Harry Potter is making kids more accepting of gays and immigrants

A new study finds that kids who read the Harry Potter books, and identified with Harry, showed “improved attitudes towards immigrants” and gays.

On the other hand, kids who identified more with Voldemort (who identifies with Voldemort — teen Putin?) ended up being less tolerant.

The study, to its credit, didn’t just look at how the kids felt about gays and immigrants, rather they looked at the before and after feelings, to see to what degree their views changed. And they did.

Here’s the abstract from the study (which calls gays “homosexuals” — perhaps some researchers need to read the Harry Potter books a bit more):

Recent research shows that extended contact via story reading is a powerful strategy to improve out-group attitudes. We conducted three studies to test whether extended contact through reading the popular best-selling books of Harry Potter improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, refugees). Results from one experimental intervention with elementary school children and from two cross-sectional studies with high school and university students (in Italy and United Kingdom) supported our main hypothesis. Identification with the main character (i.e., Harry Potter) and disidentification from the negative character (i.e., Voldemort) moderated the effect. Perspective taking emerged as the process allowing attitude improvement. Theoretical and practical implications of the findings are discussed in the context of extended intergroup contact and social cognitive theory.

I’ll get to my “homosexual” rant after we discuss the guts of the study.

As for the improvement in attitudes, I suppose part of the question is whether there’s anything unique about Harry Potter, or whether any book that presents tolerance of those who are different (mudbloods, geeks, half-giants, orphans, smart kids, centaurs, etc.) would provoke the same response. Not that this diminishes the impact of the study, but it would suggest that it’s not something unique to the Harry Potter story.

And it’s something the study authors note:

Finally, this research has only focused on the popular best seller of Harry Potter; It is important to identify and test other popular novels that can have similar effects and that can be equally appealing to young readers…. Although this research focused on Harry Potter books as they are representative of fiction literature with large-scale appeal to the public, similar research can focus on other popular published fictional books.

There’s also the question of the lasting impact. I’d be curious at what point, if any, these imparted lessons of tolerance become sticky; i.e., they don’t weaken and eventually go away in time.

I’m also curious whether we’re simply witnessing heightened emotions from someone who already “gets it.” Meaning, you can be tolerant of gays, or pro-gay even, and still be even more so after reading a book about tolerance. I mean, that’s all well and good, but to what degree are studies like this simply evidence of preaching to the choir.  Meaning, are we simply improving the views of people who are already good enough on our issues, and thus the impact might not be as significant as when we improve the views of someone who was more in the middle?

And finally, a word about “homosexual.”  As I’ve written before, the word “homosexual” is archaic and increasingly has a negative connotation (which is why the anti-gay religious right tends to use it instead of “gay”).  Regardless of claims to the contrary, no self-respecting homosexual uses the word “homosexual” other than ironically — and if they claim otherwise, ask them when was the last time they told their friends, “Hey, I found a great new homosexual bar down in Chelsea!”

The term just isn’t used anymore outside of a clinical context, and there’s the rub. The word has a cold, scientific, and I’d argue pejorative nuance to it that harkens back to the days when gays were considered mentally ill.  And for those who fear the word police, we’re not declaring you public enemy one if you use the word homosexual.  We are, however, informing you of the changing meaning and nuance of the word over the years. No one would argue that it’s PC not to call an Asian “oriental,” or an African-American a “negro.”  Words that were once okay can change.

Finally, I always like to end this discussion by linking to a study that showed how support for gays plummeted when a poll about ending “Dont Ask, Don’t Tell” (the military’s ban on gay troops) changd the wording of its question from “gay” to “homosexual.”


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Don Chandler

    I also agree with you up to a point. And the right will any word they can to impugn gays, even the word “gay”. But I rarely use “homosexual” to describe myself. When I use it, it’s in context with words like heterosexual or bisexual: in the clinical sense or as you say, when discussing orientation. The problem with the word, “homosexual” is that we are not solely homosexuals: we are much more than homosexuals; we are people that just happen to have strong same-sex attraction. So when you introduce yourself to someone, saying you are a homosexual is putting the introduction on awkward and one dimensional terms. It’s better to say you are a computer programmer ;) And you are right, saying you are gay is much better because you are saying you are at ease with your homosexuality. The right likes to put gays in a box labeled sex: a taboo in many minds. It stigmatizes us. Why give them the satisfaction?

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    I almost agree with you. However, I would never identify as homosexual. I have loved a man, and we raised children. I’m out to all I know, and I do realize that the right uses the word homosexual, because they only want to focus on what we do in our bedrooms.

  • penpal

    Slightly off the central topic: I absolutely use the word homosexual when referring to sexual orientation. Not everyone who is homosexual is out, or maybe they are too young to know. To me, “gay” represents an awareness and/or an acceptance of one’s homosexuality. In that respect, a homosexual bar makes no more sense than the homosexual community (the term used by the right to impugn us). But I have no problem discussing homosexuals in society or the fact that I am homosexual. It’s not a dirty word and I refuse to allow the right to make it one.

