Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Discusses Stigma Against Sexual Minorities

July 18, 2012
By Katie Koch, Harvard Gazette

From the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, to the expansion of marriage rights in several states, to the passing of a federal hate crimes prevention act, the past several years have been a time of unprecedented progress for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans.
But beyond legal and legislative victories, Tim McCarthy believes, lies a much bigger challenge for the LGBT movement: confronting and eradicating a pervasive stigma against sexual minorities, both in the United States and abroad.
“Equal rights does not necessarily mean equal lives,” McCarthy, an activist and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) lecturer, told an audience at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy on July 11. “We always have to keep an eye on the bigger prize.”
Although political objectives can be tackled incrementally — via a “celebrity death match between court cases and ballot initiatives” that seek to either limit or expand LGBT rights — understanding stigma against whole groups is considerably more complicated. It’s a problem that McCarthy and the nonprofit he co-founded three years ago, Face Value, have been tackling with a unique approach: social activism supported by social science research. (Face Value funds its work with a $730,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, one of the largest awards the organization has given to support sexuality research and LGBT issues.)
The project’s work thus far, conducted by academics and graduate students around the country, provides insights into how straight and gay individuals view one another, how LGBT people view their own experiences, and how perspectives from both sides could be better conveyed in the hope of improving “lived experience” for people of all sexual identities, McCarthy said.
In one white paper, cognitive linguists analyzed all public service announcements for state-level ballot initiatives that dealt with LGBT issues, such as gay marriage, gay adoptions, or the inclusion of LGBT history in school curricula. Surprisingly, they found that LGBT individuals were better represented in ads that opposed expanding gay rights than in those that supported the cause.
“We’re actually absent from our own advocacy,” said McCarthy, who is gay and was married in Massachusetts last year. The implication, he said, is that the LGBT community will win support only “when we’re not visible, when our presence is downplayed or obfuscated.”
What advocacy groups are missing, he said, is the opportunity to create their own narratives of the LGBT experience. In another Face Value study, researchers have been asking gay and straight participants to discuss their ideas of how the other group lives —and then sitting both groups down in a room to discuss their conceptions and misconceptions. read more

Activist and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Lecturer Tim McCarthy (right) with Philip Hamilton (from left), a recent Wheaton graduate working with the Carr Center, and Dorothy Zinberg, an HKS lecturer in public policy.

Activist and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Lecturer Tim McCarthy (right) with Philip Hamilton (from left), a recent Wheaton graduate working with the Carr Center, and Dorothy Zinberg, an HKS lecturer in public policy.
Photo Credit: Thomas Earle

“Equal rights does not necessarily mean equal lives,” said McCarthy.


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