The Roots of Homophobia

The Roots of Homophobia


WRITTEN ON Saturday, September 15, 2007

It has long been argued by many psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals that homophobia may (at least in some cases) reflect deep-seated, unacknowledged feelings of same-sex sexual attraction on the part of those men and women who engage in homophobic conduct and who participate in verbal and physical attacks against openly gay men and lesbians. This argument borrows heavily from the Freudian concepts of “projection” and “reaction formation”. When a person has feelings about himself or herself that make that individual feel very uncomfortable, that person may assign these feelings to a convenient external target (projection), thus enabling the individual to evade the implications of any self-analysis that the individual would otherwise be forced to undertake. When these impulses are extremely powerful and evoke deep psychological discomfort, the subject may react to these impulses by creating an antithetical construct that serves to block this deep discomfort (reaction formation). In Freudian terminology, the subject creates an antithetical construct to block the repressed cathexes (the libido’s charges of energy). Thus, a person who harbors homosexual impulses and desires may project those impulses onto openly gay men and lesbians, and may repress these desires by manufacturing a powerful hatred of all homosexuals. This theory is reflected in English literature – the expression “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (a statement made by Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”) has come to stand for the assertion that the subject’s ardent denial of a proposition may really reflect an attempt to hide the embarrassing truth. The Bard of Avon possessed deep wisdom, also reflected in the advice that Polonius gave to his son Laertes (from “Hamlet”) “To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Are homophobic men and women really reacting negatively to homosexuality in others, or are they in fact desperately (and subconsciously) reacting to their own homosexual desires and impulses?

One of the most serious problems associated with psychodynamic theories is that they do not readily lend themselves to empirical testing, and have, for the most part, been unfalsifiable and hence untestable. However, researchers Henry Adams, Lester Wright Jr., and Bethany Lohr of the Psychology Department at the University of Georgia made a serious attempt to answer this question in 1996.

These researchers designed and conducted a study in which they assessed the levels of sexual arousal expressed by subjects drawn from two groups of men who viewed graphic heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male pornography. The study involved a total of 64 men between the ages of 18 and 31 (N = 64). These men comprised two groups – homophobic men (the experimental group) and nonhomophobic men (the control group). The subjects were assigned to these groups based on their responses to the “Index of Homophobia” (a 25-question assessment tool that yields a score of between zero and 100 to determine the extent to which men display characteristics indicative (as explained by the researchers) of the levels of “dread” a person experiences “when placed in close quarters with a homosexual.”) In addition, the subjects were administered the self-rated “Aggression Questionnaire” to determine whether there was a correlation between anti-gay attitudes and overall measures of aggression.

Of the 64 men studied, 35 men exhibited strong homophobic traits whereas 29 men did not. All of the men described themselves as exclusively heterosexual, and all of the men stated that they had never engaged in any form of homosexual activity.

Each subject viewed videotapes displaying three types of sexually explicit activities – heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male sexual activity. The researchers included lesbian sexual activity because it had proven to be “highly sexually arousing to heterosexual men and is a better discriminator between heterosexual and homosexual men than other stimuli”. (Any person who is even vaguely familiar with heterosexual American norms knows that this statement is profoundly accurate!) To compensate for any effect that the order in which the tapes were viewed could have had an impact on the results, the orders in which the tapes were shown to the subjects were randomly varied. The videotapes were shown to the subjects individually, in a soundproofed room. Each subject was hooked up to a penile plethysmograph. A plethysmograph is an instrument that measures changes in volume within an organ or whole body, usually as the result of blood flowing into that organ or whole body; a penile plethysmograph measures changes in blood flow into and out of the penis using a mercury-in-rubber ring placed around the shaft of the subject's penis to measure changes in circumference, thereby providing researchers with a truly objective and accurate measure of sexual arousal. By showing the subjects these videotapes in random order, individually, in a soundproofed room, relying on readings of sexual arousal from an instrument that objectively detected tumescence as opposed to relying on self-reports of sexual arousal, the researchers eliminated several potential confounding variables (such as embarrassment at taking this test in front of peers, effects resulting from the sequence in which the videotapes were shown, and inaccurate self-reporting about the extent to which the subjects were actually aroused by the different forms of sexual activity that they observed).

After watching the videotapes, the men were all asked about the extent to which they were aroused during their viewings of each of the three forms of sexual activity. This provided the researchers with subjective responses that they could compare to the objective readings obtained from the penile plethysmograph.

