Intense hostility toward gay people may be linked to a repressed same-sex attraction, combined with an authoritarian upbringing, a new study suggests.
Though such factors are not the only causes of homophobia, the research suggests that those "who have a discrepancy within themselves about their expressed vs. unconscious sexual attraction find gay and lesbian people more threatening and are more likely to express prejudice and discrimination toward them," says University of Rochester psychology professor Richard Ryan, co-author of the study, published in the April Journalof Personality and Social Psychology.
Blocking unconscious desires by adopting an opposite view is a well-known psychoanalytic concept, suggested by Freud and others.
The new research, done with more than 600 college students in the USA and Germany, measured discrepancies between what they said about their sexual orientation and how they reacted on split-second timed tasks.
They also rated the attractiveness of same-sex or opposite-sex people in photos and answered questions about their parenting and homophobia at home.
Researchers measured homophobia levels, both overt, as expressed in questionnaires on social policy and beliefs, and unconscious, as revealed in word-completion tasks.
Findings suggest subjects with accepting parents were more in touch with their innate sexual orientation. But those with controlling parents who had negative attitides about gays were "more likely to suppress same-sex attraction and to have this discrepancy that leads to homophobia and feeling threatened," Ryan says.
Some in the field are skeptical of the findings.
Psychology professor Gregory Herek of the University of California-Davis has done extensive research on anti-gay bias and violence, and he says measuring unconscious same-sex attraction is "incredibly difficult. This study is asking the right questions," he adds, but "it's a pretty big leap to say it's revealing sexual orientation."
Psychiatrist T. Byram Karasu of Montefiore Medical Center in New York says the study fails to address the importance of "identifying with the authoritarian parent" and then taking that oppression "and projecting it outward. The study skips the self-oppression part," he says.
Ryan says findings may shed light on high-profile cases in which public figures who express anti-gay views have been caught engaging in same-sex sexual acts. "Some people who are threatened by gays and lesbians and are the most vociferous in their opposition to them are suffering internally themselves," he says.