Radio Interview on KGNU

Janis Bohan with OUTSOURCES on KGNU radio interviewed us about Positive LGBTQ Identities.  The show aired on March 3, 2014, and is available as a podcast download at


Moving the Middle Towards Marriage Equality

July 16, 2012
Moving the Middle Towards Marriage Equality
Ellen D.B. Riggle, PhD
          In just a few months voters in several states will go to the polls and cast their vote on marriage restrictions and marriage equality.  While the vast majority of voters in these states (including Minnesota, Washington and Maine) personally know same-sex couples and gay men and lesbians, the votes are expected to be close.  We often think that knowing someone who is gay or lesbian will translate into support for LGBT civil rights, but it’s not that simple.  Coming out or being out is not enough to move the middle on this issue.  For LGBT identified individuals and same-sex couples, we have to be out, be visible, and be ‘in their face’ in order to move the middle towards equality.
          I have been involved in research on the impact of marriage restriction amendments on LGBT individuals and same-sex couples since 2004 following the passage of a marriage restriction amendment in Kentucky.  After the election, members of same-sex couples shared their stories of being angry, saddened, and frustrated because people who knew them and seemed supportive of their relationship – family, friends, co-workers — had voted for the marriage restriction amendment.
          Jump ahead 2 years to 2006, I was involved in an online survey of more than 2500 LGB and same-sex partnered individuals; once again we found that LGB individuals felt deep hurt because people who knew them and seemingly accepted them had supported and voted for marriage restriction amendments.
          Now jump ahead another 2 years to 2008.  A lot of people were surprised by the passage of Prop 8 in California.  California has generally been seen as a “gay-friendly” state, there are a whole lot of “out” LGB folks there, and California already had marriage rights for same-sex couples.  So, how could this amendment pass?
          The surprise seemed to stem at least in part from the traditional reliance on a derivative of the “contact theory” when thinking about public support for LGBT rights; that is, the thinking has been that if more LGBT people come out, then people around them will get to know them and be supportive, and policy outcomes will be positive — simple as that.  Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.
          In preparing to give a talk just after the 2008 election, my colleagues and I reflected on what could be done to “turn the tide” in the future to defeat marriage restriction amendments and increase support for marriage equality.  In thinking about what could be done, I went back to an insightful reframe of the same-sex marriage debate by Janis Bohan (in an interview with the APA Monitor): “The real issue is not similarity or difference; the real issue is power and its distribution…”
          Taking this reframe as a starting point I applied some of the research on intergroup relations and privilege.  I made an argument that the focus of the marriage equality debate needs to change from “same-sex couples are just like heterosexual couples” to “heterosexual privilege is unfair and the way same-sex couples are treated is unfair.” In order to effect changes in policy attitudes, and thus citizen votes, the arguments need to point out the very important differences between the ways same-sex couples are treated and heteronormative couples are unfairly advantaged.
          What this argument suggests may be somewhat confrontational and conflictual.  That makes some people uncomfortable.  But hear me out about the importance of speaking the truth about privilege.
          First, I want to briefly illustrate something about support for marriage equality and “knowing someone gay.”  Depending on which recent polls we look at and how the question is worded, 70-80% of the American public say that they “know someone who is gay or lesbian.”  Yet, on average, approximately 2/3 of the voters in states with marriage restriction amendments on the ballot have voted in support of those amendments — against equality for gay men and lesbians.  So we can fairly assume there is a significant overlap between those who “know” gay men and lesbians and those who vote against equality.
          Public opinion polls have illustrated this overlap specifically.  For example, a May 2009 Gallup poll found that 58% of respondents said they personally knew a friend, co-worker or relative who is gay; 88% of this group reported being “comfortable” around gay men and lesbians.  Yet, of those who knew someone gay, 47% opposed extending the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples.  These numbers are changing, but are they changing fast enough to prevent more losses in November?
