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.
“I think one of the favored explanations — because it’s a good story, a good narrative — is the Freudian idea that a person is sexually repressed and has unconscious feelings that they don’t understand or maybe aren’t even aware of, but it leads them to engage in these hostile interactions towards people who are gay,” says Greg Herek, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who’s published several studies on anti-gay prejudice. “That probably happens, but it seems to be very much not the way that prejudice gets expressed in most cases.”
Herek prefers to use the term “internalized sexual stigma,” which he believes better captures the widespread nature of anti-gay beliefs — people of all sexualities, he explains, exist in “a cultural backdrop in which homosexuality is stigmatized.” And in many cases, when people grow up in more religious or socially conservative environments, that stigma is repeatedly socially reinforced: “It’s very functional for people to [show anti-gay prejudice] because they get rewards from their social circle, their family, their friends, their religious group, whatever.” (It bears noting that Mateen’s father has made anti-gay comments in the aftermath of the shooting, declaring that “God will punish those involved in homosexuality.”)
“Regardless of sexual orientation, everyone inevitably internalizes at least some of that stigma — they learn these stereotypes, they learn these negative associations,” he says, and only some people come to unlearn them over time. “The same thing happens with race and other groups where there’s some type of stigma out there in the culture. We learn this stuff. It’s like the air we breathe, really hard to escape.”
“It’s kind of a cliché to say people who are strongly prejudiced against sexual minorities are themselves gay or lesbian,” he adds. “That’s not the common story — for most people it comes from learning those cultural attitudes, not from their own sexuality.”
And those cultural attitudes can manifest in damaging ways. Internalized homophobia has been linked to depression, loneliness, a sense of helplessness about the future, and increased risk of suicide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with high levels of internalized homophobia often have problems sustaining healthy romantic relationships (even, past research has shown, when they report feeling connected to the LGBT community) — they’re less likely to be in relationships, and when they are, those relationships tend to be shorter and more strained. They’re also less motivated to resolve relationship conflicts, and more likely to have sex-related anxiety. Internalized homophobia can also spill over into other types of emotional intimacy, negatively affecting relationships with friends and family members.
But these findings apply specifically to people who already identify as gay, meaning there’s a glaring blind spot in what the research shows about internalized homophobia: Specifically, it’s nearly impossible to study in people who haven’t come out or are in denial about their sexuality, says psychologist Ilan Meyer, who has published several studies on the subject. “The questions usually have to do with how you think about being gay, how well you accept yourself as a gay person,” says Meyer, a researcher at the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, focused on gender- and sexuality-related public policy. “If you say, ‘Well, I’m not gay,’ it would be hard to assess that.”
Herek, meanwhile, cautions against pointing to Grindr use and Pulse attendance as evidence that Mateen himself was gay, even if those pieces of information bear out as true. “There may be other things that explain that, including the possibility that even if he were curious about same-sex behavior or attraction, that wouldn’t necessarily mean he’s gay,” he says. “It’s helpful to make a distinction between people’s behaviors and actions and their identities.” And Mateen’s seuxal identity, whatever it was, may not offer much clarity as to his motives.