The myth of the violent, self-hating gay homophobe

Science of Us
By Cari Romm
June 16, 2016

In the three days since 29-year-old security guard Omar Mateen killed 49 people at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, reports have begun to emerge that the shooter may have been gay himself. The FBI is now investigating whether he had accounts on Grindr or other gay dating apps, and whether he patronized Pulse in the past, as some have claimed.

Several news outlets, meanwhile, have reported on the possibility that Mateen was driven to violence by his own self-hatred. (“It’s far too early to be definitive,” one law-enforcement official told Reuters, “but we have to consider at least the possibility that he might have sought martyrdom partly to gain absolution for what he believed were his grave sins.”) It’s a notion that one study, at least, seems to support: A buzzy piece of research from 2012 has suggested that homophobia is often the result of a person reacting to their own same-sex attraction. “In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves,” one of the study co-authors said in a statement at the time, “and they are turning this internal conflict outward.”

But overall, the research tends to support the opposite idea. Psychologists have a term for when gay, lesbian, and bisexual people absorb negative ideas about their sexual orientations: It’s called internalized homophobia, and there are a few important things that research has shown about how it works. First, it can cause a raft of mental-health issues, including depression, suicidal tendencies, and problems forming stable relationships. And second, although we don’t know what drove Mateen to do what he did early Sunday morning, we do know that internalized homophobia almost never manifests itself as violence — more often than not, people suffering from internalized homophobia focus their negative feelings inward. An “internal conflict turned outward,” to borrow the phrasing, is far outside the norm.

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