          Clearly, coming out and “knowing someone gay” is not necessarily enough to get voters to support equality; there has to be something else in the mix to change votes.  I argue that research on intergroup relations and privilege suggests that an over-reliance on pointing out the similarities between same-sex couples and heteronormative straight couples is unlikely to change votes on marriage restriction amendments in a timely fashion – if at all. Research by Tamar Saguy and her colleagues on intergroup interactions between advantaged and disadvantaged groups finds evidence that the disadvantaged group members expected that the privileged group members would treat them fairly as a result of placing emphasis on how much alike they all were.  However, while the privileged group members enjoyed the benefits of lowered group tensions, they did not follow through with behavioral changes that required sharing resources.  Thus, changing the status quo of stratified privilege was met with resistance from the privileged group members who feared losing their “special” status.
          To effect support for social change, several researchers have suggested that there must be actual discussion of inequalities and that advantaged group members must learn to address their privilege in a critical way. In other words, it is not merely knowing someone from another group but actual discussion of group inequalities that increases support for change in the status quo among privileged group members.  Thus, it is important to have substantive discussions in order to reduce prejudice based on sexual or gender identity, and by implication increase support for marriage equality.
          Research also indicates that interpersonal confrontations are effective at lessening stereotype-based responses and prejudicial attitudes.  If we apply research on prejudice to support for marriage equality, then even low-prejudiced heterosexual-identified individuals may not recognize or reflect upon their privileged status unless prompted to do so; these unexamined beliefs may lead to resistance to policy changes that support marriage equality.
          And, further extending the research, I would argue that commonality focused interventions that “put a familiar face” on LGB identities may inadvertently support the status quo and leave inequalities and privileges unexamined, thereby lessening support and activism for social change.  This is not to argue that events like “National Coming Out Day” are not useful and important; they are, as a first step.  But it may not be enough in itself to change votes.
          Having substantive and possibly confrontational discussions is stressful.  For that reason, a lot of LGBT individuals and their allies focus on commonalities, or just fitting in and being “non-threatening.”  So, the challenge is for individuals and groups to engage in dialogues that confront privilege and emphasize the inequalities along with the commonalities.
           Marriage inequality needs to be reframed as a problem originating in the social context rather than in same-sex couples.  For example, in working with community groups, invoking the concept of the “similarly-situated” may help to reframe the marriage debate and reduce fear and prejudice while bringing attention to heterosexual privilege.  Asking “how would you want to be treated in this situation” helps to increase empathy and compassion.  Simulation activities that capitalize on the “similarly-situated” concept are effective in promoting perspective taking and more positive attitudes while reducing personal defensiveness.
          LGBT individuals and our families need to give voice to our experiences.  We also need heterosexual allies to play an important role in this dialogue and engagement.  Heterosexual allies, having heterosexual privilege, can support changing the status quo in part by resisting the “you are just like us” mantra and instead acknowledging their privileged status and engaging in critical and constructive dialogues about the illegitimacy of their privileged status. In their review of the literature on prejudice reduction, Paluck & Green (2009) concluded that mobilizing the positive influence of peers (through modeling and discussion) is one of the relatively few interventions that has consistently demonstrated efficacy in reducing prejudice.  President Obama’s personal statement in support of same-sex marriage is a good case study in the impact of using privilege to reduce prejudice.
          So, share your story.  Put it in their face.  Be out and speak out.  It just might change a vote and move the middle towards equality.
For more information on the research cited in this article, go to

