28/11/2013 12:46 GMT | Updated 28/01/2014 05:59 GMT

Being Honest, Changing Minds

"Can we change people's minds about homosexuality and, if so, how?"

That's the question Steven Petrow asks in his most recent article for the New York Times (in his regular column entitled Civil Behaviour).

To me, the answer is fairly simple. Yes, we can change people's minds (even if the change is sometimes slower than we would like).

And in order to change their minds, we need to come out.

In my experience, and in the scholarly literature on prejudice, it seems that people often hold prejudiced or stereotyped views about different groups because that is what they have been taught and/or they generalise based on one or two experiences. Someone might have been told by their parents that all Jews are cheap and if that person doesn't know any Jews (or doesn't know that they actually do know someone Jewish), they would have no way of disproving this stereotype or challenging their assumptions.

Offering people alternative information is a way of changing their minds.

In one of my classes a few years ago, we were reading George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda. One of my students said he didn't like the novel. "I've never met a Jew," he said. "But I know they're really stingy, unpleasant people. So I don't want to read about them."

That comment, as uncomfortable as it was to hear, was an excellent learning opportunity. I was able to give him and his classmates some information about Jews and Judaism and to combat his prejudice. We also discussed stereotypes and where they come from, and we connected all of this discussion to the novel. The anti-Semitic student became much more thoughtful and engaged after that, and our seminars were successful.

We often hold views that aren't accurate but that we hang on to because they're familiar, and because they haven't been challenged in any way.

So we need to challenge people's views of homosexuality.

Some think that gays are immoral. So why not let them know that the person sitting next to them in church is gay? (Not that going to religious services makes someone moral, but that's a discussion for another time.)

Some think that homosexuals are incapable of long-term relationships. So why not say that your partner of however many years is the same sex as you? (Not that long-term and/or monogamous relationships are necessarily ideal, but that too is a different issue.)

Some think queers shouldn't have children. So why not tell them about studies done on same-sex parenting and how the most important thing is for children to have loving parents of whatever gender?

Some people simply have ideas they haven't reconsidered in years. They think that they don't know gays and that gay issues have nothing to do with them. They don't see why they should think about equal rights or about health issues or about their stereotyped views of humourless lesbians and camp men. So tell them you're gay and tell them how the lack of equal rights affects your life. Tell them what being gay means to you.

Research shows that contact is the way that people change their prejudiced views. Once their children, grandchildren, friends, co-workers, fellow worshippers, and so on come out and people realise that they do know homosexuals, they will begin to reflect on the issues affecting them.

In other words, if they think gay issues have nothing to do with them, they will continue to be at worst prejudiced and at best neutral. But once they understand that gay issues have something to do with someone they know and care about, they will start changing their minds.

But it's not just homosexuality we need to change people's minds about, though that was Petrow's initial question.

Writers such as Robyn Ochs and Dan Savage have written well on bisexuality, and the importance of bisexual people coming out. Because bisexuals can easily go undetected (if they are with same-sex partners, they are perceived as gay, and if they are with opposite-sex partners, they are perceived as straight), it is especially important for them to be out as much as possible. The same is true of transgender people, who could likewise be invisible in society if they choose.

To combat invisibility and to therefore start changing people's minds about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks, we all need to come out.

This doesn't mean that you need to tell the cashier at the grocery store that you are buying chocolate biscuits because they're your wife's favourite (unless that's usually the sort of conversation you have). It doesn't mean you have to make every conversation about your queerness.

But it does mean that you need to be out about who and what you are.

Challenging assumptions and prejudiced points of view is the best way of changing people's minds about any issue, including LGBTQ rights.

If you're straight and/or cisgender, think about the people you know and consider who might actually be LGBTQ.

And if you're LGBTQ, consider who you might be able to come out to today, and whose mind you might change just from being honest about yourself.