May 18, 2017

Anti-LGBT Bigotry and Discomfort with Same-Sex Attraction

Religious protesters of gay pride event, 2006....
Religious protesters of gay pride event, 2006. North Carolina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For nearly as long as I've been alive, there has been a popular theory floating around that says that anti-LGBT bigots are overcompensating for their own same-sex attractions (or are at least confused about their sexuality). Their same-sex attraction is threatening and makes them uncomfortable, so they cope by directing hostility at LGBT persons. Many people find this pop-psychology theory to be quite persuasive, and it has had real staying power in the sense that it is something I still encounter regularly on the Internet.

Is there clear scientific evidence to support this particular theory? It has been quite awhile since I've looked into it, but I have yet to see anything I'd characterize as clearly supportive. I do not mean to suggest that some anti-LGBT bigots aren't conflicted about their sexuality and/or overcompensating. Some clearly are. I think we can all identify specific cases where this is almost certainly the case; however, that has little relevance here. We need more than a handful of high-profile cases (e.g., those involving Republican politicians in airport restrooms) before concluding that the theory is valid. What we're asking is whether most anti-LGBT bigotry works this way.

I have a suspicion that theories like this might end up doing us more harm than good, assuming that we continue to promote them in the absence of clearly supportive evidence. How so? In this case, it seems like what we are trying to do is explain away anti-LGBT bigotry by focusing on a single cause (i.e., latent homosexuality). Doing so obscures the contribution of other factors, at least some of which are likely to be more important (e.g., religious dogma, clergy). Bigotry, in all its forms, strikes me as something that is almost certainly too complex to have a single cause.

Why might we cling to pop-psychology theories that lack supportive evidence? For many of the same reasons religious believers cling to religious concepts that lack supportive evidence: they make us feel good. We like to simplify our world, and we are very good at doing so. Unfortunately, we are good at doing so in ways that do not always correspond to reality (e.g., screaming "fake news" when we encounter facts that conflict with our worldview). If the bigots are just scared, ignorant, or uncomfortable with their same-sex attractions, I can marginalize them rather than deal with the many complicated issues relevant to bigotry. The simple explanation brings comfort even if it is wrong.

On the Internet, I often hear someone claiming that a particular person they have never met is bigoted against LGBT persons and therefore must be uncomfortable with his or her own sexuality. It is certainly possible that this claim is correct. This particular bigot may indeed be uncomfortable with his or her sexuality, and this discomfort may indeed be the primary motivator driving his or her bigotry. At the same time, I do not think we have anything close to the sort of evidence that justifies making such a claim. And for some of us, that matters.
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