2 min

Repressed sexuality or insincere pride?

New studies shed more light on homophobia

Arrogant pride, and the low self-worth it often conceals, can't alone explain homophobia, says UBC psychology professor Jessica Tracy, but it may be one of the variables. Credit: Joshua McVeity photo

Two recent studies may offer more clues into what triggers homophobia, but neither one conclusively explains why some people hate gays and lesbians.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have authored a study that examines the effects of authentic pride versus arrogant, presumptuous (hubristic) pride.

“When people experience hubristic pride, they become more likely to be prejudiced towards out-group members,” says Jessica Tracy, a psychology professor at UBC and co-author of the study.

“The two kinds of pride are basically about how you feel about yourself. People can experience both, so it’s not that you only experience one or the other,” Tracy says. “If you feel authentic pride, it basically means you’re feeling good about your accomplishments, you have confidence and self-worth, and genuine self-esteem.

“In contrast, people who experience hubristic pride tend to be more anti-social,” she says.

In three experiments with samples of students from Canada and the US, people were induced into feeling either authentic or hubristic pride in a lab. They were given questionnaires that gauged their feelings toward out-group members.

White people who experienced hubristic pride were more likely to express negative feelings about Asians.

Straight people judged a gay person who had committed a crime. Those experiencing hubristic pride were more likely to want to give the criminal a harsher penalty because the criminal was gay.

Tracy says one possible explanation is that, on a deeper level, hubristic pride hides underlying shame or low self-worth.

“Feeling hubristic pride leads to a feeling of superiority, which makes people care less about others who are different from them, which in turn makes them prejudiced against those people,” she says.

Another study, based on a series of experiments in the US and Germany, has gathered evidence that, in some cases, homophobia can be a result of repressed homosexual desires.

Richard Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester who was involved in the study, says a person’s upbringing is a major factor. If someone grows up with a controlling parent, especially a parent who exhibits anti-gay attitudes, they may suppress their desires.

“In this respect, people who are often outwardly hostile to gays and lesbians may themselves have, tragically, suffered from parental oppression,” Ryan told Xtra via email.

When someone represses something, anything that stimulates or activates those repressed thoughts may feel threatening, Ryan continues.

“So in this case, those who grow up with controlling, non-accepting parents — who happen to have same-sex attractions — will find these internal desires threatening, and then may defensively feel hostile to others who represent them and thus stimulate them,” he says.

The study Ryan worked on measured the sexual orientations of about 650 college students. They were shown words and images with sexual connotations and a computer timed their responses. They were also given statements that were designed to measure levels of homophobia and authoritarianism in their upbringing and were asked to agree or disagree.

While both sets of studies explore the realm of homophobia, neither offers a concrete explanation. According to Tracy, there are many variables that contribute to homophobia, and you can’t logically deduce that her study offers an explanation.

“You take an average person who may or may not be homophobic, it’s the times that they are feeling this sense of hubristic pride that they will feel particularly homophobic. That doesn’t mean that if you see someone engage in homophobic behaviours you can then pinpoint and say, ‘Aha! It’s because they’re feeling this type of pride,’” she says.

Ryan says the study he was involved in can’t offer any conclusions, either.

“I think it’s an explanation for some people, but it is also important to note that there are many reasons that people adopt negative attitudes toward out-groups, such as people with differing sexual identities. Repression of the type we were studying here is only one of several pathways,” he says.