“CERTAIN THINGS ARE BETTER DONE IN PRIVATE”: A PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPLANATION OF HOMOPHOBIA

Voghera, March 2021: two girls, Aurora and Valentina, are standing unbothered in a park, kissing on the lips. This peaceful moment is interrupted by a man who approaches the girls and intimidates them to stop, because “there are children, and two women kissing is not a nice view”. Behind this man’s words, apparently calm, prejudice and discrimination are hidden. Saying something in a peaceful way doesn’t make it less bad. This episode aroused the indignation of many, who, condemning the man’s behavior, showed their support for the couple by leaving comments under the video posted on social media.

But how is it possible to explain this phenomenon from a psychological point of view? What causes a person to be so annoyed by a simple kiss? We can find the answer in the definition of prejudice: a negative behavior or a preconception over a group and its members. In this case we are dealing with an example of negative prejudice towards homosexual people and with a misconception, denied by OMS in 1984, that homosexuality is an “unhealthy” and reprehensible behavior. This type of prejudice is called “homophobia”: “a form of violence based on the vulnerability of a certain group of people because of their sexual orientation (effective or assumed), which causes not only discrimination, but also invisibility.” (Borrillo, 2020). It is possible to distinguish two types of homophobias: general homophobia and specific homophobia. The first one is an extension of sexism, which is the discrimination of people who are given traits that should belong to the opposite gender (for example when a man wears a pink shirt, a color universally recognized as related to femininity). Specific homophobia, however, includes hostile attitudes, specifically aimed at gays and lesbians.

For lesbians women we can identify two forms of discrimination, the first one linked to the fact of being women and the other one linked to the fact of being homosexual. (Borrillo, 2009). In the texts approved in Strasburg by the European Parliament, homophobia is considered similar to other forms of discrimination, such as racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and sexism. Moreover, in the same document presented in Strasburg for the Resolution of the European Parliament on homophobia in Europe, approved on January 18 2006, it is reported that “homophobia may occur in the public and private sphere in different forms, such as speech full of hate and incitement to discrimination, mockery, verbal, psychological and physical violence, persecution and murder, discrimination in violation of the principle of equality, arbitrary and unreasonable restrictions on rights, often justified on grounds of public order, religious freedom and the right to conscientious objection”.

What happened to the two girls is not an isolated case. On the 26th of February 2021, Jean Pierre Moreno, a Nicaraguan activist, was attacked in the underground station of Valle Aurelia, in Rome. “While I was kissing my partner- Jean Pierre Moreno told Gaynews- we suddenly heard a man yelling from the platform in front of us: “What are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed?”. After answering him “What do you care about ?” I started kissing my partner again, and he crossed the rails and caught up with us, striking my partner in the eye first”. The video that testifies the event has become viral on the web: the aggressor, previously involved in episodes of violent behavior, was subsequently identified through investigations and the vision of surveillance cameras located in the subway and now risks being complained.

Even in this case, the roots of aggression reside in homophobia, which has a strong component bounded to prejudices, that comes from a heteronormative culture, so that any sexual orientation which is different form heterosexuality is seen with suspicion.

According to the National Alliance Mental Illness, the risk of developing a mental illness is three times higher for members of LGBT community than the heterosexual population. While what is reported on the Trevor Project is way more frightening: Suicide is the second cause of death for boys between the ages of 10 and 24, but among homosexual teenagers it is attempted four times more than heterosexual teenagers. According to these data and due to the ongoing stigma of which the LGBT community is victim, there was a need for a specific law to protect it from hate crimes.

But discrimination doesn’t necessarily need to be explicit and tangible through physical violence. Often young homosexuals, due to social pressure and stigma, are victims of internalized homophobia (set of negative feelings such as anxiety, contempt and aversion, that homosexuals feel towards homosexuality, others or their own) that can also lead to suicide because of the shame felt towards their own ego and their own identity, which is different from the majority one.

But where does homophobic behavior origin? This modality of action and thought may be unconsciously attributable to these spheres (Herek, 1984):

  • Experiential sphere: the reality is portrayed based on previous experiences with homosexual people.
  • Defensive sphere: trying to solve inner conflicts and anxieties, projecting them on homosexuals.
  • Symbolic sphere: it is used to express ideological convictions closely linked to parts of themselves related to their own social network and their group of reference.

Over time, a lot of studies have been carried out to investigate the origin of homophobia. One tried to find out what lies behind the grudge against homosexuality: Adams, Wright and Lohr (1996) have investigate the role of the sexual answer in heterosexual men during the presentation of homosexual STIMOLI.

The participants in the experiment had been divided into two groups (homophobic and non-homophobic), on the basis of a questionnaire built to investigate the attitude towards homosexuality. They were exposed to sexually explicit heterosexual and homosexual erotic images. . During the experiment the variations of the penis girth have been measured, considered as an indicator of the relative sexual arousal in response to STIMULI.

Both the two groups have shown an increase in penile girth IN response to videos with heterosexual scenes and to HOMOSEXUAL WOMEN. Only “homophobic men” have shown an increase of penile erection in response to the seen of homosexual images between men.

According to this study, there is an empirical explanation for the several psychoanalytic theories, according to which homophobia is the result of a repressed or latent homosexuality, described as the homosexual arousal that the individual denies or is not aware of (West, 1977).

The theory that behind homophobia can hide a particular attraction, SEPPUR repressed, for people of the same sex is also supported by a study (Weinstein N. et al. 2012) published on Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Another explanation of these DATA is found by Barlow, Sakheim, and Beck (1983). According to them it is possible that the vision of homosexual stimuli causes strong negative emotions in homophobic men but not in non-homophobic men. Since it has been shown that anxiety increases AROUSAL and, as a matter of fact, erection (Barlow, 1986), this theory would predict that the increase of erection in homophobic men when facing the presentation of homosexual stimuli is a function of the perceived threat condition rather than of an actual sexual arousal.

However, according to what has been underlined in these studies, persists the question of what the underlying reason for sexual discrimination against homosexuals is. We could hypothesize, as suggested by the psychotherapist Ruggiero (2011), in his article published on State of Mind, that the basis of this discrimination is sexual ignorance seen as “not knowledge” of the mechanisms underlying the process of sexual differentiation.

Regardless of the reasons that lead people to implement negative behaviors, these must be condemned and prevented. It is important to develop strategies and interventions to protect people in the LGBT community and interventions to raise awareness and training in these issues.

You aren’t born homophobic, but you can become homophobic without an accurate education in diversity.

Authors of the article: Agnese Zardi, Alessandra Amoroso, Lina Rita Crimi, Sabrina Seccia, Silvia Salice

Translation: Lisa Nespoli

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