Anti-gay youth yell homophobic slurs during the NYC Anti Violence Project (AVP) rally in Queens, New York.

Some homophobic people may be internally conflicted about their own sexuality, research suggests.

Stacy Walsh Rosenstock/Alamy Stock Photo

Why the Orlando shooter fired

Investigators probing the killer behind the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, are finding evidence of an angry young man likely conflicted about his sexuality. A small but growing body of research suggests that some men with strong homophobic attitudes may be gay themselves, and that homophobia itself may signal other mental issues.

Such research could provide much-needed data in an era when gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are the largest target group for hate crimes in the United States, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, and twice as likely as African-Americans to be targets of violence. (A decade ago, Jews were the top targets.)

“We are just at the beginning of serious studies of homophobia,” said endocrinologist Emmanuele Jannini at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, who is also president of the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine.

The murderous rampage at a gay dance club in Orlando on 12 June killed 49 and ended in the shooter’s death by police. Club patrons said that the man, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, frequented the bar. “It doesn't surprise me that he might be gay,” his ex-wife Sitora Yusifiy told CNN. “And it doesn't surprise me that he was leading two totally different lives and was in such deep conflict within himself.”

His father, Seddique Mateen, was adamant in an interview that his son was straight. “Why, if he is gay, would he do this?”

But some conflicted gay men might indeed be homophobic, a scattering of research suggests. Many gay men and women know from experience that the conflict between one’s physical desires and contrary social or religious teachings can be painful. That, in turn, can lead to self-destructive behavior—including illness, drug addiction, and suicide, according to a few studies. And a handful of papers suggest that such internal conflict is linked to externally directed homophobia.

A pioneering 1996 study by University of Georgia psychologists had 64 young men watch gay and straight sex videos and measured arousal with changes in penis size. They concluded that “homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.”

For years, this research drew little follow-up. But in May a paper in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that men with higher levels of homophobia tended to look longer at photographs with homosexual rather than heterosexual content. The researchers, led by psychologist Boris Cheval at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, concluded that some, though not all, men who scored as more homophobic also demonstrated a higher interest in homosexual activities.

Similarly, a 2012 study of 160 U.S. and German college students published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that those who called themselves heterosexual, despite admitting same-sex desires, were more likely to be hostile toward gay individuals that those who did not report such desires. Closeted participants supported harsher punishments for homosexuals and more antigay policies than those who were comfortable in their straight orientation.

“At least some who oppose homosexuality are likely to be individuals struggling against parts of themselves, having themselves been victims of oppression and lack of acceptance,” wrote the psychologists who led the study, Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester in New York and William Ryan at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in The New York Times in April 2012. Homophobic men also tended to come from households in which the parents were more rigid and authoritarian, they found.

News reports note that Mateen grew up in a traditional household with little tolerance for those who are gay. “God himself will punish those involved in homosexuality,” Mateen’s father wrote on Facebook after the shootings. 

Researchers are not arguing that internal conflicts explain all homophobia, because some people may have these attitudes for other reasons, such as religion or culture. And no studies have yet made a direct link between internalized homophobia and violence toward others. But some work does suggest that very homophobic people may have other mental health issues. A study of 551 men aged 18 to 30  published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine last year suggests that high levels of homophobia are tied to other mental health issues, such as fear of close attachment. Using detailed questionnaires and a homophobia scale, researchers including Jannini found that men who ranked as more homophobic also were more prone to hostile and aggressive behaviors. In short, the better a person’s mental health, the less homophobic they tended to be.

Jannini suspects that attitudes toward same-sex desire can be a key to understanding a host of psychological issues, and recommended that researchers focus on how to prevent the development of homophobia. “The real disease to study is homophobia,” he says.

He’s currently exploring how religion affects homophobia in Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims. Preliminary, unpublished results suggest that “personality and the overall culture have a greater impact on homophobic attitudes than religion,” he says. The attack prompted widespread debate about the role of traditional religion in encouraging homophobia, and Jannini hopes that solid science might shed welcome light in the massacre’s dark aftermath.