We have all relied on stereotypes to explain some people’s behavior or beliefs. But stereotypes of any kind are damaging and dangerous. In this post, Sarah Nell explains how sometimes stereotypes beget more stereotypes – in this case, stereotypes of gays led to the passage of a ban on same-sex marriage, a decision that was met with stereotypes of Southerners.
Southern doesn’t mean stupid redneck. If you aren’t from the South, and you’ve never lived in the South, you might disagree. And given our stereotype-loving culture, I wouldn’t blame you. I am not a native to the South, but I have lived here for a significant portion of my adult life and I call North Carolina home. I consider myself an honorary Southerner.
When North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage recently, I was sad and angry and ashamed that I live in a state where almost two-thirds of voters chose to write discrimination into our state constitution. I was also upset that this was misconstrued and religiously and spitefully motivated (same-sex marriage was already banned in NC). This seems to be a clear breach of our nation’s constitutional assurance of the separation of church and state.
I am offended that the unintended consequences of this amendment that would negatively impact families of all kinds – not just same-sex families – were largely ignored by those in favor of the amendment. I am aggravated that this amendment was on a primary ballot where Republican voters were more likely to turn out to vote because of the Republican presidential primary. I am upset that gay people now want to boycott my state (even though I don’t blame them) and I’m mad and sad that so many gay North Carolinians live in a place where they are granted second-class citizenship. This issue is exasperating. But while I was down, I feel like I got punched in the face by a surprising source: a perceived confirmation of Southern stereotypes.
It’s in the news, on Facebook, on emails, and Twitter. Many North Carolinians are upset this week; the passage of this amendment does not reflect their values or their families. But the sentiment from many non-North Carolinians (and even some locals) has reinforced many age-old stereotypes of Southerners as uneducated, backwards bigots.
When we rely on stereotypes to justify our treatment toward individuals and groups, we fail to see how people’s circumstances shape what they do and believe.
These stereotypes are so tired. Relying on stereotypes is, to me, intellectually lazy. It’s also incredibly damaging to our society and the individuals within it. By reducing entire groups of people to a few (usually bad) characteristics, stereotypes feed all sorts of social ills. They are divisive because stereotypes reinforce in-group/out-group beliefs and prohibit people from understanding each other. Stereotypes diminish the diversity within groups and create the idea that all people who belong to that group are “that way.” When we rely on stereotypes to justify our treatment toward individuals and groups, we fail to see how people’s circumstances shape what they do and believe. Stereotypes about gays, like other stereotypes, are mostly untrue and damage the opportunities available to, and treatment of, gay people in our society.
Homophobic people invoke many fearful stereotypes of gays and lesbians to support their beliefs. Many have been fed a steady diet of propaganda and stereotypes about gays and feel both justified and rational to support such an amendment. They have been told by people they respect that homosexuality is sinful and that gay marriage will threaten the institution of marriage. That homosexuality is immoral (and therefore so are gay people). They say that gays are promiscuous, flamboyant, bad parents, good decorators, softball players, effeminate or mannish, and mostly godless. And they believe it. Not because they are stupid bigots, but because of the reality that has been constructed for them. Bridget Welch has explained this superbly.
However, gay people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, have a variety of careers, hobbies, faiths, and families. The same is true for Southerners. In many ways, the South is America’s regional minority. Minority groups are more likely to have harmful stereotypes used against them. This is a privilege that comes with being a member of the dominant group, but that’s another story. The South has a complex history of poor educational infrastructure – a result of economic subordination of the region – that has contributed to the formation of these stereotypes.
I would like us to avoid stereotypical explanations, depictions, or responses to things or people we don’t like. It is tempting, and stereotypes are abundant. For instance, I saw too often this week an image suggesting that North Carolina is a place where you can marry your cousin, just not your gay cousin.
While it is true that you can marry your cousin in North Carolina, the stereotype that Southerners are a bunch of inbred hillbillies is implied. But cousin marriage is not a Southern thing. It is legal in about half of the United States – including many non-Southern states such as Connecticut, California, and Colorado (to name a few). And Albert Einstein was the offspring of cousins.
My frustration lies in the ease with which my state’s decision was dismissed with stereotypical reasoning.
If an amendment like this passed in Michigan or Montana – two examples of states with similar or worse records for gay rights, we would not invoke these stereotypes. In fact, I can’t think of any stereotypes about those states or regions. My frustration lies in the ease with which my state’s decision was dismissed with stereotypical reasoning.
Same-sex marriage is banned or prohibited in almost every state in our nation. If we attribute the outcome of the vote to mere bigotry and cultural backwards-ness, we miss a lot of what’s going on. This is not to say there isn’t a lot of bigotry. There is. But we also need to understand that, as my good friend and rural sociologist Gretchen Thompson put it, “the South does not have a monopoly on spiteful bigots and religious high horses.” Bigotry is not just Southern. Bigotry is everywhere. Gretchen continues, “If people think that we as a nation have essentially corralled all bigots, racists, and rednecks up in the South then they can feel better about their own communities – [and thus themselves] – as being better than us (Southerners). In their mind, bigotry is a problem we (Southerners) have, not them.”
I loathe the frustration many Americans feel toward my state. I am frustrated too. But I would like to see objectors to this amendment take a more moral-high-road or don’t-stoop-to-their-level approach. If for no other reason, stereotypes about gay people are arguably behind the homophobia that produced such an outcome. Responding with more stereotypes is counterproductive. Would the Golden Girls’ Blanche ever understand if Sophia blamed Blanche’s “uniquely” Southern bigotry?
Stereotyping our political enemies is only another way to alienate them, driving the wedge in deeper. Let’s focus instead on what we can do to improve the rights of all of our citizens. We need more creative solutions – solutions that grow out of understanding one another and respect for the right for all U.S. citizens to live and love freely. These solutions are out there, and people are working on them. President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage suggested that this may be a generational thing. We must continue to believe that over time, with patience and continued support, we will achieve marriage equality.
1. All forms of progress are met with resistance and push-back. What other examples have we seen in history that are parallel to this? How have movements countered this resistance?
2. How do stereotypes get perpetuated and what are the consequences of stereotypes for individuals and groups? What are the potential consequences for the marriage equality movement if supporters focus on stereotypes of the Southern region? What could supporters focus on instead?
3. If President Obama is correct and homophobic bigotry is a generational thing (not a regional thing), what will our society look like, with regard to same-sex marriage, when the Obama children are in college? In their 40s? In their 70s? How will we as a society get there?
 Gretchen Thompson contributed to this post