Home > News > By coming out, Carl Nassib likely improved NFL fans’ attitudes toward gay men. Here’s how we know.
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By coming out, Carl Nassib likely improved NFL fans’ attitudes toward gay men. Here’s how we know.

Our research tells us what changes straight men’s attitudes toward gay men and trans people

On June 21, Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib came out publicly, making him the first openly gay player for the National Football League. The next day, the New York Times’s headline read, “Carl Nassib Was an N.F.L. Everyman. Then He Came Out as Gay.” After angry social media responses, the headline changed to “Carl Nassib, the First Openly Gay N.F.L. Player, Has Been a Football Everyman.”

The initial headline’s implication was clear: Nassib was an “N.F.L. everyman” until he came out as gay — but was no longer. The subsequent headline implied something more positive: that an otherwise stereotypical NFL player can also be openly gay, that being gay is not incompatible with being a successful professional athlete in the hypermasculine sport of American football. That’s likely to make a big difference in American attitudes.

Football fans and LGBTQ rights

Our research on attitudes toward LGBTQ people in the United States suggests that Nassib’s announcement will cause more Americans to support LGBTQ rights, particularly if they are Raiders or NFL fans. Our 2017 book, “Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights,” used randomized controlled trials in face-to-face, virtual and laboratory survey experiments to find that pro-LGBTQ messages from in-group members, particularly in-group elites, cause people to shift their attitudes.

For example, when passersby on the sidewalks of Appleton, Wis., were told that Green Bay Packers Hall-of-Famer LeRoy Butler supported same-sex marriage, support increased from 63.2 percent (among non-fans) to 77.8 percent (among Packers fans). In the control group, when Wisconsinites were told that entertainer Jay-Z supported same-sex marriage, support was relatively constant (62.4 percent among non-fans and 64.7 percent among Packers fans). The change of more than 14 percentage points is statistically significant and robust to the inclusion of control variables.

Football fan identity is so strong that Nassib’s announcement is precisely the sort of counter-stereotypical cognitive speed bump likely to influence fans’ attitudes, our research suggests.

In our most recent book, “Transforming Prejudice: Identity, Fear, and Transgender Rights,” our experiments identify a new theory that could lessen the connection between masculinity and anti-LGBTQ attitudes, as we’ll explain.

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Gendered stereotypes of gay men

Gay men have historically been associated with feminine stereotypes (e.g., “little” or “soft”). By and large, gay athletes have stayed closeted in major sports like football and hockey, in part to avoid calling into question their masculinity, and by association, their athletic ability. What’s more, having an openly gay male player in a hypermasculine sport like professional football can cause some cognitive dissonance for male fans. Research suggests that when American heterosexual men try to reconcile their beliefs that gay men are weak and effeminate with beliefs about football players as pinnacles of masculinity and strength, men can question their own masculinity — which has a boomerang effect, leading them to be more hostile toward and opposed to LGBTQ rights.

Numerous scholars have found that American men are much less likely than women to support LGBTQ rights. For example, in 2015, political scientist Carmen Martínez and colleagues found that anti-gay prejudice helped American men affirm their masculinity by distancing themselves from men who violate gender norms. In their 2017 book “The Conundrum of Masculinity,” political scientist Chris Haywood and co-authors found that several aspects of contemporary American masculinity reinforce one another, including homosociality (or socializing with other men) and antigay attitudes. When masculinity is important to an American man’s self-concept, any threat to his sense of masculinity makes him more likely to hold anti-gay and anti-trans attitudes, sociologist Robb Willer and co-authors find. Psychologist Wayne Wilkinson found that men’s anti-gay attitudes were linked to fear of appearing feminine.

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Combating stereotypes

In August 2018, as the issue of transgender people openly serving in the U.S. military was raging, we conducted an online survey experiment using Lucid’s academic platform to see whether reassuring men about their masculinity — an approach we call “identity bolstering” — changed their attitudes on the issue. We had them take a manipulated quiz that then reported the strength of their masculinity (or femininity) compared with others taking the quiz. The quiz included items taken from the Male Role Norms Inventory Short Form such as, “It is important for a man to take risks, even if he might get hurt” and “Men should watch football games instead of soap operas.”

But instead of giving them a score based on their answers, we told half the men that they had scored a six (“very masculine”). The other half of the men took the quiz but did not receive a score. Overall, 469 adult men completed the experiment; 233 were assigned to control and 236 to treatment.

We then asked respondents whether transgender people should be able to serve in the military, showing a picture of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland, a masculine-presenting transgender airman wearing a camouflage tactical uniform and holding a semiautomatic weapon, as you can see below.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland. (Logan Ireland)
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland. (Logan Ireland)

Men told that quiz responses scored as “very masculine” were 5.9 percentage points more likely to say they would sign a petition in support of open transgender service. The difference is statistically significant.

Why Nassib’s announcement matters

Our research suggests that when men are reassured about their masculinity, they are more open to supporting gay and transgender rights. We’ve also found that individuals who are primed to feel they share an identity with a messenger (e.g., a pro-gay rights professional football player) are more likely to say that they agree with that messenger’s support for those rights. Nassib’s announcement should move fans of the Raiders and of NFL players in general to be more supportive of gay rights. It might also move football fans to see gay men as less of a threat to masculinity by severing the link between professional football and heterosexual orientation. That might move heterosexual men to be less anti-gay.

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Brian F. Harrison (@brianfharrison) is lecturer at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and author most recently of “A Change is Gonna Come: How to Have Effective Political Conversations in a Divided America” (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Melissa R. Michelson (@profmichelson) is dean of Arts & Sciences and professor of political science at Menlo College, and studies Latinx politics, voter mobilization experiments, and LGBTQ rights.