility has the potential to improve various domains of men’s lives, such as their friendships with other men, and ultimately improve their social and psychological well-being.