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date: 29 May 2017

Gay Straight Communication

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Sexual orientation is a private matter that individuals can decide to disclose or conceal. Nevertheless, when interacting with others, people seek for cues of sexual orientation. Hence, the person’s face, voice, or non-verbal behavior is taken as a cue of gayness. As research on gaydar has shown, inferences about others’ sexual orientation are at times accurate, at times driven by stereotypes. Sometimes, gay and lesbian people intentionally reveal their sexual identity explicitly or through subtle cues. Whether intentional or not, several cues are interpreted as communicating sexual orientation with tangible consequences for interpersonal interactions.

Identifying someone as gay or lesbian has several implications. On one hand, it leads straight men and women to behave differently than when they interact with other straight individuals (e.g., more physical distance, more anxiety). On the other hand, it affects verbal communication (e.g., conversation topics, questions, and statements). The harshest consequence of this categorization is hate speech and homophobic language. Researchers have demonstrated that being labeled as “faggot” or “dyke” negatively affects those who are targets of such verbal derogation and negatively impacts straight bystanders. Indeed, gay and lesbian targets of homophobic language report lower well-being and self-acceptance, while being exposed to such language increases prejudice toward gays and lesbians among straight people. In the case of straight men, the use of homophobic language often reflects the attempt to publically affirm one’s heterosexual identity.

Interestingly, a recent trend among gay people is to use homophobic labels within the community as a form of “reclaimed language,” meaning that these derogatory terms are used and reframed in a more positive way. Moreover, slang and labeling is very common among gays as it allows them to identify as a group and to highlight differences between sub-categories.

Finally, communicating sexual orientation can increase self-acceptance, social support, and positive social comparison with peers among gays and lesbians and can also increase positive attitudes toward gay people, especially when communicating with friends and family members.