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 The Advocate, April 30, 2002  by Gabriel Rotello

 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.

 Adams discovered 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."

 Yikes. The 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 dinosaurs.

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 like us.

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.

     

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