Sexuality shifts perceptions of who is ‘American’

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People tend to perceive gay and lesbian Asian Americans as more “American” than those they presume are straight, research finds.

Perceptions of Asian Americans, the fastest growing racial group in the US, as “foreign” persist.

A new study, the latest in research to examine stereotypes, identity, and ideas about who is “American,” focuses on how sexual orientation and race come together to influence others’ perceptions.

“Research on race is often separate from research on sexual orientation. Here we bring the two together to understand how they interact to influence judgments of how American someone is considered,” says Sapna Cheryan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

Cheryan in 2017 authored a related study, which showed how stereotypically American traits, such as being overweight, made Asian Americans seem more “American.” The new research by Cheryan and her students, a collection of four studies, appears in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Research has shown that Asian Americans, and people of color in general, are seen as less American than white Americans, and face prejudice and discrimination throughout various aspects of life. Regarding sexual orientation, studies have found that, relative to countries such as Japan and South Korea, the United States has implemented more civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation, and is seen as more LGBTQ-friendly.

Hypothetical people

The new research involved four separate, diverse groups of participants from the university’s student population, who answered questions related to brief, written descriptions of hypothetical people or scenarios.

In the first study, researchers randomly assigned participants to read a brief descriptive phrase of a person named John, identified either as “an Asian American man” or “a gay Asian American man.” They were then asked to rate, using a seven-point scale, how American they considered him through questions such as “How fluently do you think this person speaks English?” and “How integrated is this person in American culture?”

Researchers found that participants perceived the hypothetical “gay Asian American man” as significantly more American than the hypothetical “Asian American man,” whose sexual orientation wasn’t specified.

The second study used similar questions, but included a greater variety of hypothetical people: men, women, whites, and Asian Americans. Sexual orientation was noted as “gay” or wasn’t listed. Researchers assigned “American” names to the fictional people — names that were popular in the United States in the 1980s: Matt, Chris, Michael, Jessica, Jennifer, and Ashley. The same results emerged: Asian Americans identified as gay were perceived to be more American than Asian Americans whose sexual orientation was not identified.

Whites were perceived as American no matter their sexual orientation.

‘American culture’ and ‘Asian culture’

“These studies demonstrate once again the widely-held assumption that whites are the most American. Though being gay increased perceptions of Asian Americans’ ‘Americanness,’ it was still not nearly enough to close the gap in perceptions between Asian Americans and whites,” says Linda Zou, a graduate student and study coauthor.

The other two studies focused on perceived differences between “American culture” and “Asian culture,” and how LGBTQ-friendly the cultures appear to be. In one study, researchers wrote descriptions of fake countries that were either presented as less welcoming and accepting of gay people than the US or equally welcoming and accepting. Participants rated Asian culture as less LGBTQ-friendly, and a gay person as more American if they were associated with a country of origin that was less LGBTQ-friendly.

“American culture is perceived as more accepting of gay people compared to Asian culture. As a result, gay Asian Americans are perceived as more likely to be American than their straight counterparts,” the authors write.

No less discrimination

But that doesn’t mean LGBTQ Asian Americans face less discrimination, Cheryan says. While sexual orientation may affect a person’s perceived “foreignness,” it doesn’t protect against other forms of discrimination and harassment, she adds.

“One possible extension of this work is that gay Asian Americans may be less likely to have their American identities questioned than straight Asian Americans,” says Cheryan. “At the same time, being gay puts people more at risk for other forms of prejudice based on sexual orientation.”

The research lends itself to comparisons with other races, ethnicities, and countries, the authors write, such as exploring the intersection of sexual orientation and race in the context of cultures that are believed to be more or less LGBTQ-friendly.

Source: University of Washington