Negative attitude towards homosexuality is likely to be more pronounced among individuals who harbor unacknowledged attraction towards the same sex, and who grew up in conservative authoritarian households which forbade such desires, a series of psychology studies have found.
The study, which analyzed four separate experiments conducted in the US and Germany, provides empirical evidence to suggest that in some individuals homophobia is the external manifestation of repressed sexual desires they feel towards their own gender.
"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," Netta Weinstein, a lecturer at the University of Essex and the study's lead author, explained.
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"In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward," added co-author Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who was involved in the study, in which about 650 college students participated.
The researchers said it may not be just a coincidence that several vehemently homophobic public figures are often caught engaging in homosexual acts. They cited examples of Ted Haggard, the evangelical preacher who opposed gay marriage but was exposed in a gay sex scandal in 2006 and Glenn Murphy, Jr., the 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.
"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," Ryan said. "Homophobia is not a laughing matter. It can sometimes have tragic consequences," he said, pointing to cases such as the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard or the 2011 shooting of Larry King.
The implicit and explicit sexual orientations of participants were measured by how they reacted to words, and images with sexual associations, during a split-second timed task.
Students were shown connotative words, and pictures of straight and gay couples, while the computer tracked precisely the time they took to respond. They were also asked to agree or disagree on statements like, "I felt controlled and pressured in certain ways," and "I felt free to be who I am," to measure how democratic or authoritarian their parents were. For studying the level of homophobia in a household, participants responded statements like, "It would be upsetting for my mom to find out she was alone with a lesbian" or "My dad avoids gay men whenever possible."
Subjects, who said they were heterosexual, but reported homosexual tendencies during tasks, were more likely to be hostile to gays, the study found.
In an earlier study, conducted by the Department of Psychology, University of Georgia in 1996, it was found that homophobia is associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.
The findings of the study conducted by a team from the University of Rochester, the University of Essex, England, and the University of California in Santa Barbara, will be published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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