The Emotional Origin of Homophobia


WHY IS IT that so many people seem to have negative attitudes towards homosexuality? The thesis that I wish to present is that these attitudes are emotional in character, and that they are not really the result of intellectual analysis, which some pretend or mistakenly think to be the case. I refer to these negative attitudes as "homophobia."

In fact, I propose that intellectual analysis can be used to demonstrate that these emotions are untenable and unreliable as a proper guide to how one should view other people and as a guide to public policy. I furthermore argue that these emotions can and should be altered, although that is a somewhat difficult process; at least, they should not be allowed to form the basis of how one treats fellow human beings, neither in person nor in legislation.

It is important, at the outset, to understand that I view homosexuality as a non-chosen, non-changeable sexual orientation which entails emotional-sexual attraction between persons of the same sex. When I speak of homophobes, I primarily refer to heterosexual men, as they seem to display it more than other categories.

The Crucial Role of Emotional Reactions

There is a lot that unites human beings, but it is also the case that there is a lot that separates us. Although most of us have a capacity for empathy (to which I will appeal later in this essay), it is really quite difficult for us to truly understand how another person experiences life. By analogy, we can interpret many things that others go through in a way which is similar to the way they interpret them, but especially in cases which are unfamiliar to us, we are at a loss when it comes to genuine comprehension. I suggest that many a heterosexual person cannot truly understand the feelings and experiences of a homosexual person, and vice versa.

If it were the case that a heterosexual could truly understand same-sex attraction, and all that goes with it, then I submit that he would not view it negatively. Then he would easily accept the co-existence of this different category of persons on the basis of a realization that it is merely an expression of harmless and edifying love between consenting persons?something which, on reflection, should be acceptable to all.

But the fact is that many heterosexuals do not feel accepting towards homosexuality. Why is that? Because they cannot truly understand homosexuality, as it is a trait of some human beings which they have not themselves experienced, and hence they evaluate it on purely emotional grounds. That is to say, when straight men hear "homosexuality," they proceed to imagine themselves in a situation of homoeroticism, possibly kissing or having anal sex with a man they find unattractive, to which their feelings respond strongly and negatively. They experience disgust at this thought experiment. And that is no surprise, since their nature is wired so as to feel erotically attracted pnly towards persons of the opposite sex. As a result, these people talk and act in a way which communicates this homophobia, and they dislike legal reform which is beneficial to homosexuals for the same reason.

This theory as to the origin of homophobia seems to conflict with the popular notion that negative attitudes towards homosexuality reflect an intellectual analysis, the outcome of which is the presentation of valid reasons, of a non-emotional character, for disliking and working against homosexuality. My view is that there is such a conflict and that my theory is the correct one, which among other things implies that negative attitudes towards homosexuality are primarily fueled by emotional reactions from hypothetical, homoerotic thought experiments performed by heterosexuals. Without such an emotional basis, I posit that there would be virtually no attempts to formulate ostensibly intellectual arguments against homosexuality. The order of causality is

  1. emotional disgust when considering homosexuality
  2. "intellectual" reasons for disliking homosexuality

and not the other way around. That is, the emotional reactions predate any rules, laws, or other injunctions against homosexuality.

I have personally found this understanding of things confirmed in conversations with some homophobic heterosexuals. They have started out by giving "intellectual" reasons for why they dislike homosexuality (e.g., "it does not produce children"), so as to give a serious impression to the effect that this dislike is based on properly reflected-upon arguments. But then I have inquired what they think of lesbianism, and then they almost always respond by voicing their approval. This, I think, clearly reflects that these men use the thought-experiment procedure I described earlier: and then, they found the thought of their having sex with another man disgusting, whilst they found the sexual fantasy of two women having sex arousing and, therefore, acceptable. In spite of lesbian sex not bringing forth children, I might add.

However, it is important to note that the source of emotions?all of them psychological in character?can be both biological and cultural. The type of emotions described thus far, I mainly take to be of a biological character. But there is also another source of homophobic emotions, namely, the cultural or social influence. If a person is born into a culture where heterosexuality is predominant in all contexts and if it permeates family life, the media, the religions, and legislation, then the biological tendency for a heterosexual to react negatively towards homosexuality is reinforced by the society around him. This is especially the case if, in addition to the total dominance of heterosexuality, explicit homophobia is part of the culture. I think that cultural attitudes of this sort mainly stem from biologically induced emotions, which means that the instinctive homophobia of heterosexuals leads them to incorporate a pro-heterosexual attitude into their life environments. (On the concept of "instinctive homophobia," see Simon LeVay, Queer Science, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996, p. 294.)

