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Inside the Mind of People Who Hate Gays by Karen Franklin

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A forensic psychologist, Karen Franklin's dual interests in psychology and the law brought her to question the roots of anti-gay hate crimes. Her interviews with perpetrators and with San Francisco Bay Area college students provide badly needed empirical data on the nature and extent of negative reactions to gays.

Bias-related violence against homosexuals is believed to be widespread in the United States, with perpetrators typically described by victims as young men in groups who assault targets of convenience . Victim accounts suggest that assailants possess tremendous rage and hatred; indeed, documentation of horrific levels of brutality has led gay activists to characterize the violence as political terrorism aimed at all gay men and lesbians . Other motives for antigay violence suggested in the literature include male bonding, proving heterosexuality, and purging secret homosexual desires . Due to a dearth of empirical research with assailants, motives are largely inferred from victim accounts and a handful of publicized cases. Thus, the goal of the research discussed in this chapter was to investigate assailants' self-described motivations for their assaults. ...

Learning from Andrew, Brian, and Eric

Other than their assaults, Andrew, Brian, and Eric have little in common. They span the spectrum of opinion toward homosexuality and, indeed, contemporary lifestyles more generally. Brian is a young White man with a college education; a self-described liberal, he has gay friends and argues against homophobia with family members. Andrew is an African American man in his mid-30s with a postcollege education who also espouses progressive politics and is "down with gay rights"; he resigned from the military after witnessing a brutal gay bashing by fellow soldiers, but he also expressed personal revulsion for male-male sex acts, saying he would rather "lick my dog's butt" than kiss a man. Eric is an economically and politically marginalized biracial (Native American and White) man who professes hatred of "faggots" and a litany of other groups, including both Jews and "rednecks," but denies committing assaults based on sexuality per se:

Faggots are disgusting. It's sick.... That's why they destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, because all these guys were butt-fucking each other.... But what they do is their business. Some people beat the shit out of people instead of just accepting it. And that's wrong.... I don't like niggers, I don't like faggots, I don't even like too many White people. But I've never assaulted anyone just because they're a fag or a Jew or a Black. ...

Enforcement of Gender Norms

Although their assaults fall within most legal definitions of hate crime, Brian, Andrew, and Eric--like the rest of the informants I interviewed-- all insisted that their assaults were not motivated by hatred of homosexuals. To reconcile the apparent contradiction between the socially normative attitudes often held by assailants and the viciousness and brutality of their behavior toward gay men and lesbians, during the course of my research I came to conceptualize the violence not in terms of individual hatred but as an extreme expression of American cultural stereotypes and expectations regarding male and female behavior.

From this perspective, assaults on homosexuals and other individuals who deviate from sex role norms are viewed as a learned form of social control of deviance rather than a defensive response to personal threat. Thus, heterosexism is not just a personal value system, it is a tool in the maintenance of gender dichotomy. In other words, through heterosexism, any male who refuses to accept the dominant culture's assignment of appropriate masculine behavior is labeled early on as a "sissy" or "fag" and then subjected to bullying. Similarly, any woman who opposes male dominance and control can be labeled a lesbian and attacked. The potential of being ostracized as homosexual, regardless of actual sexual attractions and behaviors, puts pressure on all people to conform to a narrow standard of appropriate gender behavior, thereby maintaining and reinforcing our society's hierarchical gender structure.

Eric exemplifies how heterosexual males, once they have incorporated a heterosexist ideology, appoint themselves as agents for the control of sexual deviance. In describing the three assaults on gay men that he committed while alone, Eric used shorthand explanations that assumed a shared cultural belief that his victims had violated unwritten codes of appropriate behavior and thus deserved punishment. In the first instance, Eric inflicted punishment for the gender-inappropriate act of cross-dressing; the fact that he offered no justification for this assault other than to repeatedly describe his transvestite victim's physical appearance (makeup, female clothing, and long braided hair) suggests that he believed the gender-norm beliefs upon which he acted are universally shared.

