Groundbreaking scientific research indicates homophobia may be a mental illness

An Italian research team recently completed their study into the potential of certain psychological traits for predisposing heterosexuals to have negative attitudes towards homosexual people.

Homophobia is a term which was originally coined by American psychologist George Weinberg. He defined it as the irrational fear, hatred, and intolerance of homosexual men and women by heterosexuals: Society and the healthy homosexual, George Weinberg, St Martin’s Press (1972).

Gosford Anglican ChurchThe research team noted homophobia is the ‘tendency to discriminate against homosexual people through psychologic and social aversion, and in some cases, even with the manifestation of acts of violence.’

According to their press release, the team concluded that ‘psychoticism, which is present in severe psychopathological conditions but may also contribute to less severe states of hostility and anger, and immature defense mechanisms may be important risk factors for homophobia, while depression and neurotic defense mechanisms appear to lower the risk of being homophobic.’

After discussing for centuries if homosexuality is to be considered a disease, for the first time we demonstrated that the real disease to be cured is homophobia, associated with potentially severe psychopathologies.
Lead Author Dr. Emmanuele A. Jannini, president of the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine

The research paper, published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine (2015 12:1953–1960), involved 560 Italian university students, aged 18–30, who were sequentially and randomly selected and then evaluated according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria. After primary assessment nine students were excluded that have received a psychiatric diagnosis and relevant treatment.

The Journal of Sexual Medicine

The paper is titled Psychoticism, Immature Defense Mechanisms and a Fearful Attachment Style are Associated with a Higher Homophobic Attitude.’

The study’s authors noted that, to their knowledge, this is the first study assessing both the psychologic and psychopathologic characteristics that could have a predictive in homophobia development.

They found psychoticism represented an important risk factor for homophobia, demonstrating that pathologic personality traits are involved in homophobic attitudes.

The study also found gender plays an important role, and has a significant impact on homophobia levels, with men generally more homophobic than women: ‘[m]ale students showed a higher overall homophobic attitude and also in the three specific measured factors. In particular, they showed a tendency to more negative cognitions, more negative affect, such as avoidance, and also a major risk of aggressive behavior or acting out toward homosexuals.’

The study’s authors arrived at the following conclusions:

Homophobia is a significant social problem that involves specific personality features in the subjects, with an intrinsic aversion toward homosexuals. Psychoticism and immature defense mechanisms specify people with higher levels of homophobia, highlighting a remarkable association between dysfunctional aspects of personality and homophobic attitudes. This association could generate two possible victims: potential sexual offenders, and above all, homosexual subjects. Moreover, our study follows a controversial issue regarding homophobia as a possible mental disorder, and it also discusses the possible clinical implications that cross inevitably into the area of psychiatric epistemology. Therefore, to know and to assess the relationship between psychopathology and homophobia is a fundamental challenge in preventing the stigma toward homosexuality.
(emphasis added)

The authors did note some of the limitations of their study, including:

  • the lack of analysis of sociodemographic characteristics, such as gender, political orientation, religion, nationality, and age, which can also condition homophobia; and
  • the fact the recruited sample was composed of young university students only.

It’s also important to note the result of any study that relies on surveys is subject to how the participants answered, keeping in mind their answers may not always perfectly reflect how they feel. For example, the outcome of such a study could potentially be skewed by sample subjects who are particularly vocal about their homophobia.

This is a controversial development considering homosexuality itself was considered a mental illness until 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.

Our understanding of human psychology, and sexuality, had advanced by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years.

In June the APA welcomed the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States legalising marriage equality, referring to its 2013 Position Statement on Issues Related to Homosexuality:

While recognizing that the scientific understanding is incomplete and often distorted because of societal stigma, the American Psychiatric Association holds the following positions regarding same-sex attraction and associated issues. It is the American Psychiatric Association’s position that same-sex attraction, whether expressed in action, fantasy, or identity, implies no impairment per se in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities.

The American Psychiatric Association believes that the causes of sexual orientation (whether homosexual or heterosexual) are not known at this time and likely are multifactorial including biological and behavioral roots which may vary between different individuals and may even vary over time.

The American Psychiatric Association does not believe that same-sex orientation should or needs to be changed, and efforts to do so represent a significant risk of harm by subjecting individuals to forms of treatment which have not been scientifically validated and by undermining self-esteem when sexual orientation fails to change. No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.

The American Psychiatric Association opposes discrimination against individuals with same-sex attraction whether it be in education, employment, military service, immigration and naturalization status, housing, income, government services, retirement benefits, ability to inherit property, rights of survivorship, spousal rights, family status, and access to health services.

The American Psychiatric Association recognizes that such discriminations, as well as societal, religious, and family stigma, may adversely affect the mental health of individuals with same-sex attraction necessitating intervention by mental health professionals, for which, the American Psychiatric Association supports the provision of adequate mental health resources to provide that intervention.

The American Psychiatric Association supports same-sex marriage as being advantageous to the mental health of same-sex couples and supports legal recognition of the right for same-sex couples to marry, adopt and co-parent.

While the study highlights fascinating issues, and appears to confirm the life-experience of many LGBTI people, it is the first of its kind. More research is needed in this area of human psychology before firm conclusions can be drawn on the true nature of homophobia, and the best methods of its reduction and, hopefully, elimination.

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