August 2005

Why are some people homophobic?




I recently came across two studies which throw some light on the question, "why are some people homophobic?" One was a 2004 sociological and psychological study done at Cornell University by Robb Willer and the other was a 2003 survey by the Pew Research Institute.

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Robb Willer's study showed how men adopted anti-gay attitudes when their own masculinity was questionned. See Men act more "macho" when masculinity is threatened. His sample consisted of 111 undergraduates, both male and female, and the study was conducted in the autumn of 2004.

He administered some questions to his respondents, purportedly to assess their gender identity. However, the feedback they received was random: some were told their answers seemed feminine, others told theirs seemed masculine.

They were then asked subsequent questions exploring some of their attitudes. Men who were told they sounded feminine displayed a higher tendency to support the US invasion of Iraq, to buy a sports-utility vehicle (SUV) and to express anti-gay sentiments, compared to men who got feedback purportedly confirming their masculinity

For the sake of non- Americans, this is what is meant by "SUV" 

Willer described these responses as masculine overcompensation.

"Masculine overcompensation is the idea that men who are insecure about their masculinity will behave in an extremely masculine way as compensation," he explained.

"Masculinity-threatened men also reported feeling more ashamed, guilty, upset and hostile than did masculinity-confirmed men."

The female subjects in his study did not display any difference in responses to subsequent questions, though they were randomly told their answers sounded masculine or feminine.

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Willer's conclusions reminded me of the July 2004 letter from Pope John Paul II wherein he made the causal link between feminism and acceptance of gay marriage. 

In that 37-page letter circulated to bishops, titled 'On the collaboration of men and women in the Church and the World', the pope blasted feminism for having "inspired ideologies" that view men and women as enemies, and question family and marriage. There is now a tendency to see women as opposed to men, and gender relegated to no more than a physical difference, it warned.

The pope wanted women to accept their subordinate status to men, in the Catholic church and in society generally, so as to avoid antagonism.

Fighting for equality would be "at variance with the authentic advancement of women".

The letter argued that when women are seen as equals of men, and gender differences dissolved, then it would "call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and ... make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent..."

It would create a climate where gay marriages are seen as acceptable, the letter said, leaving unquestionned the assumption that that would be a horrible thought.

As you can see, the Catholic Church's homophobia has the same roots. The male clergy feel threatened by feminism's demands to recognise female equality; they fear the dissolution of gender differences. They feel a need to assert masculine power and superiority. They overcompensate.

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The current pope, Benedict XVI, is even more homophobic than the last. In his 1986 statement on the 'pastoral care of homosexual persons', Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as he was then known, described gays as "intrinsically disordered" and homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil."

Yet, as the news story from the Sydney Morning Herald indicates (see yellow box on the right) lay Catholics don't always follow their bishops' teachings.

From the 2001 Australian census:
Catholic 27%
Anglican 21%
Other Christian* 20%
Non-Christian 5%
Non-religious 26%
Note: despite a high percentage of nominal Christian affiliation, church attendance is low. Only 7.5% attend church services weekly.

*includes adherents of the Uniting Church, which numbers about 7%.


Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute found that only a third of mainline Christians (which includes the Catholics) considered homosexuality immoral. They were nearly as gay-friendly as those who professed no religion. Of these, only 19 percent felt homosexuality was immoral.

In contrast, two-thirds of Baptists and "evangelical" Christians -- I think it's a poor choice of adjective, because Catholics, Anglicans and others also evangelise -- view homosexuality as immoral.

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A much more interesting survey report comes from the Pew Research Center of the USA. It's a huge report and I can't do justice to its findings within this article.

See: Introduction, Part 1: Opinion of homosexuals, and Part 2: Gay marriage.

The survey had 1,515 respondents, aged 18 and older, and was conducted in the US in October 2003. The sample was rigourously random and the questionnaire was conducted through the telephone.

It mapped how homophobic attitudes correlated with various factors, such as religion, age and education level.

In the summary, the report said,

The survey underscores how the debate over societal acceptance of homosexuality has shifted since the mid-1980s. The public has moved decisively in the direction of tolerance on many questions; in particular, discrimination against homosexuals is now widely opposed. This is seen in long-term trends in surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center and by the Gallup Organization. And the current survey shows that a majority of Americans (54%) feel that gay and lesbian couples can be as good parents as heterosexual couples.

The survey found that roughly half of the American public expressed an unfavorable opinion of gay men (50% unfavourable) and lesbians (48% unfavourable). Between a quarter and a third (29%) had a very unfavourable opinion of gay men, and 26% had a very unfavourable opinion of lesbians.

However, of those who had no religion, 60% held positive views of gays and lesbians.

Among white mainline Christians, opinion is divided: 43% of mainline Protestants and 46% of Catholics had a favourable opinion of gay men; their views of lesbians are comparable.

But among white evangelicals, opinion was much more negative, only 22% held favourable views while 69% were unfavourable. Black Protestants also held generally unfavorable views (27% favourable, 62% unfavourable).

A majority (55%) of Christians reported hearing homosexuality discussed in church (a vast majority reported the message to be negative), and that this had increased since 36% reported the same in 1996. The American churches are focussing on homosexuality as an issue. This is similar to the situation in Singapore where lately the churches have become nearly obsessed by it. In contrast, other issues such as abortion, which features strongly in religious-political discourse in the US, remain almost unspoken in Singapore's churches.

So homosexuality is not an issue until it is made an issue.