Cultivating a Positive Environment for LGBTQ Individuals in Appalachia

Cultivating a Positive Environment for LGBTQ Individuals in Appalachia
Ellen D.B. Riggle
Sharon S. Rostosky

Comments from a Panel Presentation sponsored by the Appalachian Center, University of Kentucky, Friday April 20, 2012

 A Positive View of LGBTQ: Embracing Identity and Cultivating Well-Being is based on a national sample of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identified individuals.  But the book has its origins in local events and local interviews that we have done (and includes some of those).

Much of our research focuses on what is called minority stress – or the extra stressors that people face because they are stigmatized because of their sexual or gender identity, or their race or ethnicity, or another stigmatized status.

In our research, in addition to national and international online surveys that we conduct, we have interviewed over 100 same-sex couples locally and numerous individuals.  The majority of these couples and individuals either come from Appalachia, have family in Appalachia, or they currently live in Appalachia.  So, the people sharing their stories with us bring Appalachian culture with them (although this is not to say that Appalachian culture is monolithic).

Our book actually got its start right after the 2004 general election when voters in Kentucky passed the marriage restriction amendment to the state constitution.  At the time we were interviewing same-sex couples about the role of spirituality and religiosity in their relationship and lives.  One of the first couple members we talked to after the election talked about the toll that the public debate had taken on his relationship with his family from Eastern Kentucky.  He talked about the conflict it created between him and his family because he wanted their support – after all they invited both he and his partner home for the holidays so he thought they were accepting – but they were supporting the marriage restrictions and saying that same-sex marriages were not “real marriages.” He blamed this in part on his family living in Eastern Kentucky and going to the “hometown church” where the preacher was prejudiced against gay people.  The conflict made him feel alienated from his family of origin and put stress on his relationship with his partner.

So, how do we get from studying that type of minority stress to what I call our “happy book” focused on positive well-being?  There are 2 parts to the road.  One part is that when we talk to these couples, we always come away smiling, because along with the stories of their stresses and challenges, they share with us their insights, their love and commitment to each other, and they often do so with a sense of humor. There is not just resilience, but they have a sense of optimism. Second, we also talk to a lot of young people from this area, including from Eastern Kentucky.  We get two strong messages from these young people:  they want and need visible LGBTQ role models, and they want and need visible allies.

So, we saw the need for research on the positive aspects of LGBTQ lives that re-frames and re-focuses the conversations that we have about LGBTQ identities.  These new conversations are not just about eliminating minority stress or dealing with bad things; we want to focus more broadly on how to actively cultivate well-being and create environments where LGBTQ people and everyone can flourish.

For all youth and adults it is important to have a sense of belonging, closeness with others, and community – these are some of the themes that we talk about in the book.  For LGBTQ and questioning youth in Appalachia, as Mary Gray also talks about in her book (Out in the Country), it is important to have the visible role models and a visible ally community.  I think it is important to us as researchers that we recognize the importance of family and community in rural and Appalachian experience.  These are strong values that can facilitate well-being and we find that LGBTQ people integrate these values with their own identity experiences to create positive growth.

For example, one gay man from Eastern Kentucky told us, “I grew up being taught to treat everyone like I want to be treated (the Golden Rule), to help my neighbors.  Being gay has helped me realize that that really does apply to how I treat everyone.  I am more compassionate towards everyone now.”

In order to create a positive supportive environment for everyone, we need visible allies for LGBTQ people in Appalachian communities.  I think one of the big myths that we have to confront is that Appalachian communities are totally hostile towards LGBTQ people.  That is not true, there are a lot of supporters and we need for them to be visible.  Not only do we want LGBTQ people to not feel alone, we don’t want their allies to feel alone.

I want to read you a quick story from a young person from Eastern Kentucky that illustrates the importance of allies in creating well-being for LGBT youth in Appalachia and creating community:

“My best friend in high school, who was a white heterosexual man, was my go-to for just about anything.  We had a strong connection over several things. … In high school, I was in the beginning stages of confronting my sexuality directly. … It wasn’t until [I was writing a story last year] that I realized he was my first ally.  He told me a few years ago about realizing I was gay (we didn’t really talk about it until college).  He told me he thought to himself one day ‘Is she gay? Yep.  Am I okay with that? Yep.  Alright, moving on.’  That short conversation he had with himself let me know that our friendship was strong and that he was there for me no matter what.”

Let me just end with the basic message of our book – and what everyone here knows – our personal stories have power.  They have power over how we define our own lives and they have power when we share them with others.  Talking with others about the positive aspects of LGBT identities, recognizing the benefits of these identities in our own lives and the life of our communities, is an important part of creating a celebratory culture for everyone in Appalachia.  A strong, visible support ally culture is a part of this celebration of all of our lives.

