Martha Irvine

CHICAGO: It may be a man’s world, as the saying goes, but lesbians seem to have an easier time living in it than gay men do.

High-profile lesbian athletes have come out while still playing their sports, but not a single gay male athlete in major U.S. professional sports has done the same. While television’s most prominent same-sex parents are the two fictional dads on Modern Family, surveys show that society is actually more comfortable with the idea of lesbians parenting children.

And then there is the ongoing debate over the Boy Scouts of America proposal to ease their ban on gay leaders and scouts.

Reaction to the proposal, which the BSA’s National Council will take up next month, has been swift, and sometimes harsh. Yet amid the discussions, the Girl Scouts of USA reiterated their policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other things. That announcement has gone largely unnoticed.

Certainly, the difference in the public’s reaction to the scouting organizations can be attributed, in part, to their varied histories, including the Boy Scouts’ longstanding religious ties and a base that has become less urban over the years, compared with the Girl Scouts’.

But there’s also an undercurrent here, one that’s often present in debates related to homosexuality, whether over the military’s now-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy or even same-sex marriage. Even as society has become more accepting of homosexuality overall, longstanding research has shown more societal tolerance for lesbians than gay men, and that gay men are significantly more likely to be targets of violence.

That research also has found that it’s often straight men who have the most difficult time with homosexuality — and particularly gay men — says researcher Gregory Herek.

“Men are raised to think they have to prove their masculinity, and one big part about being masculine is being heterosexual. So we see that harassment, jokes, negative statements and violence are often ways that even younger men try to prove their heterosexuality,” said Herek, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who has, for years, studied this phenomenon and how it plays out in the gay community.

Fear and fascination

That is not, of course, to downplay the harassment lesbians face. It can be just as ugly.

But it’s not as frequent, Herek and others have found, especially in adulthood. It’s also not uncommon for lesbians to encounter straight men who have a fascination with them.

“The men hit on me. The women hit on me. But I never feel like I’m in any immediate danger,” said Sarah Toce, the 29-year-old editor of the Seattle Lesbian and managing editor of the Contributor, both online news magazines. “If I were a gay man, I might — and if it’s like this in Seattle, can you imagine what it is like in less-accepting parts of middle America?”

One of Herek’s studies found that, overall, 38 percent of gay men said that, in adulthood, they’d been victims of vandalism, theft or violence — hit, beaten or sexually assaulted — because they were perceived as gay. About 13 percent of lesbians said the same.

A separate study of young people in England also found that, in their teens, gay boys and lesbians were almost twice as likely to be bullied as their straight peers. By young adulthood, it was about the same for lesbians and straight girls. But in this study, published recently in the journal Pediatrics, gay young men were almost four times more likely than their straight peers to be bullied.

Different times

At least one historian says it wasn’t always that way for either men or women, whose “expressions of love” with friends of the same gender were seen as a norm — even idealized — in the 19th century.

“These relationships offered ample opportunity for those who would have wanted to act on it physically, even if most did not,” said Thomas Foster, head of the history department at DePaul University in Chicago.

Today’s “code of male gendered behavior,” he says, often rejects these kinds of expressions between men.

If two women dance together at a club or walk arm-in-arm down the street, people are usually less likely to question it — though some wonder if that has more to do with a lack of awareness than acceptance.

“Lesbians are so invisible in our society. And so I think the hatred is more invisible,” said Laura Grimes, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago whose counseling practice caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clients.

Grimes says she often hears from lesbians who are harassed for “looking like dykes,” meaning that people are less accepting if they look more masculine.