Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay By RICHARD M. RYAN 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?
In recent years, 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; and 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.
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
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.
Notably, these “discrepant” individuals were also significantly more
likely than other participants to favor 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 our research suggests that some who oppose
homosexuality do tacitly harbor same-sex attraction.
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.
Richard M. Ryan
is a professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the
University of Rochester. William S. Ryan is a doctoral student in
psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
|Liveleak on Facebook|