A new study has added to evidence that suggests that extremely homophobic people may actually have a repressed attraction to other members of the same-sex.
The study is the first to document the role that both parenting and sexual orientation play in the formation of intense and visceral fear of homosexuals, including homophobic attitudes, discriminatory bias, implicit hostility towards gays, and endorsement of anti-gay policies.
Conducted by a team from the University of Rochester, the University of Essex, England, and the University of California in Santa Barbara, the research will be published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“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,” explained 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,” added co-author Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who helped direct the research.
The study included four separate experiments, conducted in the United States and Germany, with each study involving an average of 160 college students.
The findings provide new empirical evidence to support the psychoanalytic theory that the fear, anxiety and aversion that some seemingly heterosexual people hold toward gays and lesbians can grow out of their own repressed same-sex desires, Ryan said.
The results also support the more modern self-determination theory which links controlling parenting to poorer self-acceptance and difficulty valuing oneself unconditionally.
The findings may help to explain the personal dynamics behind some bullying and hate crimes directed at gays and lesbians, the authors argue.
Media coverage of gay-related hate crimes suggests that attackers often perceive some level of threat from homosexuals. People in denial about their sexual orientation may lash out because gay targets threaten and bring this internal conflict to the forefront, the authors wrote.
The research also sheds light on high profile cases in which anti-gay public figures are caught engaging in same-sex sexual acts.
“We laugh at or make fun of such blatant hypocrisy, but in a real way, these people may often themselves be victims of repression and experience exaggerated feelings of threat,” said Ryan.
Across all the studies, participants with supportive and accepting parents were more in touch with their implicit sexual orientation, while participants from authoritarian homes revealed the most discrepancy between explicit and implicit attraction.
“In a predominately heterosexual society, ‘know thyself’ can be a challenge for many gay individuals. But in controlling and homophobic homes, embracing a minority sexual orientation can be terrifying,” explained Weinstein. These individuals risk losing the love and approval of their parents if they admit to same sex attractions, so many people deny or repress that part of themselves, she said.
“This study shows that if you are feeling that kind of visceral reaction to an out-group, ask yourself, ‘Why?’” said Ryan. “Those intense emotions should serve as a call to self-reflection.”