Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to catch an NPR interview with Chris Colfer, the young (only 21!) actor who plays Kurt Hummel on the TV show Glee. He’s disgustingly talented and engaging; besides his TV role, he’s written and is starring in a new movie, Struck by Lightning, has a deal to write two books for young adults, and was one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2011.
In the interview, he talked about the gay character he plays on the show and about being gay himself, including how he suffered so much at the hands of bullies in junior high that his parents home-schooled him for a year and a half. As I listened to him, I thought about a new study I’d just read about—one that found that virulent homophobes are themselves often gay.
In the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and involving nearly 800 college students in the U.S. and Germany, researchers asked participants to rate themselves from one to 10 on a scale of gay to straight, then showed them a series of images (pictures of gay and straight couples) and words (like “gay” and “straight”) and told them to sort the images into either of two categories—gay or straight. Unbeknownst to participants, researchers flashed subliminal messages between the images: the word “me” or the word “other.” Because of a process known as “semantic association,” we’re able to sort the images into proper categories faster when we self-identify with the word that precedes them. In other words, if I’m straight and I subliminally receive the “me” before a photo of a straight couple, I’ll choose its proper category faster than if I see the word “me” before a photo of a gay couple.
The researchers were able to identify a group of subjects who, though self-identifying as strongly heterosexual, nonetheless showed a same-sex attraction in the way they processed the images—20 percent of the total “highly straight” self-identifiers. And, fascinatingly, this group was more likely than other participants to favor strong anti-gay policies, to want to punish criminals more harshly if they were gay, and to be more hostile to gays. As two of the researchers wrote in a New York Times blog post, their study “suggests that some who oppose homosexuality do tacitly harbor same-sex attraction.”
Chris Colfer says his parents were loving and accepting toward him all his life. No doubt that helped him focus and expand his prodigious talents. The researchers discovered that young people whose parents were supportive were less likely to deny their true sexual orientation or to be homophobic, while those whose parents were controlling and bigoted were far more likely to say they were straight but show same-sex attraction.
It’s something we’ve seen play out over and over again in the news: Some man of God who crusades against “sinful” gay sex winds up getting caught with his pants down. But it’s nice to see scientific confirmation of what one suspected all along. And maybe this news will help shut up people who make life miserable for kids like Chris Colfer. Think about it: One in five of the people you know who hate gays most are likely gay themselves. Now, legislators, who wanted to sponsor that bill banning same-sex marriage?