Homophobia an Indicator?

Richard M. and William S. Ryan:

WHY are political and religious figures who campaign against gay rights so often implicated in sexual encounters with same-sex partners?…

One theory is that homosexual urges, when repressed out of shame or fear, can be expressed as homophobia. Freud famously called this process a “reaction formation” — the angry battle against the outward symbol of feelings that are inwardly being stifled. Even Mr. Haggard seemed to endorse this idea when, apologizing after his scandal for his anti-gay rhetoric, he said, “I think I was partially so vehement because of my own war.”

It’s a compelling theory — and now there is scientific reason to believe it. In this month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we and our fellow researchers provide empirical evidence that homophobia can result, at least in part, from the suppression of same-sex desire.

Our paper describes six studies conducted in the United States and Germany involving 784 university students. Participants rated their sexual orientation on a 10-point scale, ranging from gay to straight. Then they took a computer-administered test designed to measure their implicit sexual orientation. In the test, the participants were shown images and words indicative of hetero- and homosexuality (pictures of same-sex and straight couples, words like “homosexual” and “gay”) and were asked to sort them into the appropriate category, gay or straight, as quickly as possible. The computer measured their reaction times.

The twist was that before each word and image appeared, the word “me” or “other” was flashed on the screen for 35 milliseconds — long enough for participants to subliminally process the word but short enough that they could not consciously see it. The theory here, known as semantic association, is that when “me” precedes words or images that reflect your sexual orientation (for example, heterosexual images for a straight person), you will sort these images into the correct category faster than when “me” precedes words or images that are incongruent with your sexual orientation (for example, homosexual images for a straight person). This technique, adapted from similar tests used to assess attitudes like subconscious racial bias, reliably distinguishes between self-identified straight individuals and those who self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Using this methodology we identified a subgroup of participants who, despite self-identifying as highly straight, indicated some level of same-sex attraction (that is, they associated “me” with gay-related words and pictures faster than they associated “me” with straight-related words and pictures). Over 20 percent of self-described highly straight individuals showed this discrepancy….

What leads to this repression? We found that participants who reported having supportive and accepting parents were more in touch with their implicit sexual orientation and less susceptible to homophobia. Individuals whose sexual identity was at odds with their implicit sexual attraction were much more frequently raised by parents perceived to be controlling, less accepting and more prejudiced against homosexuals.

It’s important to stress the obvious: Not all those who campaign against gay men and lesbians secretly feel same-sex attractions. But at least some who oppose homosexuality are likely to be individuals struggling against parts of themselves, having themselves been victims of oppression and lack of acceptance. The costs are great, not only for the targets of anti-gay efforts but also often for the perpetrators. We would do well to remember that all involved deserve our compassion.



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  • So its the attitude of the parents. Does that mean that the parents were also in denial about *their* gay urges? What explains *their* homophobia?

    Also, I am attracted to porn, but I can’t STAND its prevalence in society and it general and increasing acceptance, and I’d crusade against it. Does that make me some kind of hypocrite?

  • R Hampton

    With the Catholic Church scandal and the frequent outings of conservative politicians, there does seem to be evidence that some people with homosexual urges channel a defensive, private struggle into an offensive, public conflict. On the lighter side…

    The Six Worst Excuses by Anti-Gay Public Figures Caught Doing (Allegedly) Gay Things

  • Guiltless

    Isn’t that the same with any perceived character flaw? If I, as an individual, have a flaw, I’m more easily upset by it when demonstrated in others’ lives?

  • Katherine Harms

    I’m still trying to understand the definition of homophobia. I can’t figure out the meaning of racism, either. These two words are thrown out frequently in contexts where the apparent dictionary meaning doesn’t make any sense. When that happen, what do the words mean?
    I already know the answer. It is easier to accuse everyone with an idea you don’t like of being either homophobic or racist or both. It’s a lot like the days when people used the word “nigger” and “greaser” for whoever they wanted to belittle. In other words, the human race is afflicted with a character issue that leaves them speechless. They hope to draw other people into their tribe by using whatever is the current slur against others in ways that were never part of the original meaning.
    Here’s what I think. People are flawed. We fear what we don’t understand. We are wary of people who are different. We all try to build ourselves up by tearing down others. We fall into verbal assaults when the culture looks down on physical assault. None of this behavior is unique to any particular way of demeaning others. There is only one answer to all forms of this behavior. Jesus said that loving God above all was the most important commandment, and loving people was second. If we build our relationship with Christ, we will necessarily learn to love people. There’s no deep, confusing psychological explanation for this problem. It’s all about a lack of love for people. Learning to love is the only answer.

