Are Homophobic People Repressing Their Own Same-Sex Desires?

Stop homophobia street sign

The idea that homophobia stems from fears of one’s own homosexuality has received a lot of public validation in recent years. From evangelical preacher Ted Haggard, to former Senator Larry Craig, to psychologist George Reckers (one of the leading proponents of “reparative therapy,” a discredited method some people claim is capable of “curing” homosexuality), some of those who have been fighting hardest against LGBT rights have wound up embroiled in gay sex scandals of their own. Naturally, many of us wonder why. A new set of studies suggests that this type of hypocrisy may be traced back to the way these individuals were raised by their parents [1].

The theory is that when parents fail to provide support for their children’s sense of independence, those children become susceptible to developing a discrepancy between their true identity and the identity they express to the rest of the world. That is, when parents try to control their children’s opinions, beliefs, and behaviors or make their love contingent upon their children acting a certain way, children may start behaving in a way that is consistent with their parent’s desires, even though it may be opposite from their true feelings. This is especially likely to happen in children whose feelings of self-worth are more dependent upon parental approval (as opposed to children who care less about what their parents, or anyone else for that matter, thinks of them). Thus, if a gay person is raised by parents who believe that homosexuality is unacceptable, that gay individual might repress their same-sex desires and express the homophobic attitudes they believe are likely to earn the love of their parents. This might lay the foundation for a lifelong pattern of being outwardly homophobic and denying one's own homosexuality as a way of gaining social acceptance.

Support for this idea was obtained in a set of four studies conducted on male and female college students in the United States and Germany. Results indicated that people whose parents (especially their fathers) discouraged independence were the most likely to have a discrepancy between their explicit and implicit sexual identities (i.e., they identified as straight, but showed unconscious attraction toward members of the same-sex). Individuals with these identity discrepancies also expressed the most hostility toward homosexuality and were the most likely to support public policies that discriminate against gays and lesbians (e.g., policies prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying or adopting children).

These studies suggest that parenting styles and internal conflict may play an even larger role in the development of homophobia than previously thought. They also provide us with insight into some of the psychological factors that may underlie the hypocrisy evident in recent cases of anti-gay religious and political figures caught in gay sex scandals, not to mention the motivations behind anti-gay bullying and hate crimes more broadly. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that homophobia does not necessarily have to develop this way and not everyone who is homophobic has repressed same-sex attraction. Thus, while this research represents a fascinating and important piece of the puzzle, it is certainly not the last word on the origin of anti-gay prejudice.

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[1] Weinstein, N., Ryan, W. S., DeHaan, C. R., Przybylski, A. K., & Legate, N. (2012). Parental autonomy support and discrepancies between implicit and explicit sexual identities: Dynamics of self-acceptance and defense. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 815-832. doi:10.1037/a0026854

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