Creating a Positive View

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Creating a Positive View

This is an expanded version of a story written and published on the Rowman & Littlefield author blog on March 26, 2012:

By Ellen D.B. Riggle, PhD

As an academic researcher, I have typically taught and wrote about things that would depress and scare ordinary people (actually, these things depress and scare me too): depression and anxiety, psychological abuse, suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol abuse, violent attacks, discrimination and everyday prejudice. I discuss these topics in the context of the stresses that people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) face and have to cope with (sometimes in healthy, adaptive ways, but other times in unhealthy or risky ways). It seems that in my academic training, I was taught to focus on negative issues. Implicitly I was taught that if nothing is “wrong” then everything must be okay, and we don’t need to talk about that.

Focusing on “what’s wrong” is important. For example, the current focus on the violence and psychological abuse associated with bullying is essential to providing all children and adults with a safe environment for living their lives. We are all responsible for solving this problem so we all need to be talking about it. But in focusing on what’s wrong, sometimes we forget to also focus on “what’s right.”

“What’s right” are stories that often get ignored or that just aren’t seen as interesting enough to make the news. A case in point: my friends, two women who have been partners for decades and are devoted parents and now grandparents, spend their time and energy acting as mentors and positive role models for young LGBT people and their allies in the pursuit of social justice — they don’t make the news. The Rhode Island Catholic Bishop who opposes marriage equality by stating that “homosexual activity is immoral, an offense to God, a serious sin” – he makes the news. This creates an imbalance in the messages that we are exposed to that impacts the stories that come to mind when we think about LGBT lives.

In a study of the messages that LGBT people (and their family members) hear in the media and their immediate environments, we found that people hear on average at least one negative message every week about LGBT people. These negative messages mostly come from stories in the mass media but they also come from overhearing others talk. Both of these situations are hard to avoid. People also hear positive messages; these messages tend to come from sources that people actively seek out, like friends or LGBT friendly media. It’s bad enough that the environment that we are exposed to in daily life delivers so many negative messages about LGBT people and their lives, but it’s especially bad when we think about young adults and children hearing these negative messages on a regular basis.

If we are to successfully address issues such as stigmatization, bullying and other public health risks for LGBT people, we must create a culture that, on a regular basis, celebrates instead of denigrates LGBT lives. How do we change this imbalance of messages and create a celebratory culture? One way to address this challenge is to share the positive stories of LGBT lives. In our research with over a thousand LGBT people, we have heard stories of personal growth and life lessons that can benefit us all. For example, we have heard stories about the benefits of living an authentic life and how that brings people closer to their family and friends. We have heard stories from many people about the importance of being flexible and creative in relationships with their partners so that both partners flourish. We have heard about how people develop compassion for others and engage in work or volunteer activities to support and benefit people in need. All of these actions come from positive qualities that people associate with their LGBT identities. These are the stories we need to be exposed to on a regular basis.

Our personal stories have power. They have power over how we define our own lives. They also have power when we share them with others. Talking with others about the positive aspects of LGBT identities, recognizing the benefits of these identities in individual lives and the life of our communities, is an important part of creating a celebratory culture. Sharing stories of LGBT lives with one person, or dozens, or thousands (even millions) will help to re-balance and re-focus the conversations that people have. In the future, when I talk about my research, hopefully I will leave people smiling more.

Ellen D.B. Riggle is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Kentucky. She is co-author of A Positive View of LGBTQ: Embracing Identity and Cultivating Well-Being. For more information about her research, go to

Article published in Journal of Lesbian Studies

Our article on lesbian young adult characters in novels has been published in the Journal of Lesbian Studies!