Hence, I think that the ordinary heterosexual who is in possession of negative attitudes towards homosexuality has them because of a combination (in varying degrees) of a biologically based, instinctive feeling of disgust and a cultural, internalized disapprobation. The latter, in turn, is the result of other persons having had a biologically based, instinctive feeling of disgust at the thought of homosexuality which they thought proper to spread via modes of upbringing, religious books and sermons, legislation, etc.

Are Homophobic Emotions Acceptable?

If this thesis as to the origin of homophobia is correct, how can these emotions, and the attitudes that go with them, be evaluated? Does the existence of anti-homosexuality emotions display rational moral intuitions, in the sense that they can be shown to contribute to the realization of some reasonable moral value? In other words, are heterosexual homophobes justified in displaying homophobic attitudes? I think not. What I have tried to do above is merely to explain, as a factual matter, the origin of homophobia. Whether homophobia is normatively acceptable is another matter entirely.

As I view the culturally transmitted disapproval of homosexuality as an extension of the biologically based, instinctive dislike, and as I do not think that any occurrence in nature (i.e., anything of biological origin) automatically makes it morally acceptable, we must evaluate emotions rationally and see if their existence is conducive to the attainment of some moral value?or, indeed, if their existence is detrimental to the attainment of some moral value. That is, "is" does not necessarily imply "ought."

So let us begin by specifying that the moral value that we are interested in is the furtherance of the highest possible amount of subjective preference satisfaction in some population. (For a more detailed discussion of this moral principle, and why I deem it reasonable, see my essay My Personal Moral View, available at my personal home pages.) Given this goal, two things follow. First, mere homophobic attitudes cannot really be said to be either good or bad, so long as they remain mere attitudes and are not reflected in any action.

Second, if these attitudes lead to homosexual persons feeling substantially less satisfied in life (perhaps as the result of discriminatory legislation or practices, or as the result of verbal admonitions), then the manifestations of these attitudes can be said to constitute behavior which is inconsistent with our goal. And hence they are irrational. (This assessment rests on the reasonable assumption that such maltreatment of homosexuals induce only minor feelings of satisfaction in homophobes; for more on utilitarianism and the maltreatment of minorities, see R. M. Hare, Moral Thinking: Its Level, Method and Point, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 140-2.) Now, it is possible that there is some other moral value which is better attained by such manifestations, and then they are not irrational, but nevertheless bad, from my moral point of view.

The outcome of this line of reasoning is that actions rooted in negative feelings towards homosexuality are to be discouraged. This could be done in three basic ways.

First, it is perhaps possible, although probably quite difficult, to alter a person's feelings towards homosexuality. After childhood, when it seems that humans are most open to influences of this sort, I would think that such a procedure requires the explicit cooperation of the individual whose feelings need to be changed. One similar example is my own personal feelings towards masturbation. As a child, I felt shame after having masturbated, but as I grew up, I reflected on this act and found it perfectly healthy and beneficial. I then gradually worked at eliminating the negative feelings, and eventually I succeeded.

Second, even if a person retains an instinctive dislike of homosexuality, in the sense that he would not like do engage in same-sex acts himself, he may realize, on an intellectual level, that such feelings are personal, rooted in biology, and not beneficial as a basis for behavior towards other humans. My heterosexual friend Fredrik Bendz is an example of such a person, as told in his essay Homosexuality, available as a link from my personal web pages. My experience tells me that this type of insight often reflects personal contact with someone who happens to be homosexual and whom the instinctive homophobe likes and respects as a person. Such contacts help the heterosexual person gain a bit more understanding of what homosexuality is all about: the simple manifestation of love between persons of the same sex. And such a thing should not be feared or discouraged.

Third, one could impose legal sanctions on persons who defame, discriminate against, or attack homosexuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. In my view, the second approach is the most realistic and functional.

Some Possible Counter-Arguments

But does this account of the origin of homophobia explain the case of homosexuals who have negative attitudes towards their own homosexuality? I will discuss two cases, but I think this phenomenon can be explained by the influence of internalized cultural attitudes. That is, these feelings are not instinctive and biological in origin, but they stem directly from the process of upbringing and the surrounding society (of which organized religions are part). Thus, these feelings really reflect the biologically induced, instinctive attitudes of some heterosexual homophobes of the past.

