This just in from
the lab: If you've always figured that straight guys who feel
their masculinity threatened are more likely to hate gays than
those who are secure in their masculinity, you're right. That's
the result of a new study that tested the idea that male
homophobia is rooted in anxiety about masculinity. It's no big
surprise, but it has big implications.
The new study
about masculinity complements older studies that have shown that
homophobia among men also is directly related to men's
insecurity about their sexuality itself. My all-time favorite
study on this was conducted a few years ago by Prof. Henry E.
Adams of the University of Georgia.
First, Adams gave
psychological tests to male college students and divided them
into two groups based on the results: homophobic and non-homophobic. Then he wired them up to a clever little device
called a penile plethysmograph, which measures sexual arousal,
and tested their reaction to three types of erotic videos:
straight, lesbian, and gay male.
that 80% of the homophobic guys were either moderately or
strongly turned on by the gay film, compared with only 34% of
the non-homophobes. He also found that the `phobes were
significantly less aroused by the straight video than their
gay-friendly counterparts. In other words, many of the `phobes
were guys with a lot of suppressed homosexual feelings. Adams's
conclusion was that male homophobia is strongly related to an
inability to cope with "homosexual impulses."
Now Prof. Richard
H. Gramzow of Northeastern University has taken that concept one
step further. He gave a group of college students a series of
bogus tests that would supposedly detect "masculine" or
"feminine" traits. He then gave the students fake results,
telling some that they were masculine and others that they were
feminine. Then he tested their attitudes about gay men.
Sure enough, the
guys who were told they were feminine expressed more homophobic
feelings than the "masculine" ones. His conclusion was that "the
tendency for males to derogate gay men is strong when ... their
sense of masculinity is threatened."
implication of Gramzow's study is even more disturbing that
Adams's. Not only are deeply conflicted closet cases homophobic,
but so are guys who think that others perceive them as anything
other than butch. And these are modern college students, not
Some have suggested
that we should use these kinds of studies to shame homophobes,
and British activist Peter Tatchell does just that. Tatchell
says that when he visits schools and tells students about
Adams's study, he gets quick results. "Previously loudmouthed
bigots suddenly go quiet," he says. One teacher told him that
the level of homophobic banter in the classroom had "declined
significantly" after his visit.
That's great, and
I'm all for it. Embarrassing `phobes about their homophobia is
better than nothing. But it doesn't necessarily change their
feelings, and it doesn't address the larger problem these
studies reveal--namely, that in a society that puts a premium on
boys' masculinity, that derogates femininity, and that equates
male homosexuality with femininity, the fastest and easiest way
for boys to demonstrate their masculine status is to dis gays.
For three decades
gay liberation has worked to change straight people's opinions
of gays, lesbians, and homosexuality itself. Liberation has been
constructed, at least in part, as a PR campaign to get them to
These studies suggest that it's not as simple as that.
They suggest that it's not straights' views about gays that
really matter. It's their views of themselves. As long as good
equals masculine, gay equals feminine, and feminine equals bad,
boys are going to use homophobia to prove themselves, no matter
how many Will & Grace episodes they watch or Rufus Wainwright
songs they rip off the Net.
So the larger job
facing gay liberation--at least as far as males are
concerned--isn't just transforming attitudes about
homosexuality; it's transforming attitudes about gender and
masculinity. Unless we succeed in doing that, we're just
treating the symptoms, not the cause.