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 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 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," explains 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 co-author 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 at the University of Rochester, 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 write.
The research also sheds light on high profile cases in which anti-gay public figures are caught engaging in same-sex sexual acts. The authors cite such examples as Ted Haggard, the evangelical preacher who opposed gay marriage but was exposed in a gay sex scandal in 2006, and Glenn Murphy, Jr., former chairman of the Young Republican National Federation and vocal opponent of gay marriage, who was accused of sexually assaulting a 22-year-old man in 2007, as potentially reflecting this dynamic.
"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," says Ryan. "Homophobia is not a laughing matter. It can sometimes have tragic consequences," Ryan says, pointing to cases such as the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard or the 2011 shooting of Larry King.