The first case is my own case. Between the ages of 16 and 27 I was a Christian of the born-again, fundamentalist, bible-believing sort. Before the age of 16, I had felt attracted to other boys for as long as I could remember. As a Christian, I gradually came to regard homosexual acts as sinful, which made me dislike my homosexuality strongly. However, deep down inside, I liked the way I was: it was me, it felt good, and it was about love! Eventually, when I began to realize that Christianity was not true, I could drop the culturally imposed categorization of homosexual acts as sinful, and live my life in accordance with my true self. (Read more in My Personal Story: Growing Up Gay, available at my home pages.)

The second case is about recent similar experiments at the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Georgia. At each experiment, a group of self-identified heterosexual male students were enrolled, and on the basis of their answers to various questions, such as their attitude towards homosexuality, they were divided into two subgroups: one with stated heterosexuals who were accepting of homosexuality and one with stated heterosexuals who were homophobic. All students were then showed different pornographic films, during which their degree of sexual arousal was observed (by measuring the degree of erection carefully).

It turned out, in both experiments, that a large majority of the homophobic "heterosexuals" were sexually turned on by gay pornography, whereas only a small minority of "homo-friendly" heterosexuals were turned on by these films. It seems that Freud's discussion of reaction formation was vindicated in these experiments: homophobes may, to a large extent, be homosexuals who have internalized cultural attitudes of dislike and disgust towards their own sexual orientations (probably unconsciously in most cases). Again, negative attitudes towards homosexuality are the result of culturally transmitted homophobia of some heterosexuals of the past, who felt instinctive revulsion at the thought of engaging in homosexual acts.

Let me illustrate that my understanding of the emotional basis of homophobia is confirmed by many anti-homosexuality rules and laws. For instance, the old testament of the Bible contains a harsh injunction against same-sex acts in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. However, if the basis of this anti-homosexuality attitude was rational reasoning, and not emotions, then how can it be explained that lesbianism is not condemned anywhere in the old testament? Rather, this omission shows us that the basis of these rules are the biologically based and instinctive homophobia of some male Jewish leaders against male homosexuality; but since they did not feel revulsion when contemplating sex between two females, they did not think it immoral.

Also, the laws against homosexual acts in Britain and the states of the U.S. have almost always excluded lesbian sexual acts. How can this be explained, if the basis of these laws is some sort of general, intellectual argument of the type exemplified above? Again, the more plausible interpretation of this omission is that the laws were designed by homophobic heterosexual males, influenced wholly by their biologically and culturally induced feelings, who wanted to make life miserable for many homosexuals, whom the heterosexuals spontaneously disliked.

But if the origin of heterosexuals disliking homosexuality is biological, why do we not see "heterophobic" homosexuals? If they think of themselves having sex with persons of the opposite sex, do they not feel disgusted, just as heterosexuals feel disgusted when contemplating having sex with persons of the same sex? I would say that many homosexuals probably have negative feelings towards engaging in heterosexual sex, but this is not as big a problem as homophobia. It should be remembered that homosexuals have grown up in a heterosexualist culture, where it is expected that everyone is heterosexual and where heterosexual sex and love is utterly dominant (in the family, in the media, in the laws, in the traditions, etc.).

For this reason, homosexuals are much more used to heterosexuality than heterosexuals are to homosexuality. (This is partly because there are far fewer homosexuals in the general population.) The point here is that homosexuals are thus better equipped for understanding heterosexuality than vice versa. This helps them, in spite of not wanting to engage in opposite-sex acts themselves (due to a biologically induced feeling of repulsion or indifference), to accept that others are different from themselves?and that this is acceptable. This acceptance is partly stimulated by the experiences of many homosexuals, of not being accepted themselves. Through empathy, it is recognized that acceptance of persons, irrespective of their sexual orientation, is paramount.


To conclude: the basis of heterosexuals having negative feelings towards homosexuality is originally biological and instinctive (when they thought about having sex with someone of the same sex, they were repulsed). Then, successive generations of heterosexuals were influenced towards having these negative attitudes both because of the same biological instinct, but also because of the cultural disapproval of homosexuality, conveyed in rules, laws, and verbal statements from others. This cultural influence has also affected many homosexuals to view their own homosexuality negatively.

But it is usually not the case, for homophobic persons, that the basis of their attitudes towards homosexuality is rational reasoning, or intellectual argumentation. Such endeavors have, as a rule, been added afterwards, to try to give the homophobia a nicer and more respectable framing. However, these attempts to argue intellectually against homosexuality are utter failures. Alas, if I am right about homophobia being emotionally based, then this realization, of the arguments being faulty, will not cause homophobes to change their attitudes. For them to get to know someone who is a homosexual might.

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