A rise in hostile actions against homosexuals can be traced primarily to hatred based on fear and self-righteousness rather than to the AIDS epidemic, researchers are finding.
Although polls show more Americans are beginning to accept homosexual men and women and support their rights, there has been a great increase in reports of anti-gay bias since the beginning of the epidemic. But rather than creating the new hostility, researchers have found, the disease has given bigots an excuse to act out their hatred.
In studying the virulence and tenacity of anti-gay feelings, psychologists are finding clues to the deeper sources of homophobia. The new findings confirm the theory that some men use hostility and violence to homosexuals to reassure themselves about their own sexuality. But the greatest portion of anti-homosexual bias, psychologists now say, arises from a combination of fear and self-righteousness in which homosexuals are perceived as contemptible threats to the moral universe.
Such attitudes are supported, researchers say, by the fact that unlike any other minority, homosexuals still find themselves the target of institutionalized bias. They are barred from the armed services, and in many states sodomy laws make their sexual activities illegal. Until 1980, the official psychiatric diagnostic manual listed homosexuality as a mental disorder,
"It's as though our very existence is somehow a threat," said Naomi Lichtenstein, a social worker at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project who counsels victims of attacks.
One of the most troubling findings for those trying to combat anti-gay bias is data showing the hostility is far more accepted among large numbers of Americans than is bias against other groups. In surveys, about three-quarters of homosexuals say they have been harassed by people calling them names, and as many as one in four say that they have been physically assaulted.
"Anti-gay violence is still acceptable because while leaders decry racial and religious bigotry, they ignore violence against gays and lesbians,'' said Matt Foreman, executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.
A 1988 study by the State of New York for the Governor's Task Force on Bias-Related Violence concluded that of all groups, "the most severe hostilities are directed at lesbians and gay men."
In "one of the most alarming findings" the report found that while teen-agers surveyed were reluctant to advocate open bias against racial and ethnic groups, they were emphatic about disliking homosexual men and women.
They are perceived "as legitimate targets which can be openly attacked," the report said.
In a survey of 2,823 students from 8th to 12th grade, three-quarters of the boys and half the girls said it would be bad to have a homosexual neighbor.
The feelings were as strong among 12-year-olds as among 17-year-olds. Many students added gratuitous vicious comments about homosexuals; that was not the case with other groups.
Scientists who study attitudes toward homosexuals say the largest group among people who are biased are those for whom homosexuals "stand as a proxy for all that is evil," said Dr. Gregory Herek, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis.
"Such people see hating gay men and lesbians as a litmus test for being a moral person," said Dr, Herek, who has done extensive research on attitudes towards homosexuals. Often they act out of adherence to religious orthodoxy in faiths that hold homosexuality to be a sin.
Dr. Herek does not see AIDS as having increased anti-gay feelings as much as offering "a convenient hook on which they can hang their pre-existing prejudices."
The affirmation of one's own values through anti-gay sentiment, his research has found, is the most common motive. For instance, in a study of attitudes toward homosexuals in 248 college students, Dr. Herek found this was the source of hostility in just over half those who held an anti-gay bias.
Bob Altemeyer, a psychologist at the University of Manitoba who has developed a scale measuring attitudes toward homosexuals, has found that those with the most intense hostility have an extreme fear that the world is an unsafe place and that society is at risk, and a self-righteousness that leads them to judge those who hold different values as morally inferior.
"They see homosexuality as a sign that society is disintegrating and as a threat to their sense of morality," said Dr. Altemeyer. "Their self-righteousness makes them feel they are acting morally when they attack homosexuals. It overcomes the normal inhibitions against aggression."
Religion Makes Change Difficult
Dr. Altemeyer tells his students that he is gay. "For most, over the course of the year it makes their attitudes toward gays more positive, he says. But if their hostility toward gays is based on religion, their views are hardest to change."
"Once a person has an anti-gay bias, it is difficult to change," Dr. Herek said, "even when reality contradicts it." Thus the stereotypes of gay men as feminine and lesbians as masculine persist in people's minds even though most gay men and lesbians do not, in fact, conform to those images.
In an article to be published later this year in "Homosexuality: Social, Psychological, and Biological Issues," (Sage Publishers), Dr. Herek reviewed a case in point: the tenacity of the belief that homosexuals should not be teachers because they might sexually molest children.
Citing studies showing that child molesters are overwhelmingly heterosexual or simply fixated on children, not homosexual, Dr. Herek notes that despite the facts, many people continue to believe that gay men are child molesters.
