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Can homophobia sometimes mask same-sex desire?

That common put-down aimed at homophobic people – that they may, in fact, be gay themselves – may have some truth to it.

Two researchers, Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester, and William Ryan, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, say they've found "empirical evidence that homophobia can result, at least in part, from the suppression of same-sex desire."

Their research centred on six studies conducted in the United States and Germany involving 784 university students that looked for "implicit sexual orientation." Researchers showed participants images and text, such as same-sex or straight couples and words such as "gay," to categorize on a computer screen as quickly as they could. But before each word and image appeared, the word "me" or "other" was flashed on the screen for 35 milliseconds – long enough for participants to subliminally process the word but short enough that they could not consciously see it, they write.

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"The theory here, known as semantic association, is that when 'me' precedes words or images that reflect your sexual orientation (for example, heterosexual images for a straight person), you will sort these images into the correct category faster than when 'me' precedes words or images that are incongruent with your sexual orientation (for example, homosexual images for a straight person)."

The technique was adapted from similar tests used to assess attitudes including subconscious racial bias.

More than 20 per cent of self-described highly straight individuals showed this discrepancy, they write. These people were also significantly more likely to hold negative views of homosexuals, and, for instance, favour anti-gay policies and express greater implicit hostility toward gay subjects.

The researchers suggest this behaviour may be the result of being "raised by parents perceived to be controlling, less accepting and more prejudiced against homosexuals."

The researchers write that their findings may explain why political and religious figures who campaign against gay rights are so often implicated in sexual encounters with same-sex partners, such evangelical leader Ted Haggard who resigned after a scandal involving a former male prostitute.

The researchers did, of course, state the obvious: Their work does not mean all those who take an anti-gay stance are closet homosexuals.

Do you think their findings may help explain some people's fiercely held views?

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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