Though homophobia is not itself a mental illness, a new study finds that people who are prejudiced against gays and lesbians often do have mental disorders. But it's unclear what we're supposed to do with this insight.
BERLIN — Having a general antipathy towards homosexuals is often linked to a mental disorder. Psychotic symptoms such as alienation and an irrational imagination are most likely to come with a general homophobic attitude. These are the findings of a study conducted by several Italian universities, which has been published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
People with immature defense mechanisms, meaning they haven't learned how to solve problems like adults, are more prone to negative feelings towards gay people than steady personalities.
The same phenomenon has been observed with people who have experienced some sort of insecure or fearful attachment behavior. "This may lead to mistrust and anxiety towards other people, or even fear of homosexuals," explains Emmanuele Jannini, a professor of sexual medicine in Rome.
Researchers have analyzed what psychological problems most often arise in combination with an animosity towards homosexuals. Further, they discovered that depressive and neurotic people are less likely to develop a negative attitude towards same-sex love.
Researchers see an enormous need for further explanation about the connection between mental illness and homophobia. They hope for a new approach in fighting it. "These are important aspects for successful prevention work," the researchers findings read.
But there are some critical voices too. Other researchers warn of linking homophobia to mental illness, fearing that homophobia itself would begin being considered an illness. Homophobia is not an anxiety disorder, clinically speaking, even if the word "phobia" suggests it. Instead, it is considered to be a "group-focused enmity" just like racism, sexism or xenophobia.
Taking mental problems into consideration can only be part of the solution, says Volker Heins, professor at the Cultural Science Institute in Essen. "Anything else would mean that those people could actually be treated or simply given some medicine," when instead we need to be dealing politically with homophobia, he says.
Heins supposes that "tremendous cultural processes" create a climate of hostility towards homosexuals. This has further been confirmed by a video filmed in Moscow capturing how activists portraying a young homosexual couple were harassed in public. Heins claims that the demonization of a certain sexual orientation often happens based on politic ideology.
Social psychologist Ulrich Klocke joins Heins in refusing to "pathologize" people who judge same-sex love. "The problem would only be shifted on to a group of people we feel disconnected from," the researcher says.
It seems comprehensible that people with mental illness may feel persecuted and therefore hostile to certain groups of people such as homosexuals. But the main reason for homophobia is something else entirely. "It is linked to a lack of communication and ignorance," Klocke explains. Moreover, it often comes with a rigid conception of gender roles and religious fundamentalism.
In Europe, tolerance towards homosexuals varies significantly from one country to another. An American study has shown that liberal countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands are considerably more tolerant than the countries of the former Soviet Union.
The Netherlands count only 2.2% of their population as homophobic and 7% for Denmark. Germany clearly drops away in the European comparison, as 26.6% manifest a homophobic attitude. In Russia, the number is a staggering 78%, but it's even higher in Romania (86%) and Latvia (87.5%).