  • AndyinChicago

    Thank Goodness for LeVar Burton.

  • http://hunteratrandom.blogspot.com/ rmthunter

    It’s just reflecting reality: in spite of what the “Christians” will tell you, the universe is not black and white — it’s an infinite number of shades of gray. That applies to people as much as anything else.

  • http://hunteratrandom.blogspot.com/ rmthunter

    A couple of thoughts: I doubt very much that Harry Potter is unique in moderating or changing attitudes toward out-groups — young adult and children’s literature in general is loaded with those kinds of messages. Even (or maybe especially) comics carry those themes, especially superhero comics — they’re outsiders, after all.

    As for “homosexual” — you might add to your arsenal on that one that “homosexual” describes a behavior or an orientation, not a person. That’s why bigots use it, to reduce us to a mere behavior, which of course is key to their “it’s a choice” propaganda.

  • Don Chandler

    Rowlings has a nice human touch. The following is from when Harry turns 17. Harry feels for Mrs Weasley and She feels for Harry. They demonstrate an unspoken empathy:

    “It’s traditional to give a wizard a watch when he comes of age,” said MrsWeasley, watching him anxiously from beside the cooker”I’m afraid that one isn’t new like Ron’s, it was actually my brother Fabian’s and he wasn’t terribly careful with his possessions, it’s a bit dented on the back, but…” The rest of her speech was lost; Harry had got up and hugged her. He tried to put a lot of unsaid things into the hug and perhaps she understood them, because she patted his cheek clumsily when he released her, then waved her wand in a slightly random way, causing half a pack of bacon to flop out of the frying pan onto the floor ”

    It’s really not magic ;) Why is it that some folks seem empathetic while others seem very lacking?

  • Hue-Man

    I don’t think I’ve ever used “Oriental food”, always Chinese Food – originally Cantonese but increasingly varied regional cuisine in recent years. I googled Vancouver Oriental Food Restaurants and saw what I expected until I came across this! “Westview Oriental Restaurant” http://www.westviewchinese.com/

  • Hue-Man

    “We did it, y’all. Working together, we raised almost $6,500,000 to bring Reading Rainbow back to Every Child, Everywhere!” https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/readingrainbow/bring-reading-rainbow-back-for-every-child-everywh/posts

  • Butch1

    “Practice makes perfect.”

  • jomicur

    Agreed. I can take “homosexuality” (though it keeps getting harder; I prefer “gayness”). Sort of the way it’s still okay to refer to say “Oriental food” but not to call people “Orientals.”

  • jomicur

    I practice every chance I get. ;-)

  • kingstonbears

    Or, “are you a practicing homosexual?” My reply is always “at my age I don’t need to practice anymore”.

  • tamarz

    Harry Potter is full of good values — nuanced good values. Even the bad guys, other than Voldemort that is, are not always totally evil. For example, Draco’s parents love him (particularly his mother). One of my favorite lines is (paraphrased): people are not either good or death-eaters. Meaning that people can’t be simply categorized as good or evil — there are all kinds of shades in between the two extremes and a person can be good in some ways and bad in others. And identifying with Harry, Hermione and Ron who are all outsiders in one way or another is good for developing empathy.

  • WilmRoget

    “And finally, a word about “homosexual.” As I’ve written before, the
    word “homosexual” is archaic and increasingly has a negative connotation
    (which is why the anti-gay religious right tends to use it instead of
    “gay”). Regardless of claims to the contrary, no self-respecting
    homosexual uses the word “homosexual” other than ironically”

    Of course, you just used the word, not to be ironic, but to invoke an academic tone.

  • Don Chandler

    “Master has freed Dobby.”

  • 2karmanot

    “homosexual” is archaic and increasingly has a negative connotation” Thank you. I have been arguing this point for years……hate the word.

  • jomicur

    Or, better yet, “salf-admitted homosexual.”

  • paaat

    “Homosexual” … I remember when the media always referred to someone publicly out as an “avowed homosexual”

  • AndyinChicago

    I might be a cold, hard scientist, but this just shows that there is some power in the arts. If it’s accessible to everyone. Maybe this is why George W. B. and his cronies canceled Reading Rainbow?

  • arcadesproject

    More accepting of gays and immigrants? Maybe that’s a good thing. What? :)

  • Indigo

    I’d be interested in a study of the Harry Potter series readership based on another question: what percentage of those who read the entire series also graduate from college? And as a corollary to that question, I’d also like to know the percentages of those who read the first few books but did not complete the series who also enrolled in college and either did or did not graduate?

    My assumption being that the first generation to read the Harry Potter series was indirectly introduced to increasingly complex concepts, social settings, narrative development, and more difficult vocabulary levels. In other words, the Harry Potter series also functions as a graded reading series with increasing levels of difficulty built into it. Good job!

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