Homophobia tends to be heightened in individuals with an unacknowledged attraction to the same sex and who grew up with authoritarian parents who forbade such desires, a provocative new series of psychology studies concludes.
A team of researchers -- from the University of Rochester, the University of Essex and the University of California in Santa Barbara – said the studies are the first to document the role that parenting and sexual orientation play in anti-gay fears and hostility.
The research, published the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, may explain some high profile cases in which anti-gay public figures have been caught engaging in same-sex sexual acts.
"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," said lead author Netta Weinstein, of the University of Essex.
"In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward," added Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who helped direct the research.
The new research included four experiments, conducted in the United States and Germany, involving an average of 160 college students each.
In one test, investigators measured the discrepancies between what people said about their sexual orientation and how they reacted when shown words and pictures. Students were asked to deem the images and words as "gay" or "straight" and, before each one, were subliminally primed with either the word "me" or "others" flashed on the screen for 35 milliseconds. A computer tracked participants’ response times. A faster association of "me" with "gay" and a slower association of "me" with "straight" indicated a gay orientation.
A second test, allowing students to browse same-sex or opposite-sex photos, also measured sexual attraction. A third assessed whether participants had grown up with authoritarian, democratic or tolerant parents who were accepting of gays or not. Finally, researchers measured participants' individual levels of homophobia in a variety of tests.
In all studies, participants with supportive and accepting parents were more in touch with their sexual orientation; those from authoritarian homes had the greatest “discrepancy between explicit and implicit attraction,” researchers found. In addition, participants who said they are heterosexual -- but their performance on the reaction time task conflicted with that claim -- were most likely to react with hostility to gay people and endorse anti-gay policies.
"In a predominately heterosexual society, 'know thyself' can be a challenge for many gay individuals. But in controlling and homophobic homes, embracing a minority sexual orientation can be terrifying," explained Weinstein.
The findings may help to explain some bullying and hate crimes directed at gays and lesbians, the authors said. People in denial about their sexual orientation may lash out because gays heighten this internal conflict.
"This study shows that if you are feeling that kind of visceral reaction to an out-group, ask yourself, 'Why?'" said Ryan. "Those intense emotions should serve as a call to self-reflection."