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Homophobia and Suppressed Desire

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Recently, my Twitter feed was abuzz with furious 144-character rants about Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayettesville, N.C., who was recorded in a sickening, Sunday-service rant about children who behave outside gender norms, and who "act gay."

I won't even dignify his comments by quoting them, other than to say that Pastor Harris gives "dads" special dispensation to punch their gender-nonconforming kids and snap their limp wrists. If you're curious, hear the audio here on The Huffington Post.

The reason I bring this hateful bile to your attention is that it brings to mind a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, with the rather unwieldy title "Parental autonomy support and discrepancies between implicit and explicit sexual identities: Dynamics of self-acceptance and defense."

The main finding of this paper is that homophobia can arise, at least in part, from the suppression of desire for members of the same sex. The paper rests on a contrast between what people tell you when you ask them, and the implicit associations they make between words and concepts presented in computerised tests. The authors find that over 20 percent of people who, when asked, identify themselves as "highly straight" make implicit connections indicating some level of same-sex attraction.

These same 20 percent were also far more likely than other participants to favour anti-gay policy ideas and to be more hostile toward subjects they were led to believe were gay. Two of the authors, Richard and William Ryan, wrote a pithy summary of their finding in last week's New York Times ("Homophobic? Maybe You're Gay").

With gender, sexuality, homophobia, parenting, and religion all mixed up here, I'm guaranteed to get a few backs up. I don't want to conflate gender with sexuality, but a listen to Pastor Harris' rant is enough to convince anyone that his loathing for effeminate little boys or for girls who don't want to dress up and be pretty is wrapped up in his deep homophobia.

Where Harris' homophobia comes from, I don't profess to know. But Ryan and Ryan point out that at least some people "who oppose homosexuality are likely to be individuals struggling about parts of themselves, having themselves been victims of oppression and lack of acceptance."

Ryan and Ryan's compassion toward the homophobes contrasts with the late Christopher Hitchens' delectably inflammatory thoughts on the same subject:

Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.

I can only imagine that hatred on the scale preached by Sean Harris is deeply self-perpetuating. Not only are the straight people in his congregation absorbing his bigotry, but the message urging fathers to violently suppress their children's natural urges to explore their gender are forcing another generation into a cycle of hate and bigotry.

This piece was originally published at The Conversation.