Terrorizing Gay Males as a Group Activity

In trying to explain why so many adolescent males (of all ages) do nasty things like Mitt Romney did to an effeminate looking male classmate, many people invoke what at root is a Freudian explanation: Males hate and terrorize gay males because they themselves are struggling to contain homosexual feelings. This intrapsychic explanation of anti-gay acts is powerful in some ways and incomplete in others.

The power of the intrapsychic explanation of homophobia comes in two forms. First, research suggests that at least some of the time, it’s true. Second, the explanation has extraordinary cultural and social utility. If you want to shut up a homophobe or mess with his head, nothing works better than saying that if he hates gay, he must therefore be gay himself. I have nothing in principle against messing with the heads of homophobes. Indeed, I’ve done it myself and have no regrets. I convinced an anti-gay high school classmate that by wearing a “genuine quartz” watch he was advertising his homosexual interests (“You see Bill, the Q in Quartz actually stands for Queer…haven’t you ever seen a guy asking another guy for “the exact time”? They do that to see if he’s wearing a “genuine Quartz” watch like yours.). He never wore his once-prized watch again.

But just because an explanation for a behaviour has a useful social purpose doesn’t mean it’s completely accurate. What entirely intrapsychic explanations of gay-baiting don’t explain is why the behaviour is so often social (a la Romney and his gang of male friends). To explain the social dimension of homophobia, we have to recognize that the number of adolescent males who worry that they are gay is far smaller than the number who worry that their male peers will think they are gay.

Adolescent males try to signal their heterosexuality to each other in many ways, most particularly by bragging about sexual conquests of females. But many resort to a different strategy, which is to find a gay (or gay looking) male and then harass him in full view of or in alliance with male friends.

It is always possible that among Mitt’s little gang is a person or two who is in fact gay, but I suspect if all of them had full self-knowledge and full honesty, their account of what they did would be something more like this:

“At that historical time, and as a male of the age I was, nothing would have made me more of a reject than being thought gay. No matter how much I talked about sports or the girl I made out with last night, I still was deathly afraid that my male friends wouldn’t believe I was straight. And so I did something awful: I made the most public statement possible that I wasn’t a faggot, by terrorizing an innocent kid who looked like he was”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Terrorizing Gay Males as a Group Activity”

  1. And of course, as with ethnic bullying, adolescents tend toward picking on anyone different from their tribe.

    I loved your quartz watch prank. The guy deserved it because you turned his own prejudices toward himself and his own prized property. Brilliant!

    I was a geeky teen who grew up in a household of brothers, and was very awkward with girls. My friendship with a classmate whose homosexuality was just becoming apparent helped get me past much of my awkwardness through his excellent examples of relating to females. I took a lot of teasing for it, and my parents were horrified, but I found this friendship very helpful at the time.

  2. I think that it’s more about showing “how manly I am”, as opposed to “how not gay I am”. These are not the same, even if they are not disconnected. A young, western, male’s search for a male identity occurs in a societal/cultural wilderness of role models and images, with many of the roles played cruel and dysfunctional. It is hoped that enough self awareness and feedback exist so that something better is grown into.

  3. Keith, I think your analysis is correct. For whatever reason, I think a lot of adolescent/teen boys structure their lives around proving that they aren’t gay (whether they are or not.) It may not even at base be about homosexuality, but about perceived toughness and masculinity. If being gay is a stand in for effeminacy in males, then being called gay is a way of socially stigmatizing a teenager as physically unfit or wimpy. No more Darwinian environment exists in modern American life than the high school, so as people are jockeying for position in its arbitrary hierarchies, it’s important to prove that one is an alpha male.

    I suspect that Romney’s bullying was more to prove that he was the alpha monkey in his school than that he had a hatred for gay men–though the outcome of the two is the same. And this doesn’t discount the possibility that Romney is a lifelong closeted gay man 🙂

    I was lucky enough not to care too much in high school what people thought of me. I was involved in theater, was geeky, and didn’t play sports. I’m sure some people thought I was gay, even though I’m straight, but it really didn’t matter much to me. I always saw bullying as a coping mechanism for those with severe insecurities and deficiencies–people who were insecure about their status or their sexuality.