  • Dan

    At the risk of making light of a potentially serious topic, I think the same argument could be applied of ardent liberals. I’ll bet they are closet-conservatives.

  • Kevin

    Without commenting on the thesis of the study, I’m not convinced the methodology is foolproof. Are they suggesting that almost 20% of the population are repressing same-sex attraction?

  • Paul Duggan, since you are open about your attraction to porn and, presumably, have no problems linking that attraction to your belief why it’s harmful to be so prevalent in society, that would not at all be similar to the situations being described here. If someone came out and said they were gay but believed acting on that was wrong, and not only that, but that acting on gay urges is so wrong he was going to campaign against it vehemently for the rest of his waking days, that would be a much better comparison than the one you’re attempting to make.

  • “Pastor” Sean Harris must be suppressing in spades.

  • Luke Allison

    I suppose we must make the distinction between those who see it as just “wrong” (like my parents growing up, which in turn handily influenced my perspective) and those who campaign against it tirelessly.

    Same goes for those whose pulpit is an excuse to talk about sex.

    We must make this distinction, otherwise everyone who believes homosexuality to be a sin is suddenly suppressing homosexual desires.

    I will say from my own experience that the ingrained knowledge that something is just “wrong” is immensely powerful. When I began to rethink my understanding of the gay community and what exactly was separating me from them, it was like losing a limb. In my opinion, it was a rotten festering limb, but it still upended me and hurt. The willingness to experience this kind of limb-loss is an indicator of how open some people are to accepting the gay community as “brothers and sisters.”

  • Joshua

    “So many” is a bit of an overstatement. The author noted three.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    My perceptions are similar to Katherine. It’s not that I don’t think there is such a thing as “homophobia” but it seems like it’s used as an apologetic weapon to label and smear anyone who does not unanimously affirms the gay community. If anyone thinks homosexual behavior is wrong at any level is then homophobic. Sometimes I just want to respond, “Okay, I’m homophobic and I’m murderphobic and I’m rapeaphobic” and the list goes on and on. I just don’t think how this discourse plays out in public is very useful or more problematic than it is helpful but that’s been my experience. Others people perceptions and experiences may vary . . .

  • DRT

    Yes, I think it is obvious that some of the most vocal critics of same sex relations end up getting busted for that same behavior. It is nice to see there is some detectable basis for that, though I am not sure what we would do with that.

  • phil_style

    @CGC, “Okay, I’m homophobic and I’m murderphobic and I’m rapeaphobic”
    In order to get past the spam filter I am having to replace “homosexual” with HX in this post. It’s done for no other reason.

    I mean not to offend at all, but I think you define homophobia quite well here. The idea that “HX” is categorised along with other dislikes such as “rape” and “muder” – even though you were doing this hypothetically is a clear cut example of maybe not “fear” of HX, but certainly hatred of it.

    Some people are revolted by HX activity. This is a style/ taste issue. Just as other people are revolted by HX sex, or by snails, or by blue paint. I would call this “homophobia”, because it closely matches a revulsion/ fear impulse.

    Some people think that HX activity is “wrong” in some sense (morally, spiritually, legally), but do not attach an emotional response to it. They can still be exposed to description/ observations of HX behavior without feeling an emotional response equating to revulsion, yet they still rationalise it as “wrong”. I would call this “homophobia” too. But it’s clearly a different kind of reaction to the above. And so, perhaps it is apt to use a different word in this case.

  • phil_style

    @Paul Duggan, #1

    “So its the attitude of the parents. Does that mean that the parents were also in denial about *their* gay urges? What explains *their* homophobia?”

    No one is suggesting that repressed sexuality explains all homophobia, just that there appears to be a noteworthy level of homophobic/ anti-gay rhetoric from people who subsequently turn out to be engaged in such activities themselves

  • Jeremy

    My dad, a pastor, used to say that the loudest preachers were usually shouting over their own sin. It wasn’t true in all cases, but as an experienced counselor of other clergy, he’d noticed an association between vitriol and personal flaws. That said, I’d be interested in what clinical psychologists think of their method.