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Thou Doth Protest Too Much: Are Homophobes Homosexual?

Last month, President Obama came out in support of gay marriage. Stephen Colbert was quick to quip that he was astonished that Obama admitted he was gay and Newsweek coined him “the first gay president.”

Of course, supporting civil rights for LGBT individuals is not synonymous with being gay. But, the vehemence with which some people deny that they are gay and go out of their way to prevent gay people from enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has always been confusing to us. What’s wrong with just sticking with the policy of “live and let live” as far as others’ sex lives and relationships are concerned? Recent research may help clarify why some individuals appear to be anti-gay.1 Ironically, it may have something to do with their confusion regarding their own sexuality. In a series of six studies published last month in the esteemed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Netta Weinstein and colleagues provide evidence that individuals who are homophobic may, in part, be suppressing their own desires for intimacy or relationships with same-sex partners. In Freudian language, this conflict between internal desires and external behaviors is called a “reaction formation” – a coping mechanism for (unconsciously) suppressing thoughts that are deemed unacceptable to the individual and then overtly displaying behavior that is the opposite of the suppressed thought.

These studies may help to explain some of the high profile cases of individuals who appear anti-gay only to reveal later to be gay themselves (á la Larry Craig, the US senator who went from championing an anti-gay political agenda to a scandalous airport bathroom encounter with another man); check out this NYTimes article for more about the details of the study.2 This is not to say that every individual who opposes civil rights for the LGBT population is actually gay or that it is typical for gay individuals to unconsciously suppress their sexual desires. In fact, in exploring the complexity of these issues, Weinstein and colleagues provide support for the role of parents’ behaviors in their children’s ability to understand their own sexuality.1 Not surprisingly, parents who are more supportive have children who appear to be more comfortable with their own sexuality.

Overall, the last decade has brought tremendous change in the U.S. public’s comfort with same-sex couples. A recent Gallup poll reported that over half of the U.S. population now views “gay and lesbian relations” as “morally acceptable.”3 Regardless of one’s moral beliefs, data from our lab4 and others’ labs5 clearly suggests few differences between heterosexual and same-sex couples. Romantic relationships all seem to involve warmth, passion, jealousy, conflict, and, if you are lucky, love. Growing support for not just diverse sexual orientations but gay marriage indicates that more and more people are appreciating this. I imagine by the time our kids are considering marriage (a likely two decades from now), they won’t believe there was ever a time when men were not allowed to marry men and women weren’t allowed to marry women.

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1Weinstein, N., Ryan, W.S., DeHaan, C. R., Przybylski, A. K., Legate, N., & Ryan, R. M. (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, 815-832.

2Ryan, R. M., & Ryan, W. S. (2012). Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay. The New York Times.

3Blow, C. M. (2010). Gay? Whatever, Dude. The New York Times.

4Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2012, in press). The complementarity of behavioral styles among female same-sex romantic couples. Personal Relationships. 

5Kurdek, L.A. (1998). Relationship outcomes and their predictors: Longitudinal evidence from heterosexual married, gay cohabiting, and lesbian cohabiting couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 553-568.

Dr. Charlotte Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.

Dr. Patrick Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research focuses on how behavioral tendencies develop and are expressed within social relationships, including unhealthy dieting, civic behavior, personality judgment, and interpersonal aggression after playing violent video games.

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