When asked to give their own subjective assessment of the degree to which they were aroused whilst watching the three videotapes, the men in both groups gave answers that correlated significantly with the results of the objective physiological assessment (the results reported by the penile plethysmograph), with one marked exception: the homophobic men gave verbal responses that diverged sharply from the physiological responses reported by the penile plethysmograph, in that their verbal responses significantly underreported the degree of arousal that they experienced when watching the videotape showing gay male sexual activity.

Men in both groups were aroused to about the same extent when viewing the videotape showing heterosexual sexual activity and when viewing the videotape showing lesbian sexual activity. There was, however, a significant difference in the degree of sexual arousal exhibited by men from the two groups when viewing the videotape showing gay male sexual activity. In the words of the researchers, “The homophobic men showed a significant increase in penile circumference to the male homosexual video, but the control [nonhomophobic] men did not”.

A more detailed breakdown of the results revealed that while 66% of the nonhomophobic men (from the control group) showed no significant arousal whilst watching the gay male videotape as measured by tumescence, only 20% of the homophobic men showed little or no evidence of sexual arousal as measured by tumescence. Similarly, while only 24% of the nonhomophobic men showed definite tumescence while watching the videotape showing gay male sexual activity, 80% of the homophobic men showed “moderate to definite tumescence” while watching this videotape.

Plethysmographs do not lie. However, it appears that an overwhelming percentage of the homophobic men did lie.

There was no relationship between homophobic attitudes and overall aggression (as measured by the “Aggression Questionnaire”).

This study was limited to men, due in part to difficulties associated with determining the extent to which women are sexually aroused. Extrapolation of the conclusions of this study to lesbians and to outwardly heterosexual women who harbor gay tendencies is dangerous for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the different set of dynamics that motivate women (heterosexual women have shown themselves, in poll after poll, to be less likely to harbor homophobic attitudes than are heterosexual men).

What can be inferred from the results of this study?

If one assumes that the plethysmograph really did measure sexual arousal in all of the subjects, then one unavoidable conclusion of this research is that the men from the experimental group (the homophobic men) were sexually aroused by the videotape showing graphic gay male sexual activity, whereas the men from the control group (the nonhomophobic men) were not sexually aroused by this activity. This supports the assertion that the overt anti-gay attitudes exhibited by the homophobic men did indeed serve as a “cover” (or “beard”) for their own desires to engage in gay sexual activity. A corollary of this conclusion is that those men in the control group (the nonhomophobic men) were secure in their sexuality and did not “need” to resort to expressions of homophobia. In short, one conclusion that may be drawn from this research is that overt expressions of homophobia do, in at least some cases, constitute forms of projection and reaction formation, and that overtly homophobic men may indeed, at least in some cases, suffer from internalized homophobia and self-hatred.

(It should be noted that the researchers did propose one alternative hypothesis, which was dismissed by academic peers as highly unlikely. The researchers proposed that the increased blood flow to the penises of the homophobic men might have been a reflection of anxiety as opposed to sexual arousal. While this is possible, the writer knows of no link between anxiety and the attainment of erections! Indeed, anxiety has (in the writer’s opinion) precisely the opposite effect on male sexual physiology…)

The results of this study were printed up in the highly prestigious “Journal of Abnormal Psychology”. It should be noted that this journal is one of the most influential and prestigious scientific journals in the field, and that the results of studies are not printed in this journal unless the studies meet a number of criteria of excellence. (In a different post, I have addressed the poor quality of the vanity journal which Paul Cameron has paid (by the page!) for his “studies” to be published.)

This research is of more than academic significance. Up until fairly recently, many courts of law in the US tolerated the “gay panic” defense in those cases where ostensibly heterosexual men were accused of murdering gay men who made sexual advances towards them. This defense held that murders committed under these circumstances were reflections of the sexual ambiguity of the perpetrator, who was regarded as the true “victim” insofar as he was “forced” to kill the gay “provocateur” in order to reconcile himself to the true nature of his desires. This obscene inversion of the status of the victim and the perpetrator was actually tolerated throughout the US for many years. Matthew Shepard – the University of Wyoming college student who was robbed, pistol-whipped, beaten to a pulp, and then tied to a split-rail fence outside of Laramie, WY – was the victim of a savage gay bashing perpetrated by two Laramie-bred thugs (Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson), both of whom advanced this defense when tried for Shepard’s murder (Shepard was found tied to the fence about 18 hours later, cut down, and taken to the hospital, where he died several days later without ever regaining consciousness). McKinney’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, told reporters that robbery was only one motive for the crime – according to Price, Shepard embarrassed the two perpetrators by telling them that he was gay and that “he wanted to get with Aaron and Russ”, setting the other patrons to “snickering.”

