Is homophobia a result of suppressed homosexuality?

A NY Times article suggests it sometimes may be. One major advantage with the article is that it is written by the researchers, RM Ryan and WS Ryan, who did the experiments. Still, for me, more than anything else, the article raises the question of what the Freudian theory of suppression was supposed to be. I’ll say why that seems important at the end.

The research described does seem to produce good empirical evidence that there are people who strongly explicitly identify themselves as straight, but who nonetheless have homosexual feelings. Further, these people were significantly more likely than others in the study to express homophobic tendencies and attitudes.

The problem, however, comes with the interpretation. The problems may arise because scientists can, like journalists, put their findings in terms that the ordinary NY Times reader will understand even if it is misleading. Or my criticisms may be wrong. Or something else could be going on; for example, they may not have meant “suppression” to be Freudian suppression.

Here is their interpretation:

One theory is that homosexual urges, when repressed out of shame or fear, can be expressed as homophobia. Freud famously called this process a “reaction formation” — the angry battle against the outward symbol of feelings that are inwardly being stifled…

It’s a compelling theory — and now there is scientific reason to believe it. In this month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we and our fellow researchers provide empirical evidence that homophobia can result, at least in part, from the suppression of same-sex desire.

They relate take their research to be relevant to recent conservative public opponents of gay rights:

In recent years, Ted Haggard, an evangelical leader who preached that homosexuality was a sin, resigned after a scandal involving a former male prostitute; Larry Craig, a United States senator who opposed including sexual orientation in hate-crime legislation, was arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct in a men’s bathroom; and Glenn Murphy Jr., a leader of the Young Republican National Convention and an opponent of same-sex marriage, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge after being accused of sexually assaulting another man…
Even Mr. Haggard seemed to endorse this idea [of suppression causing anti-gay attitudes] when, apologizing after his scandal for his anti-gay rhetoric, he said, “I think I was partially so vehement because of my own war.”

So here is the problem: suppression is supposed to be about keeping something out of consciousness. For Freud, something suppressed is difficult to get into consciousness. However, someone who has a war going on inside himself hardly seems to have failed to get it into consciousness. Ditto for people who are acting on desires. They may not like the desires and want them to go away, but it is hard to believe that someone pressuring someone else to have sex is really unconscious of his desires, however reluctant he may be to name them at other points.

One way of defusing this objection would be to say to say that RM Ryan and WS Ryan did not mean “suppression” as Freud did, but rather meant it as, say, failed dieters mean it when they talk about suppressing a desire for ice cream. You try not to think about it, and often succeed, but then the phone call with bad news comes and you go out for ice cream. However, that does not seem to be what the researchers think they can show.

The researchers take the fact that people can explicitly identify as straight on questionnaires and then are revealed on implicit association tests to have gay reactions to show that they are unaware of their gay reactions. But it doesn’t really seem to do that. That’s because people who are aware that they feel one way can simply not tell the truth when they are asked explicitly. I don’t know how many racist or sexist people would hide their attitudes when questioned explicitly, but I’d bet a lot “know better” than to admit how they actually feel.

Why worry about this? Well, at least in the United States a lot of people are advocating as morally required practices that would be very difficult and even very harmful for others to follow. And we do discover that these pure people sometimes do not practice what they preach. What fuels this kind of dangerous hypocrisy? Should we see it as a deep psychological problem out of their control? Or is it really something we should see as a terrible moral failing? Or perhaps the failing is that conceptions of morality have so often become so seriously divorced from ideas of loving and cherishing, and much more attached to fear, shame and punishment.

In fact, the article provides some evidence for the last hypothesis:

We found that participants who reported having supportive and accepting parents were more in touch with their implicit sexual orientation and less susceptible to homophobia. Individuals whose sexual identity was at odds with their implicit sexual attraction were much more frequently raised by parents perceived to be controlling, less accepting and more prejudiced against homosexuals.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Is homophobia a result of suppressed homosexuality?

  1. Thank you for this post! Are you suggesting, at the end, that anti-abortion and anti-birth control advocates may be in some what of a similar position? I’d love to find the answer as to why there is such vehemence against women having control over their reproduction.

  2. That’s a great question. I think my last idea is close to an Aristotelian one; virtue should be attached to eudaimonia. I’m tempted to say, though, that the causes of the detachment may be various; perhaps some homophobia is really detestation of all sexuality, with homophobia being a kind of focus point. When it comes to women’s reproductive health, I am inclined to take it as a working hypothesis that controlling women is at the foundation, but even the causes of the desire to do that might vary a lot. Still, I should think some more about your question. I hope others address it.

  3. It seems that in the case of homophobia we often have a case of self-deception: people lie to themselves about who they are. That is common enough about so many things. People like to think of themselves as being “better” than they are: in this case, homoerotic desires are seen as “bad”, although they are not, but I may think of myself as being more generous than I am, not registering the many times I have non-generous impulses or am not generous in my actions.

  4. I don’t think we should view “deep psychological problem” and “deep moral failing” as mutually exclusive. And I think most ‘homophobia’ is heterosexism. Hatred (primarily), not fear (primarily). A bigot by any other name…

  5. Katy, actually, I think I agree. Nonetheless, I think the result of pathologizing psychologically is often to position something as outside the moral domain. My focus was on resisting doing that with the people who refuse to own their own behavior.

  6. I’m inclined to agree with scholars like Herek who propose jettisoning the term “homophobia” altogether in favor of terms that lack value judgments about rationality (e.g. suggesting that the attitudes are best understood as an irrational fear) and about morality. I’m sorry to see the term perpetuated by Ryan & Ryan and their co-authors.

    As far as the study is concerned, the authors correctly note in the journal article that “given the correlational nature of many of the present findings, causal … inferences cannot be reliably made.” I think a lot more work would be required.

    While I confess to significant skepticism about the merits of understanding right-to-life sentiment in terms of “vehemence against women having control over their reproduction”, like Anne I would be interested in seeing this notion addressed by others.

    Interesting fact from the authors’ journal article: “conservative” beliefs were found not to have any significant predictive relationship for prejudice. This is at odds with suggestions made by a couple of previous researchers.

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