How the Mind Rationalizes Homophobia

It's not easy to justify gut feelings with logical arguments. But that doesn't stop people from trying—in the NFL, in state legislatures, and beyond.
A sign outside the Supreme Court in March 2013 encapsulates a typical argument against gay parenthood. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

For gays and their allies—who now make up a majority of Americans — the past year has been a time of heartening election results and Supreme Court victories. But for the substantial minority of Americans who continue to oppose gay marriage, a siege mentality has taken hold. Some go so far as to argue that if gays were ever the victims of prejudice, the tables have now turned.

That’s the rationale behind a wave of new state bills. Last week Charles Macheers, a Republican state representative from Kansas, had these words to say in support of a bill he described as a “shield” against discrimination: “Discrimination is horrible. It’s hurtful … It has no place in civilized society, and that’s precisely why we’re moving this bill.” That bill died in the Senate, and similar bills in Idaho, South Dakota, and Tennessee have also stalled. But on Wednesday, the Arizona Senate passed a bill allowing “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization” to refuse to serve people if they feel it violates their “free exercise of religion.” The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Steve Yarbrough, argued during a two-hour debate on the Senate floor that “this bill is not about allowing discrimination” but “about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith.”

Ever since it became déclassé to be anti-gay—it’s hard to put a date on it, but some time around the start of this century—those who oppose equal treatment for gay people have made similar efforts to avoid appearing homophobic. They’ve insisted that they’re driven not by a prejudiced view of gay individuals, but by a larger concern about the negative impact gay equality could have on society. In Virginia, for example, the state banned gay marriage by arguing that allowing same-sex marriage would trigger “unforeseen legal and social consequences” and inflict “serious and harmful consequences to the social order.” (That ban was struck down last week.) It’s the same claim that opponents of openly gay military service made in support of “don’t ask, don’t tell”: The policy wasn’t about prejudice, but about concerns that gay troops would harm unit cohesion and the security of the nation. (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended without a hiccup in 2011.)

Meanwhile, opponents of gay marriage often cite (discredited) claims that same-sex parenthood harms children. Just this week, Mitt Romney struggled to explain why children of same-sex couples in Massachusetts, the state he governed, seem to be thriving. Ultimately, Romney said it would take “generations” for his doomsday predictions to come true.

A similar line of reasoning could be found after Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam announced he was gay. The NFL hopeful earned a standing ovation at a Missouri basketball game, yet set off a tense debate among older NFL executives and coaches. In anonymous statements to the press, they predicted a chaotic reaction by others while disavowing prejudice themselves.

It’s a reflection of great progress by LGBT groups that hardly anyone wants to be associated with the term “homophobic.” In fact, last year, the Associated Press revised its stylebook to discontinue use of that word, which connotes a visceral fear of homosexuality rather than rational disapproval of its effects on society. The AP's Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told Politico that the word “seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such.” Even gay writers like Brandon Ambrosino—who recently published an Atlantic piece titled "Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn't Make You a Homophobe"—have argued that opposing equal rights does not belie inherent fear of homosexuality. 

The term “homophobia” was coined in the 1970s by George Weinberg, a clinical psychologist who noticed his colleagues’ irrational and visceral feelings toward many gay people. “I realized this thing is deeply emotional and is based on fear,” he once told me, and went on to define “homophobia” as dread or fear around gay people. In order to be defined as homophobic, you don’t have to want to bash a gay person’s head in; it’s enough to simply have some level of emotional discomfort around homosexuality.

It’s a term that’s still too useful to abandon. Social psychologists have mounds of research on the role that emotions like fear and repugnance play in distorting our assessments of reality—that is, in creating bias. For starters, they’ve found that conscious reasoning is a much newer human capacity—evolutionarily—than gut feeling, and that the brain often deploys reasoned thought to rationalize feelings we already have. Rather than justifying a position—like, say, opposing gay marriage—based on how we actually feel, we often dream up non-existent dangers. Indeed, scientists have shown that our brains developed fight-or-flight mechanisms to help us avoid danger before our rational, deliberative machinery even perceives the threat.

Interestingly, researchers at Cornell and Yale (including Atlantic contributor Paul Bloom) have also shown that conservatives, on average, experience stronger levels of disgust than liberals do, and that an overall sensitivity to disgust correlates with anti-gay sentiment. “Our data show that disgust and politics are linked most strongly for issues of purity, such as towards homosexuality,” the authors explain.

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Nathaniel Frank, a regular contributor to Slate, is writing a book called The Bias Inside Us.

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