Doesn’t it seem that every time we hear a politician rant about how we should deny rights to the gay community, he turns out to be gay? From Phillip Hinckle in Indiana to Mark Foley in Florida, time and time again politicians with anti-gay voting records frequently get caught engaged in homosexual activity. As scientists, we are taught to notice patterns and then pose scientific questions. This is a good example of a pattern that begs for a scientific question. In this case, the question would be “Are all homophobic politicians gay?”
On the surface it seems difficult to answer this question because we need to know politicians’ actual sexual orientation which may differ from what they say it is. Only then can we contrast their sexual orientation with their speeches and voting records on bills that provide equal rights to members of the LGBT community. A recent NY Times article reported on a study that attempts to answer this question.
Here is the idea behind the study. Dr. Weinstein and colleagues wondered if parents who are homophobic or are not supportive of their children honestly expressing their true attitudes, will have children who demonstrate “reaction response” in which they adopt behavior that is opposite to how they really feel (like being really homophobic to hide their homosexuality). This response is an attempt to protect themselves from being disowned by their parents or from backlash in the community.
How do you come up with a scientific experiment to test this idea? How do you figure out what someone’s actual sexual orientation is. Here is what Dr. Weinstein’s team did. They conducted what is called a reaction time test to determine an individual’s sexual orientation. Men and women were asked to place words or pictures into one of two categories–homosexual or heterosexual. The words were “gay, straight, homosexual and heterosexual” and the pictures were of gay and straight couples. They then measured the time it took the participants to respond. However, immediately before participants began the task, the researchers subliminally flashed either “me” or “others” onto the screen. The research theory was that homosexual participants would take longer after they see the word “me” to put things into the heterosexual category. Similarly, if they are heterosexual, it will take them longer to put things into the homosexual category after seeing the word “me” on the screen. The researchers then asked them questions designed to indicate how their parents feel about homosexuality, how they feel about homosexuality and of course their own sexual orientation.
The results were really interesting. There was no correlation between participants’ measured sexual orientation and what they said their sexual orientation was unless their parents attitudes towards homosexuals were added to the mix . For people whose parents were not homophobic and were open to their children expressing themselves, measured sexual orientation matched their stated sexual orientation. For people whose parents were outwardly homophobic, measured sexual orientation only matched their stated sexual orientation if they were straight. However, if their measured sexual orientation was gay or lesbian, they were more likely to say that they were straight. This suggests that people are taking on behaviors that are the opposite to how they really feel if they do not think they are supported by their parents.
More importantly, researchers found that if participants’ measured sexual orientation did not match their stated sexual orientation, they were more likely to be homophobic. This could explain why our politicians often get caught in homosexual activities when they have extensive anti-gay voting records. They might be trying to hide their sexual orientation to protect themselves from perceived risks such as constituent backlash or parental rejection. This research helps us to not only understand the motivations behind certain behaviors but also brings up other interesting questions. What could we learn about school yard bullies who pick on other students for being gay? What are their parents thoughts about equal rights for the gay community and how does this impact their children’s behavior? Ultimately this research suggests that homophobia might be gay…