Education is also associated with favourable attitudes to gay men and women. 54% of college graduates held favourable opinions, gradually falling to the group without high-school diploma, of whom only 21% had positive attitudes towards gay men (24% had positive attitudes towards gay women).

I would ask: Do less-educated men feel their masculinity more threatened? Does their lower educational status undercut their sense of power and superiority, resulting thus in a need to overcompensate, perhaps through antipathic attitudes to minorities, sexual and racial?

In line with many other studies, the Pew report found that homophobic attitudes correlated with age, but when it probed people for their reasons why they felt as they did, it found something truly interesting.

Regardless of age, the proportion of Americans who objected to same-sex marriage for moral or religious reasons stayed quite steady, in the 23-31% range. It was the group that rationalised with vaguer reasons -- "that's not how marriage is defined" / "just wrong" / "don't know why" -- which shrank dramatically age-wise.

47% of those aged 65 and above held these vaguer reasons, but only 23% of those under 30 did so.

What this suggests is that education (young people tend to have had more education) and familiarity with gay friends (more younger gay persons are out than older ones) have a big impact on lowering homophobia. Once people learn to think about it or get used to it, they are OK with it.

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In Singapore, about 35% of our population profess either Christianity or Islam, the two religions whose scriptures address homosexual behaviour. Only in the Christian churches do ministers discuss homosexuality with any degree of regularity. The mosques pay little attention to this subject.

This suggests that the proportion of Singaporeans who hold hard, religiously-motivated views on homosexuality must be quite small. In the graph above, they are represented by the ox-blood red portion of the bar charts. It is 23-31% in the US, but I doubt if they will add to even 10% in Singapore.

Most of the homophobic attitudes in Singapore must be coming from the vaguer bases. As I have argued elsewhere, traditional Asian cultures have a softer homophobia that isn't anchored in hard religious doctrine; not a question of good and evil, only a question of appropriate or inappropriate..... 

Education and familiarity reverse this kind of soft homophobia quite easily, as the Pew Research data shows.


26 July 2005
Sydney Morning Herald

Australian Catholics are least anti-gay: study

Catholics are among the least homophobic people in Australia, despite the church's leaders railing against gay rights, a new study has found.

The Australia Institute study, Mapping Homophobia in Australia, released today, shows two-thirds of Baptists and evangelical Christians believe homosexuality to
be immoral.

But Catholics, Anglicans and Uniting church members are the most tolerant, with only a third saying homosexuality is immoral.

Report co-author Dr Clive Hamilton said Catholic church views on homosexuality were among the highest profile in the country, with prominent leaders such as Cardinal George Pell active in debates over gay marriage and resisting calls to
allow gay priests.

"However, it turns out that, among those who declare a religious affiliation, Catholics are the most tolerant in Australia," Dr Williams said.

"These counter-intuitive findings suggest that the Catholic Church has less doctrinal authority over its congregation than some other Christian and non-Christian churches."

Those of the 25,000 people surveyed who said they had no religion were the most tolerant on the issue, with only 19 per cent saying homosexuality was immoral.

The survey also found people in central and south-western Queensland and the regions surrounding Brisbane from the Sunshine Coast to the Gold Coast, as well as western Tasmania, were the least tolerant of homosexuals in the country.

The least homophobic areas of Australia were central Melbourne and central Perth.

Older Australians were more homophobic than younger people and people with higher levels of education tended to be more tolerant than those less educated.

Dr Hamilton said overall 35 per cent of people aged over 14 years believed that homosexuality was immoral, with men more likely than women to be intolerant.

Those aged 14 to 17, especially boys, were much more inclined to hold anti-gay views than young and middle-aged adults.

Of male youths in the 14 to 17 age group 43 per cent consider homosexuality to be immoral compared with 23 per cent of young women.

Dr Williams said the figures were worrying when the effect of homophobia on the estimated five to 10 per cent of young people who were attracted to the same sex was considered.

"It has been estimated that they are six times more likely to attempt suicide than the population as a whole," Dr Hamilton said.

"Homophobic attitudes and behaviours have been shown to be prevalent in schools, putting same-sex attracted youth at risk of discrimination, victimisation and violence."


A good clue can be found in Singapore's own Social Attitudes Survey 2001. see the article Social Attitudes Survey 2001 - the first monograph. I noted from this government survey that "Among the older Singaporeans, only 12% did not find homosexuality unacceptable. This more than doubled for the younger group, to 29%."

Percentage holding favourable attitudes towards homosexuality
Pew 2003
College grads 54% 26%
High-school & less* 21-32% 10%
Aged under 30* 34-57% 29%
Aged 30 and older 20% 12%
*The Pew survey had a number of subcategories, each giving a different % figure. I have stated the minimum and the maximum % they found for the various subcategories


Of those with post-secondary education, 26% did not hold negative attitudues towards homosexuality. Only 10% of those with only secondary or primary education felt likewise.

If we compare the data for Singapore with those for the US, generally in all categories, we seem to be at about half the levels found in America. See yellow box.

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The Pew Report also provided data from their 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project. See the chart at far right.

The study was conducted in 44 countries. Unfortunately it is not clear why these countries were chosen and others left out. A notable absence was China, probably because regulatory hurdles were too difficult.

Without additional questions probing these attitudes across diverse countries, it is difficult to draw conclusions from the chart. For example, I would be careful about the data for the Philippines. What did respondents in that country understand by the term 'homosexuality'? Did they in their minds, think in terms of transvestism, which is a traditional and largely accepted gender category in their culture?

What such a global survey can do is to track changes in attitudes through time when a similar survey is repeated, say, 5 or 10 years later.

Yawning Bread