"Once parents perceive a threat to their children," Dr. Herek said, "their emotionality makes them prone to simplistic thinking. It is such emotionality that makes anti-gay stereotypes so hard to change."
In a classic study of stereotyping, Mark Snyder, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, gave people a description of the life history of a woman named "Betty K." After reading the history, some were told that Betty later had a lesbian relationship and lived with her female lover. Others were told that Betty married a man.
"It made a dramatic difference in how people remembered and interpreted her life, " said Dr. Snyder. While there was nothing negative in what people remembered, Dr. Snyder found that people selected facts that supported stereotypes about lesbians and ignored those that might contradict them. That normal tendency, he said, can build into a bias.
Negative Attitudes Snowball
"If your attitude is negative, it snowballs, and you only notice and remember facts that are negative, until it becomes a full-blown prejudice," said Dr. Snyder. "And you tend to assume everyone feels as you do. As you become more convinced, you are more likely to take the next step and put your beliefs into actions like outright discrimination or violence, whether it's against blacks or gays."
Defensiveness about their own sexuality is another common source of people's hostility toward homosexuals. In Dr. Herek's research, for instance, this was the second most common motive, accounting for about 40 percent of those hostile to homosexuals.
This explanation for homophobia is the oldest, dating back at least to a 1914 essay by Sandor Ferenczi, one of Freud's original followers who proposed that feelings of disgust toward gay men by heterosexual men are defensive, a reaction against their own similar attraction to other men. That view stems from Freud's theory that all people are originally bisexual in early childhood, and repress their attraction to the same sex as they grow.
"Homophobia has much to do with the stereotypic perception of gays as feminine: the more feminine a gay man appears, the more hostility he evokes in other men," said Dr. Richard Isay, a psychiatrist at Cornell Medical College and author of "Being Homosexual."
Dr. Peggy Hanley-Hackenbruck, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health Services University and president of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists, said, "In insecure heterosexual women, a lesbian can arouse fears of their own latent homosexual feelings, and so provoke hostility."
But Dr. Isay said, "Seeing a feminine man evokes a tremendous amount of anxiety in many men; it triggers an awareness of their own feminine qualities, such as passivity or sensitivity, which they see as being a sign of weakness. Women, or course, don't fear their femininity. That's partly why men are more homophobic than women, and why those biases are so strong in groups where men are selected for their masculine qualities, such as the army or sports."
Other psychoanalysts see the expression of anti-gay bias by men as being a way to reassure themselves that they are not homosexual.
"By hating gays, they can reassure themselves they are not gay," especially if they harbor doubts about their sexual orientation, said Dr. Jennifer Jones, a psychologist at the Sexuality Research Program at the State University of New York at Albany.
Both factors can be at play. "In gangs of teen-age boys who go out looking for gays to attack, the gay symbolizes an outsider," said Dr. Herek. "The attack solidifies the attackers' membership in their group and affirms their shared values. But it's also crucial that it is their sexuality that defines homosexuals as outsiders. If you feel insecure about your own sexuality, as so many adolescents do, you can reassure yourself by attacking gays."
An exact accounting of such violence against gays is difficult, since many victims are reluctant to contact the police. But there were three times more attacks against gays reported to the New York Police Department Bias Crime Unit in the first half of 1990 as against the same period the year before.
In 1989 just over 7,000 incidents of violence and harassment were reported against gay men and lesbians in the United States, including 62 bias-motivated murders, according to a report released last month by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The figures through the 1980's show a steady rise, peaking in 1988 and remaining at about the same level in 1989.
While most racial attacks are matters of turf in which people are attacked when they enter in to another group's neighborhood, that is not so with homosexuals. Those who attack gays more often travel to a gay neighborhood to attack, Ms. Lichtenstein said. The most frequent pattern of attack, according to Ms. Lichtenstein, is against a lone man or two men walking together.
As with other bias crimes, the most frequent attackers are young men 21 or under who act in groups, according to a study of 331 incidents, to be published in an article by Kevin T. Berrill, director of the anti-violence project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in the September issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
"The attacks are intended to drive us back to the invisibility and isolation of the closet, " Mr. Berrill said.
"Coming out" is one of the most powerful strategies for attacking anti-gay prejudice, Dr. Herek said. This approach is particularly effective on those whose anti-gay attitudes are based on a negative stereotype that has never been challenged by socializing with someone who is gay. Paradoxically, that approach may also lead to a rise in anti-gay incidents, gay rights leaders say.
"Although the data might suggest that intolerance is gaining ground, I believe the opposite is true," Mr. Berrill said. "In years to come, I think that lesbian and gay people will experience both increased acceptance and increased violence."