Research shows homophobia can result from repressed same-sex desire

A recent article in the New York Times asked why political and religious figures who campaign against gay rights are so often implicated in sexual encounters with same-sex partners? It’s a question Changing Attitude often asks about those Christians who campaign most vigorously against the full inclusion of LGB&T people in the Church.

The article began by listing some of the key opponents of homosexuality who had subsequently been involved in some kind of homosexual scandal.

  • Ted Haggard, an evangelical leader who preached that homosexuality was a sin, resigned after a scandal involving a former male prostitute.
  • Larry Craig, a United States senator who opposed including sexual orientation in hate-crime legislation, was arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct in a men’s bathroom
  • Glenn Murphy Jr., a leader of the Young Republican National Convention and an opponent of same-sex marriage, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge after being accused of sexually assaulting another man.

The article addresses the theory that homosexual urges, when repressed out of shame or fear, can be expressed as homophobia. Freud called this process a “reaction formation” — the angry battle against the outward symbol of feelings that are inwardly being stifled. Ted 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.”

In this month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Richard M Ryan and William S Ryan and fellow researchers provide empirical evidence that homophobia can result, at least in part, from the suppression of same-sex desire.

The 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 they 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.

Notably, these “discrepant” individuals were also significantly more likely than other participants to favour anti-gay policies; to be willing to assign significantly harsher punishments to perpetrators of petty crimes if they were presumed to be homosexual; and to express greater implicit hostility toward gay subjects (also measured with the help of subliminal priming). Thus the research suggests that some who oppose homosexuality do tacitly harbour same-sex attraction.

What leads to this repression? They 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, they say: 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.

The researchers say we would do well to remember that all involved deserve our compassion. That can be challenging advice to follow when some conservative evangelicals campaign vigorously against LGB&T people, contributing directly or indirectly to the murderous homophobia present in parts of the Anglican Communion.

Join the discussion