5.01.2012

This may quiet and disquiet a few Homophobes?

Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay
By RICHARD M. RYAN and WILLIAM S. RYAN
Published: NYT April 27, 2012

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 own war.”
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.