  4. There’s a nice ev.psych. story to explain why gays are more often second or later than first sons: the first male fetus manipulates the mother hormonally to increase the likelihood of a gay brother. The idea is that a gay brother is just as good as a straight one for mutual support in social conflicts and gang projects (including raping females), but reduces the sexual competition. This should work in the large as well: it’s in the reproductive interests of straight males to have as many gays as possible not competing with them for females.
    At all events, persecuting gays makes little ev.pysch. adaptive sense. Anecdotally, it doesn’t seem to be a universal behaviour, so Keith’s cultural explanation is attractive.

    1. Hmmm. Nice story, and I’m not current in that literature, but…

      As I recall the mammalian embryology I was taught a while back, a genetic XY embryo/fetus produces its own androgens. Since mom doesn’t provide any androgens to the fetus, the maternal hormonal modifications would have to involve immune system components crossing the placental barrier to knock out the fetal androgens (or their source). If that was happening, there is a ton of not-self antigens available, too. You would expect a miscarriage to result from the immune system’s attack on the embryo.

      Now, there are cases in the literature of masculinized genetic females who had a fraternal twin brother. The brother’s androgens sometimes get loose in utero and influence his sister’s development. But that’s a different deal entirely.

      Someone would have to posit a plausible mechanism before I’d interpret this as anything other than a Kipling-esque story.

      1. I’m not making up the underlying observation; it’s well established. Wikipedia (references deleted):

        The fraternal birth order effect is the strongest known biodemographic predictor of sexual orientation. According to several studies, each older brother increases a man’s odds of having a homosexual orientation by 28–48%. The fraternal birth order effect accounts for approximately one seventh of the prevalence of homosexuality in men.

        The effect does not hold for adopted siblings, so it’s probably prenatal.

        The single-celled toxoplasma parasite can make rats lose their fear of cats, so manipulation of the mother’s hormones by a great big fetus of the same species isn’t incredible to me.

        The ev. pysch. explanation of this finding is indeed only a plausible just-so story. But it does pass the first hurdle of such accounts, which many do not: it explains a solid biological observation.

        1. There’s an obvious cost to the story because you’re 25% related to kids that your brother is less likely to have. Whether the benefit outweighs isn’t clear.

          While I’m not as anti ev.psych. as many other people rabidly are, I think the evolutionary influences on psych are probably subtle. I doubt that human and great ape psychology can be easily reduced to simple ev. explanations.

        2. I knew about the toxoplasma behavioral modification in rats. That is part and parcel of the parasitic life style: modify the host’s behavior in ways that increase the probability of transmission. It’s especially prevalent in parasites with complex life cycles, like different hosts for each stage.

          I don’t doubt the existence of the birth-order effect at all. On reflection, it could be that what is important in fetal development is the testosterone/estrogen balance rather than the presence of testosterone. If that is the case, then getting the mother to flood the field with estrogen would modify the development patterns.

  5. I’m not totally convinced by these explanations. I think that, as Freeman says above, an awful lot of bullying is aimed at outsiders in general. Maybe it’s just a way to establish the power of the insider group. I wonder if marginal members of that group are more vicious than the leaders, as they may have more to establish.

    Suspected gays may well be one sort of outsider, but does the bullying come from the gayness, or the outsider status? I’d guess, and that’s all I’m doing, it’s the latter. Otherwise, you need to distinguish why bullying of suspected gays is different in kind than bullying of other outsiders.

  6. I’m not convinced antogonizing homophobes about being gay is an acceptable or intelligent tactic. For a start, any behavioral change is predicated on the idea that it is not ok to be gay. I far prefer being a proudly hetero male and telling people it’s stupid, strange and dehumanizing to care so much what someone else does in the bedroom.

  7. I’ve always considered gay-bashing by self-consciously macho men to be a corollary of misogyny: these people are terrified by the prospect of gay men treating them in the way that they, the macho men, want to treat women.

  8. That all makes sense. Now how do you explain the syndrome that makes certain people beat up (directly or by proxy) on others who’ve done them no harm, but who’s choice in recreational drugs they dislike? Are they simply trying to prove that they’re not themselves druggies, or is it some deeper pathology that turns people into prohibitionists and drug warriors?

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