Cook, J., Rostosky, S.S., & Riggle, E.D.B. (2013). Gender role models in award – winning fiction for young lesbians.  Journal of Lesbian Studies, 17, 150-166.  DOI:     10.1080/10894160.2012.691416   

Novels provide role models for young adult lesbians and thus may influence their identity development. This study focused on 16 lesbian protagonists identified in 11 young adult novels that received 2011 Lambda Literary Award nominations. Content analyses revealed six themes. Three themes defied traditional gender stereotypes: Asserting Oneself, Pursuing Intimacy with Another Woman, and Breaking Free of Constraints to Authentic Self-Expression. Three themes reinforced gender stereotypes: Negative Emotional Experiences Associated with Lesbian Identity, Traditional Masculine Gender Expression, and Traditional Gender Role-Based Sexual Scripts. Each theme is discussed in light of its possible contribution to lesbian identity development.

Article Published in Family Process

Our article on the positive aspects of being the parent of an LGBTQ identified child has been published online.  A download is available on our Publications page.  The final print article has not appeared yet.

Gonzalez, K.A., Rostosky, S.S., Odom, R.D., & Riggle, E.D.B. (2012). The positive aspects of being the parent of an LGBTQ child. Family Process, x, 1-13. doi: 10.1111/famp.12009

Parenting an LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer) identified child presents unique opportunities for growth and development. This study focused on self-reported perceptions of the positive aspects of being the parent of an LGBTQ child. Participants (N = 142) were mothers (83.8%) and fathers (16.2%) of LGBTQ identified individuals who responded to an open-ended online survey. Thematic analysis revealed five primary themes: Personal Growth (open mindedness, new perspectives, awareness of discrimination, and compassion), Positive Emotions (pride and unconditional love), Activism, Social Connection, and Closer Relationships (closer to child and family closeness). The practice implications of these findings for supporting parents in envisioning positive relationship outcomes for themselves and their children are highlighted in the discussion.

Article Published in International Perspectives in Psychology

Article on positive themes in LGBT identities in Spanish-speaking countries has been published!  Go to our Publications List to view the full article.

Almario, M., Riggle, E.D.B., Rostosky, S.S., & Alcalde, M.C. (2013). Positive themes in LGBT self-identities in Spanish-speaking countries. International Perspectives in Psychology, 2(1), 1-13.

Positive self-identity is an important component of well-being. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender/transsexual (LGBT)-identified individuals in Spanish-speaking countries, forming and maintaining a positive identity is important to countering the negative impact of minority stress. An online survey collected self-reported data from participants in 15 Spanish-speaking countries (n = 121). Qualitative thematic analysis revealed eight positive identity themes: personal insight and strong sense of self; strong connections with family and friends; belonging to a community and being a role model for others; authenticity and honesty; involvement in social justice activism; freedom from gender-prescribed roles and to explore sexual expression and different types of relationships; empathy and compassion for others, including an awareness of prejudice toward others; and irrelevance or neutrality of sexual or gender identities. These findings suggest that people across nationalities may have similar experiences of positive identity and well-being related to their sexual and gender identities. Community leader- and counselor-facilitated interventions that empower LGBT individuals and groups are discussed as opportunities for enhancement of well-being through engagement and activism.

UK Appalachian Center Forum, April 20, 2012 – Read our comments

Cultivating a Positive Environment for LGBTQ Individuals in Appalachia

Ellen D.B. Riggle

Sharon S. Rostosky

Panel Presentation sponsored by the Appalachian Center, University of Kentucky, Friday April 20, 2012

 A Positive View of LGBTQ: Embracing Identity and Cultivating Well-Being is based on a national sample of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identified individuals.  But the book has its origins in local events and local interviews that we have done (and includes some of those). …

… Let me just end with the basic message of our book – and what everyone here knows —

Our personal stories have power.  They have power over how we define our own lives and they have power when we share them with others.  Talking with others about the positive aspects of LGBT identities, recognizing the benefits of these identities in our own lives and the life of our communities, is an important part of creating a celebratory culture for everyone in Appalachia.  A strong, visible support ally culture is a part of this celebration of all of our lives.

See our full comments on our blogpage: