I wish I could say that I decided to come out of the closet in my early twenties for more admirable reasons—such as for love or the principle of the thing. But the truth is that passing for a straight person had become more of a hassle than I figured it was worth. Since the third grade, I’d spent too many valuable cognitive resources concocting deceptive schemes to cover up the fact that I was gay.

In fact, my earliest conscious tactic to hide my homosexuality involved being outlandishly homophobic. When I was eight years old, I figured that if I used the word “fag” a lot and on every possible occasion expressed my repugnance for gay people, others would obviously think I was straight. But, although it sounded good in theory, I wasn’t very hostile by temperament and I had trouble channeling my fictitious outrage into convincing practice.

I may have failed as a homophobe, but unfortunately, many people succeed. And it turns out we may have something in common—many young, homophobic males may secretly harbor homosexual desires (whether they are consciously trying to deceive the world about them as I was or not even aware they exist). One of the most important lines of work in this area dates back to a 1996 article published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology. In this empirical paper, researchers Henry Adams, Lester Wright, Jr., and Bethany Lohr from the University of Georgia report evidence that homophobic young males may secretly have gay urges.

In this study, 64 self-reported straight males with a mean age of 20.3 years were divided into two groups (“non-homophobic men” and “homophobic men”) on the basis of their scores on a questionnaire measure of aversion to gay males. Here, homophobia was operationally defined as the degree of “dread” experienced when placed in close quarters with a homosexual—basically, how comfortable or uncomfortable the person was in interacting with gay people. (There is debate in the clinical literature about the semantics of this term, with some scholars introducing other constructs such as “homonegativism” to underscore the more cognitive nature of some people’s antigay stance.)

Each participant then agreed to attach a penile plethysmograph to his, well, “lesser self.” According to the authors, this plethysmograph device is “a mercury-in-rubber  circumferential strain gauge used to measure erectile responses to sexual stimuli. When attached, changes in the circumference of the penis cause changes in the electrical resistance of the mercury column.” Previous research with this apparatus (the plethsymograph, not the penis—well, actually both) confirmed that significant changes in circumference occur only during sexual stimulation and sleep.

Next, the participants were placed in a private chamber and presented with three 4-minute segments of graphic pornography. The three video snippets represented straight porn (scenes of fellatio and vaginal intercourse), lesbian porn (scenes of cunnilingus or tribadism), and gay male porn (scenes of fellatio and anal intercourse). Following each randomly ordered video presentation, the participant rated how sexually aroused he felt and also his degree of penile erection. Can you guess the results?

Both groups—non-homophobic and homophobic men—showed significant engorgement to the straight and lesbian porn and their subjective ratings of arousal matched their penile plethsymograph measure for these two types of video. However, as predicted, only the homophobic men showed a significant increase in penile circumference in response to the gay male porn: specifically, 26 percent of these homophobic men showed “moderate tumescence” (6-12 mm) to this video and 54 percent showed “definite tumescence” (more than 12 mm). (In contrast, for the non-homophobic men, these percentages were 10 and 24, respectively.) Furthermore, the homophobic men significantly underestimated their degree of sexual arousal to the gay male porn.

From these data, the researchers concluded that, “individuals who score high in the homophobic range and admit negative affect toward homosexuality demonstrate significant sexual arousal to male homosexual erotic stimuli.” Of course, it isn’t clear whether these people are unconsciously self-deceiving or consciously trying to conceal from others their secret attraction to members of the same sex. The Freudian concept of reaction formation—in which people’s repressed desires are manifested by their fervent emotional reactions and hostile behaviors towards the very thing they desire—could explain the former. (From Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”) The latter implies an act of deliberate social deception, such as my 8-year-old self's misguided scheming. It could of course be a bit of both, or work differently for different people. Who is to say whether Ted Haggard—the very incarnation of this phenomenon—was self-deceiving or whether he knew he had full-blown homosexual urges all along?

Adams and his colleagues’ interpretation of these plethsymograph findings have not gone unchallenged. For example, in an article published in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, Gettysburg College researcher Brian Meier and his colleagues argue that Adams’s findings can be better interpreted as the homophobic group’s “defensive loathing” of gay males rather than a secret attraction. Drawing an analogy to other phobias, Meier and his coauthors state that, “We believe it is inaccurate to argue that spider phobics secretly desire spiders or that claustrophobics secretly like to be crammed into dark and tight spaces.” These investigators reason that Adams’s homophobic sample experienced erections in response to the gay male porn due not to sexual arousal, but due to their anxiety over the images, which in turn provoked the physiological response of penile engorgement.

However, I think this “defensive loathing” reinterpretation by Meiers is off course. Although it is true that ambient anxiety has been shown to increase the degree of sexual arousal in response to stimuli that is already sexually arousing, I could find no evidence that anxiety alone can give a man an erection. At least I hope this is the case. I have anxiety over public speaking. If, on top of everything else, I have to worry about getting an erection during my talk tomorrow, perhaps I ought to just cancel my appearance. Likewise, by these investigators’ logic, male arachnophobes should get a mild tickle down there whenever they spy a spider scurrying across their desk. I suppose that’s possible, but it seems rather far-fetched to me.

If we take Adams’s findings that homophobic men get erections from watching gay porn as reasonable evidence of their sexual arousal, then, these findings are enormously important. For example, they may help us to understand some of the psychological causes of gay-bashing. Some of the most startling data I’ve come across lately involve a 1998 survey of 500 straight males in the San Francisco, California area. Half of these men said they had acted aggressively in some way against homosexuals (and these were just the ones who admitted to such acts). And a third of those who hadn’t struck out in this manner against gay people said that they would assault or harass a “homosexual who made a pass at them.” If you missed the irony, this was in San Francisco—arguably one of the most “gay-friendly” places in the world!

In fact, a later study published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology by Adams and his University of Georgia colleagues Jeffrey Bernat, Karen Colhoun, and Amos Zeichner found that on a competitive task, homophobic men acted more aggressively toward gay male competitors than they did toward straight male competitors. In this study, 52 self-reported heterosexual men with a mean age of 19.2 years were again classified as “homophobic” or “non-homophobic” based on their responses to various items on a homophobia questionnaire. Participants were then told that they would be exposed to random types of erotic stimuli to determine pornography’s effect on response time. In reality, all participants were shown only gay male porn.

Before and after watching this two-minute video of a male couple engaging in sexual foreplay, fellatio and anal penetration, the participants completed several measures of their current emotional state (for example, whether they felt angry, anxious, sad, and so on). Then, they proceeded to the competitive response time task, where on 20 separate trials they were told to push a button as soon a red “hit” light flashed on the console. Participants believed they were competing on this task against another player in an adjacent room. In fact, there was no other player and the game was rigged so that on a randomly distributed half of the trials, the participant would lose. For every “winning” round, the participant was told they could deliver an electric shock varying in both degree and intensity to the other (nonexistent) player; alternatively, they had the option of administering no shock at all to this other person.

All players “lost” the first round and experienced a mild electric shock themselves, presumably administered by the other player. The critical manipulation in this study was that half of the participants thought they were competing against a gay male, whereas the other half thought they were competing against a straight male. Prior to the task, and after watching the gay porn, participants had been shown a brief video introducing them to this other “player.” In one condition, this fictitious competitor was portrayed as a homosexual with stereotypical affectations who told the interviewer that he was in a “committed gay relationship with his partner, Steve, for two years.” In the other condition, this same actor played it straight and said he was “involved in a committed dating relationship with his girlfriend for two years.”

The findings? Although there was no significant difference between the homophobic and non-homophobic groups in the intensity and duration of shock administered to the straight competitor on winning trials, the homophobic group delivered more intense shocks and for longer durations when they thought the person in the other room was gay. On the subjective ratings of mood, the major difference between the two groups was on the dimension of anger-hostility: non-homophobics showed a small positive blip in the radar on this dimension while the homophobics showed a dramatic increase in anger-hostility between the pre-video measure of mood and the post-video rating. These data suggest that homoerotic stimuli—such as seeing two men holding hands—could send an already angry homophobic man over the top.

Personally, I think Adams’s collective work on homophobia is terribly important. Although it is certainly true that the world today is more “approving” of homosexuality than it was just a decade ago—begrudgingly so, in my opinion—there are still dangerous and malignant social elements beneath the surface preventing real acceptance. The day I can be in a public place in Belfast or in any middle American town and simply hold hands with the person I’m in love with (something most people take for granted and don’t give a second thought to) without placing ourselves in physical danger, is the day I’ll be convinced we’ve moved beyond rhetoric about “equal rights” and have actually changed minds.

Meanwhile, the next time you come across some imbecile being especially hostile toward gay people, I’d like you to stare him in the eye, scratch your chin and repeat after me: “Hmm… very interesting….”

In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed and never miss an installment again.