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Beyond “Straight Talking”: The Consequences of Vocal Cues to Sexual Identity for Modern Prejudice

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TheGayVoice (Beyond “Straight Talking”: The Consequences of Vocal Cues to Sexual Identity for Modern Prejudice)

Reporting period: 2016-10-01 to 2018-09-30

This project investigated the impact of auditory gaydar cues on discrimination and communication. Research showed that individuals use voice to guess others’ sexual orientation and that such gaydar judgments are somewhat accurate and informed by stereotypes. Less was known about beliefs that people have about auditory gaydar and whether such beliefs were related to gaydar accuracy or stereotyping. We first examined voice-related beliefs by deploying a literature on “essentialist beliefs.” We investigated heterosexuals’ beliefs that voice is a fixed and immutable cue of sexual orientation (immutability), that people can intentionally convey or conceal their sexuality through voice (intentionality), and that gay and straight voices are distinctly different from each other (discreteness). We tested whether such beliefs were related to prejudice, and how straight individuals’ beliefs informed their auditory gaydar judgments.
The second objective was to describe the targets’ perspective on auditory gaydar. Recently anecdotes about gay men being discriminated against because of their voices hit the headlines and became a topic of debate. We conducted a systematic survey of these experiences, finding that they were far more common among gay men than among lesbian women.
The third objective examined whether vocal cues of sexual orientation can trigger discrimination. In modern societies where discrimination laws that protect LGBT people exist, auditory gaydar may trigger subtle, and possibly unconscious, discrimination. We tested this in the workplace context, focusing on whether having a gay- or lesbian-sounding voice prompts discrimination against individuals applying for leadership positions. Experiments found a robust pattern of discrimination against women who sound lesbian. Finally, in our forth objective, we investigated whether being labelled with a homophobic slur can be interpreted differently depending on the guessed speakers’ sexual orientation.
Overall this project paints a richer intersectional picture of auditory gaydar in which target’s perspectives loom larger than they do in the literature on gaydar accuracy. Auditory gaydar is linked to prejudicial beliefs, and is a cue to discrimination and stigmatisation. It commonly impacts the lives of gay men and impacts lesbians in situation-specific ways. Auditory gaydar has more limited effects on the power to “reclaim” homophobic language than previous research has suggested. Auditory gaydar is a more robust prompt to modern homophobic prejudice than previously thought, and those who sound gay/lesbian, rather than identify as gay/lesbian are its targets.
Nine studies have been conducted to address the questions posed by each objective. Results have been presented to 8 academic conferences in Europe, Canada and USA. These conferences addressed different audiences of researchers in Social Psychology, Sexuality Studies, and Communication. The fellow has been invited to give 3 academic talks at well-known universities, and a keynote at the conference organized by the Italian Association of Psychology. 6 dissemination events have been organized by or involved the fellow, including his participation at the ILGA-Europe Conference.
The first objective of the project was to investigate people’s beliefs and experiences related to the voice as a cue of sexual orientation. First of all, we examined the types of beliefs individuals have about voice. We asked participants to report whether voice is an “immutable” (e.g. gay/lesbian individuals have a voice that is different from the straight one and they cannot change it), “intentional” cue (e.g. people can decide to communicate or conceal their sexual orientation through voice), and a “discrete” cue (e.g. it is possible to detect sexual orientation from vocal cues). Results showed that straight individuals believe voice is a more informative cue of men’s than women’s sexual orientation, and that discreteness beliefs were related to prejudice and stigma among heterosexual participants. However, such beliefs were not predictive of accuracy in judging sexual orientation of male and female speakers.
Second, we described targets’ experiences. 41% of the gay men in our study reported at least one episode where they had been identified as gay because of their voices. Most episodes were narrated as discriminatory experiences and elicited coping strategies among gay men such as trying to change their voices. Only 6% of the lesbian participants reported such kind of experience, and they explained that this never happened to them potentially because a “lesbian voice” stereotype does not exist.
The third objective directly examined discrimination in the hiring process. Across different studies, we found that gay- and lesbian-sounding speakers are at risk of being discriminated when applying for jobs, especially if those represent leadership positions. These discrimination was even stronger for lesbian-sounding women, indicating that voice conveying sexual orientation information highlights their double minority status (as women and as lesbians) that make them victims of stigmatisation.
In the last objective, we examined whether the perception of homophobic labels were perceived as “reclaimed language” if used by gay- and lesbian-sounding speakers. Results showed that homophobic labels referring to gay men being perceived as overall less offensive if used by gay- than straight-sounding speakers. But we did not replicate earlier effects with non-vocal stimuli showing that gay speakers who use reclaimed language were seen as more empowered. Language reclaiming is risky and partial.
This research extended previous literature in different ways. First, it shifted attention away from the research question of whether people are accurate in judging sexual orientation from minimal cues such as voice. It provides a more intersectional gender-based account of auditory gaydar than previous research. Pivotally, we considered the targets’ perspectives whereas gay/lesbian targets were represented only as static stimuli in research on accuracy. As such we could show the dynamics of auditory gaydar-based discrimination in different situations, such as hiring process and communication. We extended previous research by showing that discrimination not only occurs when sexual orientation is explicitly disclosed, but also when assumed by vocal cues. Moreover, we demonstrated that homophobic speech can be interpreted differently depending on who is speaking, with the consequence of reframing the speaker’s intent.
Overall our research shows the importance of vocal cues in everyday interaction and their potential role in discrimination. The dissemination activities as well as the research findings drew us into dialogue about how this phenomenon affects people’s lives. The knowledge provided by this project is precious as it allows us to create interventions that get at the distinction between folk beliefs about gaydar and its actual effects. Psychologists working with LGBT clients could support individuals who are discriminated because of the sound of their voices by using our research findings. Campaigns against bullying could be informed when tackling stigmatization based on vocal cues and intervene. Unconscious bias training for employers could include our research findings to exemplify how implicit bias occurs even among people who are motivated to act fairly.
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