About Those Gay Homophobes

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.

That brings us to a new study on the topic of new study that Forbidden Snowflake asked me to comment on. This study goes by the lengthy title of “Parental autonomy support and discrepancies between implicit and explicit sexual identities: Dynamics of self-acceptance and defense” (sorry, no freely accessible versions). It’s been covered, however, under such headlines as “Study: Homophobic People Might Just Be Gay and In Denial“, “Study: Homophobes are probably self-hating gays – this is news to somebody?“, and “Study: Homophobia is Often a Sign of Latent Homosexuality“.

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.

The happy couples.

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.

Once they had the explicit and implicit measures of sexual identity (the paper calls this orientation, but the theory behind the test supports “identity” better), researchers also took various measures of homophobia and looked at how homophobia interacted with the two types of sexual identification. What they found was that homophobia was higher in participants who registered a straight explicit identity and a gay implicit identity.

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

About Those Gay Homophobes

15 thoughts on “About Those Gay Homophobes

  1. 1

    Hey, this is a really well thought-out criticism of the way these studies have been interpreted. I know more than I did 5 minutes ago, thanks!

    People always forget to look at the effect size.

  2. 2

    I think part of the problem is that most people in “our” culture like to pretend that “heterosexual”=”completely incapable of responding sexually to someone of the same sex”. Which is obviously crap, even if it would make everyone’s lives simpler to have nice, neat, non-overlapping categories. If the homophobes (as seems likely) believe even more strongly in this than most, thinking that any stray thoughts and reactions in that direction are sinful, perverted and a sign that they are gay, they may actually spend more time secretly thinking “I’m gay!” than the average person even if they are not.

  3. 3

    Yeah, I’m kind of sick of studies saying penile response means basically anything. Sure, it CAN indicate interest, but it could also indicate relaxation, boredom, or the fact that it’s Tuesday for all we know.

    I think at least a small part of the schadenfreude that comes from learning the virulently anti-gay senator or priest is actually a self-loathing closeted homosexual themselves, comes from the fact that their preaching has been completely undercut and any anti-gay inroads they’ve made are “tainted”, amongst their peers at least, by the person’s own sexuality. I recognize that it’s mean to take pleasure in someone being in such a tragic position, but at least for me, the pleasure-from-pain comes from the damage done to the anti-gay meme.

    I suppose it’s also wishful thinking to believe that this damage is enough to scuttle the meme before it takes hold in another generation, since we keep seeing new folks in its thrall to replace the old ones as they die out, change their views or are outed as closeted homosexuals.

  4. 4

    Jason, we atheists might feel that way. Mildly religious people might feel that way. But it doesn’t actually undercut the meme. Instead, it invokes the temptation/redemption meme.

    This is the same reason people don’t care that Marcus Bachmann trips gaydar wherever he goes. They tell themselves that maybe he is gay, but he’s still living a righteous life by denying himself. If he were to trip up and get caught with a man? Then he could simply repent and be saved. The self-loathing is to be desired. The “sin” presents an opportunity to act as a role model to other sinners.

    The penitent is a very important figure to someone who believes in penitence.

  5. 6

    Right — I keep forgetting that the religious folks in question seem to relish the thought of repressing homosexuality as though it’s some kind of badge of honor, a triumph over the flesh, like dying your hair to repress its color is a “conversion therapy”. Sigh. Hard to twist your frame of reference over to the completely irrational when making these hypotheticals.

  6. 7

    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

    I lack the organ in question, and I’m not a scientist, but this has occurred to me. Couldn’t fear or anger cause tumescence as well?

    “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”?

    No, I wouldn’t say so. Unless you think the same person can be both anti-homophobia and anti-gay. I think the reaction is more to do with schadenfreude–“boy, that bigot will sure feel like an idiot when he and/or the rest of the world figures out that he is what he hates!”

  7. 8

    And I swear I hadn’t read Jason’s comment when I posted mine. I usually read existing comments before I post one, but every damn time I fail to do it I wind up repeating something somebody else already said, better.

  8. 9

    Stacy, if you ask a teenaged boy, I think the answer you’ll get is that pretty much anything can trigger tumescence. That decreases as puberty ends, but it’s still the case that if it increases your blood pressure, it can likely cause tumescence for someone.

    That could maybe cause some schadenfreude, but it doesn’t match well with the public narrative of those powerful homophobes who are living a hidden life. Nobody thinks they don’t know they’re attracted to the people they’re having sex with.

  9. 10

    But they may in fact not believe they are “really” gay. Or they conceive of homosexuality as simply a failure of sexual will, and refuse to see it as anything more than that.

    I am able to imagine this frame of mind, because my mother was a Christian Scientist, and, as a young person, for a time, so was I.

    When you learned how to deny the entire material world, you understand first-hand the amazing lengths even smart people can go to deny the obvious.

  10. 11

    Thanks for breaking down this. I get frustrated by interpretations that seem to be sensationalizing but I can’t afford to pay for the articles.

  11. 12

    Thank you thank you thank you for responding to my request with this kickass post. You have really put a perspective on what seemed a vaguely suspicious article.


    Nobody thinks they don’t know they’re attracted to the people they’re having sex with.


    But they may in fact not believe they are “really” gay. Or they conceive of homosexuality as simply a failure of sexual will, and refuse to see it as anything more than that.

    Given ideologies that strive to minimize “the gay” as an identity and frame it is a temptation or a lifestyle choice, with “straight” being the unmarked universal default, people can make some interesting interpretations of their own attractions, I imagine.

  12. 14

    […] I did my usual spate of science blogging. Early in the year, I was already talking about evolutionary psychology, one of my perennial topics. This time, it was a cultural anthropologist talking about the benefits of monogamy, using only patriarchal, polygynous cultures as the comparison. I returned to the topic at the end of the year, pointing out that not supporting a particular evolutionary psychology study is not advocating for a “blank slate” developmental view. I also took a look at a study that some people were using to support the idea that homophobes are just closeted gay people. […]

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