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April 18, 2012

Is some homophobia self-phobia?

Anti-gay bias linked to lack of awareness of one’s sexual orientation and authoritarian parenting, study show

Homophobia is more pronounced in individuals with an unacknowledged attraction to the same sex and who grew up with authoritarian parents who forbade such desires, a series of psychology studies demonstrates.

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 self-reported homophobic attitudes, discriminatory bias, implicit hostility toward gays, and endorsement of anti-gay policies. Conducted by a team from Rochester, the University of Essex, England, and the University of California in Santa Barbara, the research is published 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,” says 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,” adds coauthor Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who helped direct the research.

The paper includes 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 says. The results also support the more modern self-determination theory, developed by Ryan and Edward Deci, professor of psychology and Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences at the University. The theory 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 write.

Across all four 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,” says 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.

In addition, participants who reported themselves to be more heterosexual than their performance on the reaction time task indicated were most likely to react with hostility to gay others, the studies showed. That incongruence between implicit and explicit measures of sexual orientation predicted a variety of homophobic behaviors, including self-reported anti-gay attitudes, implicit hostility toward gays, endorsement of anti-gay policies, and discriminatory bias such as the assignment of harsher punishments for homosexuals, the authors conclude.

“This study shows that if you are feeling that kind of visceral reaction to an out-group, ask yourself, ‘Why?’” says Ryan. “Those intense emotions should serve as a call to self-reflection.”

Other contributors to the paper include Cody DeHaan, Andrew Przybylski, and Nicole Legate, all from Rochester, and William Ryan from the University of California in Santa Barbara.

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