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After the brutal torture of one gay man and two gay teens in New York and the multiple bully-related suicides over the past few days, our community is understandably in shock and outraged. Many of us are finding it difficult to make sense of such heinous events, but we are supporting each other through rallies and the new “It Gets Better” viral campaign.
Through this process, there is one common question that people seem to have: What’s the deal with all these homophobic bullies?
There is one popular hypothesis which suggests that bullies are enabled by homophobic messages from religious leaders and politicians to act violently toward sexual minority individuals. While the impact of such despicable messages cannot be denied, it is probably only a piece of the puzzle. There are a great number of people who are exposed to such messages, but only a fraction act out violently against sexual minority individuals. What separates the violent homophobes from the non-violent ones?
Another hypothesis suggests that being homophobic probably means that you are gay yourself. Research supports the idea that homophobic bullies might be struggling with their own sexuality, but it would be premature to label them gay.
In 1996 at the University of Georgia, 64 undergraduate heterosexual men who never experienced a same-sex encounter or fantasy were recruited for a study. Based on the results of a simple questionnaire, these men were unknowingly divided into two groups: homophobes and non-homophobes. The men in each of these groups were invited to a screening of homoerotic videos and, at the time of the screening, were introduced to a machine called a penile plethysmograph.
In case you don’t know what a penile plethysmograph is, it is a machine that measures sexual arousal by recording the circumference of a male’s penis. Guys out there know that we have very little control over when and where our penis decides to become erect, so engorgement and arousal are safely considered equivalent.
As we might expect, the non-homophobic men in the study had no sexual arousal whatsoever while a significant portion of the homophobic men demonstrated significant levels of arousal. Even after being shown evidence of this significant level of arousal, the homophobic men denied that they had any reaction to the video whatsoever.
The results from this study provided one example of how homophobic men might actually be struggling with same-sex feelings of their own, even on an unconscious level. When confronted with evidence of their arousal toward homoerotic stimuli, their denial can be so strong that they ignore or discount factual evidence. This suggests that homophobic men are not comfortable with their personal sexuality and are even threatened by the suggestion that they may have same-sex feelings.
In general, when men are threatened, the tenets of masculinity dictate that they become angry and fight back. Keeping this in mind, it is easy to see how a homophobic bully who is likely dealing with same-sex feelings of his own will become violent when he interacts with someone who reminds him of his same-sex feelings.
I do not intend to make excuses for the despicable behavior of these bullies, but merely hope to provide a window into understanding what their problem may be.
Simply put, there is evidence that people who are not comfortable with their own sexuality are threatened on a fundamental psychological level by the idea of same-sex attraction. Given this evidence, it seems that homophobia has far-reaching negative implications on an individual level for homophobic men themselves.
As such, the popular “It Gets Better” viral campaign may actually be just as much for the homophobic bullies out there who are struggling with their unconscious same-sex feelings as it is for people who are consciously struggling with their personal sexuality.
Just something to think about …
Stephen Brewer, M.A. is a registered psychological assistant (PSB33858) in Scripps Ranch and is supervised by Angela Spenser, PhD (PSY15450). He runs a LGBT and kink-friendly practice, specializing in addictions, trauma, HIV/AIDS, and men’s issues. He can be reached at (619) 377–3120 or you can visit his Therapy Brew website.