Grace, from Amsterdam, the Netherlands asked:
My question concerns interracial (or intercultural) couples. Research has already shown that there is no significant difference between interracial and intraracial couples when it comes down to ‘what makes them click’. However, from my own experience I know that these couples face a lot more resistance from their social environment than intraracial couples do. I was wondering, is this the same for interracial homosexual couples? Since they already belong to a minority, do they suffer more than interracial heterosexual couples do? I haven’t found research on this subject yet, so maybe you could point me in the right direction.
Those are great questions. In line with your own experiences, researchers have found that interracial couples report lower levels of relationship support from their social networks (family, friends) than same-race couples.1 Similarly, same-sex couples report lower levels of relationship support than heterosexual couples.1,2 What interracial and same-sex couples have in common, and why these relationships are viewed less favorably than same-race heterosexual couples, is the social stigma associated with race and homosexuality in Western cultures. For instance, if a White person’s parents were prejudiced against non-Whites, the decision to enter into an interracial relationship would be a violation of a family norm. Individuals who go against family norms may experience the resistance you mentioned, also referred to as negative sanctions (e.g., withholding support and/or monetary assistance; making inappropriate comments, etc.). The reason network members enact sanctions is to convince the dater to end the deviant relationship. Sanctions can be stressful for individuals and couples and ultimately can lead to the couples’ decision to end an otherwise happy relationship. Comparatively, individuals in interracial same-sex relationships may belong to several stigmatized or deviant groups relative to individuals who are only in an interracial or same-sex relationship. For example, an interracial same-sex couple may be considered deviant because they include the following: (a) a non-White partner who is part of a minority racial/ethnic group; (b) being in an interracial union, and (c) being in a same-sex union.3 Taken together, we could logically expect that being in an interracial same-sex relationship might have a cumulative negative effect on the couple’s stress level or relationship quality that goes above and beyond being in only an interracial or same-sex relationship.
Interestingly, the (very) limited empirical research on interracial same-sex couples suggests this idea of a ‘cumulative’ effect may not occur. One study comparing interracial and same-race lesbian couples found no differences in reported levels of stress or social support between those in interracial or same-race relationships.3 In a separate study, gay men in Black/White interracial relationships reported little resistance toward their relationships from friends, mixed reactions from family, and few problems dealing with cultural differences with their partners.4
So, what might explain why the interracial same-sex couples in these studies report fewer relationship problems than we might expect? In a nutshell, the couple’s ability to deal with, or cope with, negative experiences as a result of their minority status may be key. In other words, couples who ignore or overcome negative sanctions from family or friends have a better chance of maintaining a satisfying relationship. One common coping strategy is for individuals to limit exposure to network members who disapprove of their relationships and to build a larger network of like-minded people who support the relationship (e.g., other interracial same-sex couples).5,6 Simply put, daters hang out with others who make them feel good about their life choices and avoid those who don’t.
Another explanation is that individuals who are part of a minority group (e.g., minority race, minority sexual orientation) learn coping skills to help deal with their minority status and are then able to transfer these same coping strategies when they enter an interracial same-sex relationship.7 It is possible, for instance, that the couples in the studies discussed above may have the exceptional ability to handle multiple social stressors leading to fewer problems with their interracial same-sex relationships than we might anticipate. Going back to your original question, this is not to suggest that the couples never experience negative reactions from parents or friends. But determining if these relationships suffer more because of their interracial same-sex status compared to those who are only in an interracial or same-sex relationship is difficult. Needless to say, more research on the topic would help us understand the experiences of these unique relationships in greater depth. All this being said, keep in mind that not all interracial or same-sex couples (or interracial same-sex couples) perceive opposition to their relationships from family or friends. And, for those that do, many couples are able to overcome initial opposition (e.g., once family gets to know their partners) and go on to have happy and satisfying relationships.
If you’re interested in learning more about interracial same-sex relationships, here are a few keywords (topics) to point you in the right direction: interracial gay or interracial lesbian, stigma, marginalized relationships, minority stress, coping, triple jeopardy, and prejudice.
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Note: This piece was authored by Jill Boelter (Graduate Student, Human Development and Family Sciences at UT-Austin) and Tim Loving.
1Lehmiller, J. J. & Agnew, C. R. (2006). Marginalized relationships: The impact of social disapproval on romantic relationship commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 40-51.
2Kurdek, L. A. (2004). Are gay and lesbian cohabiting couples really different from heterosexual married couples? Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 880-900.
3Jeong, J. Y. & Horne, S. G. (2009). Relationship characteristics of women in interracial same-sex relationships. Journal of Homosexuality, 56, 443-456.
4Lockman, Jr., P. T. (1984). Ebony and Ivory: The interracial gay male couple. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 7, 44-55.
5Porterfield, E. (1978). Black and White mixed marriages. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.
6Rosenblatt, P. C., Karis, T. A., & Powell, R. D. (1995). Multiracial couples: Black and White voices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
7Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 674-697.