When I was doing research for my graduate thesis, I came across a fascinating and--for its time--radical theory that homophobia, rather than homosexuality, better fits the criteria for a "mental illness." The proponent of this notion was a psychologist, George Weinberg, who in fact invented the term homophobia and helped lead the effort to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the early 1970s.
Weinberg contended that homophobia--by which he meant fear and hatred of gay people well beyond a mild discomfort or unfamiliarity with them--was fundamentally irrational and problematic, for both individuals and for society as a whole. Weinberg recognized at play the psychological truism that we most hate and fear in others what we (unconsciously) hate and fear in ourselves. Essentially, it's easier to reduce our inner conflict by projecting it outward; it's easier to hate others than to hate ourselves. For those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction, then, hating gays is a defense against acknowledging a part of themselves. Weinberg suggested additional explanations for vehement homophobia:
Straight men secretly envy gay men because the latter are not limited by rigid masculine ideals. (I would add to this that gay men usually experience a level of sexual freedom and satisfaction that eludes many straight men.) Straight men in the United States are subjected to harsh rules and expectations around how to behave: Don't show weakness or emotion, be tough, like sports, provide for your family at all costs, do not even contemplate sexual fluidity. Though gay men's typical lack of adherence to those rules often provokes ridicule among straight men, wouldn't it make sense that underneath the scorn there may be some jealousy, some longing for freedom?
Because many people strive for vicarious immortality through bearing children--how many of you have parents, or are parents, who are anxious about when the grandchildren will arrive?--the (mis)perception that gays and lesbians reject of these means of eluding death triggers in straight people fears of their own mortality. In other words, for those who find tremendous comfort and meaning in the thought of symbolically living on through their offspring, it is threatening to contemplate a group of people who appear not to do the same.
Cory, a contemporary of Weinberg's, suggested that straight people's hostility toward gays may stem in part from feeling rejected by them as potential sexual partners. For some people, it's hard to stomach such a categorical rejection, especially if it flies in the face of the "norm."
I think a lot about homophobia, both as an external, oppressive force in our culture and as an internal force within many LGBTQ people. As the public conversation about LGBTQ identity and rights continues to evolve, and our society becomes more progressive, my hope is that--as with racism, sexism, able-ism, transphobia, and fat-phobia--we can move away from these defensive xenophobic postures and begin to embrace the full spectrum of who we are, as individuals and as a species.
Click hear to read more about research into the causes of homophobia.