A new study indicates that those who are homophobic may secretly harbor self-hatred over their own same-sex desires.
“Individuals who identify as straight but in psychological tests show a strong attraction to the same sex may be threatened by gays and lesbians because homosexuals remind them of similar tendencies within themselves,” explains Netta Weinstein, a lecturer at the University of Essex and the study’s lead author.
“In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward,” adds co-author Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who helped direct the research.
The research report, issued by researchers from the University of Rochester, the University of Essex, England, and the University of California in Santa Barbara, suggests that repressed same-sex desires due to negative reinforcement through authoritarian parenting are prominent factors in developing intense feelings of loathing and even hatred of gay people which may in later life lead to hostility towards those who are gay or perceived to be gay.
The paper drew evidence from four separate experiments conducted in the United States and in Germany. Each study involved an average of 160 college students and provided empirical evidence that corroborates longstanding psychoanalytic theories that intense negative feelings toward gay and lesbian people can stem from repressed same-sex desires.
In order to investigate the difference between how participants identified and what their implicit sexual attractions were, researchers carried out a number of experiments. In one such investigation, researchers charted the differences between respondents’ self-identifying statements and how they reacted during a split-second timed task where they were shown words and pictures and asked to label them as “gay” or “straight” while a computer tracked their response times. A faster association of “me” and “gay” and a slower association of “me” and “straight” indicated implicit homosexuality.
Researchers also used a series of questionnaires to assess whether respondents had a controlling upbringing. For example they were asked whether during their childhood they felt free to express their individuality or whether they felt pressured to conform. They were also asked questions relating to homophobia in the household, assessing whether respondents agreed with statements like “My dad avoids gay men whenever possible.”
Researchers then sort to gauge participants’ own levels of homophobia, again both explicit and implicit. Researchers used another series of questionnaires and a second round of quick-fire associations designed to track the amount of aggressive responses the word “gay” elicited when applied to themselves and to others.
The trials revealed a clear pattern: where participants had supportive and accepting parents they were more likely to be in touch with their implicit sexual orientation. However, when participants came from strict anti-gay homes they were less likely to be aware of their implicit sexual orientation. Additionally, participants who identified as being more heterosexual than their implicit scores were more likely to be hostile to gay people. This discrepancy between self-identification and unconscious responses predicted a variety of homophobic behaviors including hostility toward gay people, endorsement of anti-gay politics, and discriminatory bias.
There were of course limitations to these findings given that all participants were college-age students. Researchers now want to test whether these results are similar in other age groups and whether attitudes may change overtime.
In their report the study’s authors also suggest this pattern may be the reason why prominent anti-gay figures have later been caught engaging in or having engaged in same-sex sexual activities, citing examples such as evangelical preacher Ted Haggard who vocally opposed gay marriage (and still does) but found himself the center of scandal in 2006.
The study’s authors caution that while we may find this hypocrisy amusing, homophobia stemming from self-hatred may also at least partly contribute to cases like the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.