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”.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.