The “homosexual advance” defense has been presented in courtrooms throughout the US to reduce murder charges to manslaughter, in cases where “self-defense” was shown and in cases where the killings took place in “the heat of passion”. Such defenses have even succeeded in cases in which the defendant actually had sex with the gay victim and then killed the gay victim. This defense is premised on the theory that a person with latent homosexual tendencies will react with extreme and uncontrollable anger when propositioned by a gay man, or immediately after having sex with a gay man. Even in cases where this defense is not explicitly presented at trial, the mere admission of the victim’s homosexuality has led juries to convict the defendant on the lesser of multiple charges, as though the victim was “asking for it” by his behavior or even by his mere existence (in much the same way that women who have been raped have been depicted in courtrooms throughout the US as having been “asking for it”).

Juries have not been the only entities to display such bias. In 1988, in a case that drew national headlines and was reported by the three major television networks, Texas state court judge Jack Hampton, at the sentencing hearing of a man who was convicted of killing two gay men, handed down a 30-year sentence instead of the life sentence requested by prosecutors. In handing down the lenient sentence, Hampton made the following observation: “I don't much care for queers cruising the streets picking up teenage boys ...[I] put prostitutes and gays at about the same level ... and I'd be hard put to give somebody life for killing a prostitute."

In 1987, Broward County (Florida) Circuit Judge Daniel Futch, presiding over the murder trial of a gay man named Daniel Wan (who was beaten up and killed outside of a bar by assailants who referred to him as a “faggot” as they kicked him to death and threw him up against a moving car), jokingly asked the prosecution at a pre-trial hearing: “That's a crime now, to beat up a homosexual?" When the prosecutor responded, "Yes, sir. And it's a crime to kill them”, the judge quipped, "Times really have changed." Although the judge apologized and maintained that he was joking, he was removed from the case.

The societal implications of this mindset are chilling. Until gay people are accepted by mainstream US society – accepted, as opposed to tolerated – there will always remain a stigma associated with being gay. This stigma will continue to feed into the dynamic outlined in this article. Outwardly heterosexual men who have homosexual tendencies will continue to bury those feelings under a blanket of self-hatred, which in turn engenders overt expressions of homophobia (which can, in extreme cases, lead to the murder of gay men and lesbians). Some of the very courts that are tasked by society to bring gay-bashers to justice have, themselves, endorsed the behavior of the gay-bashers. In 1986, the US Supreme Court enshrined contempt for gay Americans into constitutional law, holding that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not grant to gay persons the right of sexual privacy (see Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986)). This opinion was written in tones of sneering contempt. Fortunately, the US Supreme Court explicitly and bluntly reversed Bowers on June 26, 2003 (see Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), in which this Court actually apologized to gay Americans for its decision in Bowers, holding that “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled.”). While the outright reversal of Bowers will accomplish much to ensure that gay Americans are treated as equals in society, it takes more than a US Supreme Court decision to change the attitudes of a generation. Study after study has shown that heterosexual Americans who know gay people personally are much less likely to be homophobic than are heterosexual Americans who claim not to know gay people personally.

It is for this reason that gay Americans have a responsibility both to themselves and to their community to live their lives openly and honestly. It is for this reason that those gay men and lesbians who remain closeted are in a position to advance both their own interests and the interests of the gay community more generally – simply by ending the lies and being themselves.

PHILIP CHANDLER

Comments 1 comment

TIM 7 years ago

Dear Sir, You write a good article with very good points regarding homophobia. I agree with the University of Georgia 1996 test with the subjects in that a male comfortable with/in his sexuality wouldn't express such overt opinions regarding gay males or gay male pornography. I agree that court opinions across America "water down" the charges, and unwanted homosexual advances are always employed in defense arguments. These actions only reiterate the internalized homophobia rampant in American society. I firmly agree homophobic males cover their real identities by outwarding "projecting" A HETEROSEXUAL facade for fear of being exposed, rejected by family/peers thus perpetuating the damage within society and one's self. Another victim is the attacker who cannot accept himself. The reason why videos on Youtube of two men kissing cause such repulsion is that the homophobic viewer of such videos views himself for what he truly is! Perhaps angry responses to gay men kissing exibits frustration and disbelief that these men are not available, nor interested in them. I appreciated your article and believe you've hit a home run!

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    I wait in darkness so long / Will the Sun ever rise again?

    When will the morning come?
    When will the morning come?

    Why does THIS cause straight men (and sometimes, but not to the same extent, straight women) to feel such raw hatred?

    And why does THIS drive so many straight men up the wall?

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