A little while ago, Natalie put up (as part of a longer post, naturally) a meditation on the stories of trans people.
I suppose there’s a lot of things that I find strange or complicated about trans people “telling our stories”. It feels like it’s something we’re sort of frustratingly expected to do, and like there’s a certain kind of particular genre in which we’re expected to tell it. It’s supposed to be a story filled with struggle and pain and suicide attempts and ostracization and so forth. A bit of a grim tragedy thing. And people often seem annoyed when we tell our stories in different terms… like as comedies, epics or fantasies. Or when we swap out the expected tropes, metaphors and archetypes, such as The Victim, The Bully, The Wrong Body, The Last Resort, The Transformation, and instead articulate ourselves through new, self-determined terms and frameworks.
Story is part of the way we construct and manage meaning. Our cultural expectations of story and our retellings of stories both have an effect on the retention of the memories from which those stories are told. It is simply easier to deal with memories that conform to what we think story should be.
And us? Well, we’re lazy sods, so we gravitate to the stories that meet our expectations, that are easier to deal with. Not always, but it’s true in the general case. So, when we see a study (pdf) that tells us that self-identified heterosexual men who score highly in homophobia also show a greater degree of “penile tumescence” in response to graphic male-on-male pornography, the lazy response is to use this finding to prop up the idea that “everyone knows” that homophobes are compensating for being secretly gay.
Forget the fact that 20% of these “secretly gay” men had no measurable response to the porn. Forget the fact that 24% of the non-homophobic men displayed “definite tumescence” in response, a number that far exceeds any respected estimate of the percentage of men attracted to men in our culture at large, much less within the heterosexual-identified population. Forget (or set aside for no scientific reason) that both the original researchers and other scientists (pdf) have suggested that the tumescence in homophobes might be at least partly explained by anxiety rather than attraction.
No, just forget all that and point instead to the high-profile cases of homophobic pastors and politicians who have been caught in sexual relationships with other men–or boys. Never mind that such high-profile cases are a recipe for confirmation bias. Just sit back and feel good that those people you don’t like are secretly gay.
Though why that would make you feel good might be something you want to think about. Holly Pervocracy recently noted, “There’s pretty much no way to say ‘homophobes are probably gay’ without being kinda homophobic yourself.” Otherwise, what are you saying? “It makes me happy that these people I think are bad are really something I think is…neutral or good”? A homophobic homosexual isn’t even a hypocrite. Self-hatred is a tragedy, but it isn’t hypocritical.
Is that what the study says? Let’s find out.
The study uses reaction-time tests to measure implicit homosexual self-identification. This is not explicit self-identification, the sort you get by asking someone, though that information was collected as well using several different measurements. Instead, this measurement of implicit identity is based on the idea that reaction-time tests give you insight into how someone actually feels that you might not get just by asking. In short, a shorter reaction time is supposed to tell you how closely two words or concepts are associated in someone’s mind.
Here, participants were asked to code couples as “straight” or “gay” and their reaction times measured. For each couple, the participant was first primed with the word “me” or “others”. If someone considers themselves straight, they should, in theory, react more quickly to straight couples than gay couples after being primed with “me”. A “perfectly” bisexual person should respond to both with about the same timing.
The theory behind this sort of test has a fair amount of support, but there are criticisms, some of which are particularly relevant here. Specifically, rehearsal of even an untrue association can make that association more accessible and reaction times shorter. It isn’t hard to imagine that someone with homophobia would spend more time policing their own sexual ideas and behavior–worrying that they might show signs of homosexuality even in the absence of any same-sex attractions. We don’t have any good reason to expect that “Am I gay?” or even “I’m not gay!” won’t create as close an association as “I’m gay” if repeated just as often.
The researchers did test their reaction-time test against a measure of sexual attraction, and this independent measure did suggest that the reaction-time test was a valid measure of interest. However, the validity was not specifically tested in a highly homophobic group to verify that the relationship still held for this group. This particularly concerns me given the study participants, college students who may be less likely than the general adult population to have had time to become comfortable with their own sexual identities.
How much more homophobia? Good question. The paper reports that in one of the four studies conducted, altogether, the interaction of implicit and explicit identities accounted for a whopping 7% of the variation in homophobia. For comparison, in another study, participants’ perceptions of their parents’ homophobia and how much their parents allowed them to control their own lives accounted for 14% of the variation in homophobia. In a third study, parental variables accounted for 13% of the variation in homophobia.
In other words, there is a relationship demonstrated in this paper between increased homophobia and a mismatch between explicit and implicit measures of sexual identity, but it is small. Additionally, there are reasons to be concerned about the validity of the reaction-time implicit measure in homophobic–particularly obsessively homophobic–straight participants. That means the paper does not support any of the broad claims made in the headlines listed above.
In fact, it doesn’t even directly support the statements made by the paper’s authors in the press release:
“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.
That’s only one possible interpretation of the relationship seen in the graph above. Another, as already mentioned, is that these implicit association tests don’t measure the same relationships in all populations. A third is that the relationship is reversed, that internalized homophobia in at least some of these participants makes them less likely to report a sexual orientation they’re well aware of because they consider the truth to be less socially desirable than a lie.
So, am I saying that there are no virulently homophobic closeted homosexuals? Absolutely not. We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that they exist. On the other hand, we also have anecdotal evidence of people whose homophobia was based in simple ignorance. Nor is a hypothesis that all homophobia is latent homosexuality (a claim the researchers themselves don’t make) consistent with variation in homophobia across cultures and over time.
What I am saying is that this study is nothing like sufficient to support our “common sense” notions on the topic–and that any schadenfreude over this study should be examined as closely as its authors think homophobes should examine their sexual attractions.
Adams, H., Wright, L., & Lohr, B. (1996). Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105 (3), 440-445 DOI: 10.1037//0021-843X.105.3.440
Meier, B., Robinson, M., Gaither, G., & Heinert, N. (2006). A secret attraction or defensive loathing? Homophobia, defense, and implicit cognition Journal of Research in Personality, 40 (4), 377-394 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2005.01.007
Weinstein, N., Ryan, W., DeHaan, C., Przybylski, A., Legate, N., & Ryan, R. (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 (4), 815-832 DOI: 10.1037/a0026854