In the case of the man who had stolen his cousin's jacket, Eric inflicted punishment primarily for thievery; the man's identity as a "fag" merely provided additional justification for a beating that would have ensued anyway. In Eric's mind, "thief" and "fag" were equivalent concepts, as both entail violations of social norms shared by his peer group and society at large. Finally, in assaulting his relative's gay friend, Eric distinguished his victim's sexual inclinations, which were not problematic, from his refusal to be invisible. Thus, Eric was punishing the man not for homosexual acts but for so-called flaunting, that is, refusal to be shamed of deviance. In each case, Eric was enforcing gender norms that he understood to be mandatory in our culture.

The enforcement of gender norms also explains Brian's calculated assaults on men whom he labeled "weak," and explains why he exhibited only shallow and unconvincing remorse. Indeed, Brian seemed driven by a visceral contempt for men he perceived as lacking in physical strength. More than once during our discussion, he nodded toward certain men walking by--men with slim builds and studious demeanors-- as "pathetic" examples of prime candidates for assault. Brian's scorn was ironic in that he considered himself socially progressive and claimed to despise the fraternity ethos of "tribal," chest-thumping masculinity. Because Brian has a small build and has experienced male rape attempts, one explanation for his revulsion is defensive displacement of weakness. However, contempt for "weak," or insufficiently masculine, men is a central characteristic not just of Brian but of our entire culture. Thus, cultural norms of masculinity help explain Brian's self- righteousness and lack of remorse, despite his professed support for gay rights and social tolerance.

Eric's and Brian's commitment to the enforcement of masculine norms stems from the nature of masculinity as an achieved, rather than ascribed, status. Masculinity and its converse, femininity, are relatively recent constructs of Western culture. Connell (1995) has argued that there is not one but many masculinities within contemporary Western society, with the dominant ideal--or hegemonic masculinity--operating more as a cultural standard than as an achievable status for the majority of men. Although hegemonic masculinity is somewhat elastic--its features change depending upon the labor needs of the state in a particular era--it generally connotes dominance, competitiveness, occupational achievement, and heterosexuality. McCarthy (1994) has traced these role prescriptions to a medieval warrior ethos concerning physical courage, strength, and honor that was repopularized during the 19th century in the service of American and European colonial expansionism.

The internalization of masculine subjectivities begins as early as preschool, when parents and teachers react more negatively to sex role deviations among boys than among girls, and continues throughout adulthood. The peer group initiations of adolescence are particularly central in boys' incorporation of misogyny and heterosexism as essential components of masculine identity. ...

Peer Dynamic

Notably, all three assailants committed assaults either with or in front of friends, pointing to another social dimension of antigay violence. Brian and Eric in particular characterized their actions as assisting their friends. Brian saw himself as helping a friend who needed money and a calling card; Eric saw himself as protecting his young and hotheaded friend Mike. The peer group is especially influential for young men like Eric, who are alienated from institutions of society such as the school, the family, the workplace, religion, and politics. Pinderhughes (1991) has explored how marginalized young males establish their identity and self-worth by proving through toughness and hatred of the appropriate enemies that they are "down with the program".

In youthful peer groups, socially prohibited acts serve several instrumental functions. One of these is the garnering of social status by individuals who are often cut off from other methods of achieving it. A second function is to reduce intragroup competition by displacing it onto an external object--a surrogate victim scapegoated as deserving the abuse. A third function is to increase group solidarity and cohesion; this in turn bolsters interpersonal support in networks typically characterized by low cohesion and stability. Interviewing men convicted of robbery, for example, Cordilia (1986) identified a pattern in which social factors overrode monetary gain as a motive. In this pattern, the robbery was not planned until after the men began drinking together, and the crime served to solidify a disconnected group by providing it with a cooperative enterprise.

The phenomenon of group escalation, in which people engage in more extreme behaviors as part of a crowd than they would if alone, has been extensively documented and has been shown to be particularly powerful among teenagers and young adults. Research into juvenile delinquency has largely adopted this explanation of crime as the outcome of group processes. Individuals may participate in criminal acts without fully intending to do so and without necessarily possessing values that condone crime:

During the course of conversation, or while exchanging banter, someone may jokingly propose doing something delinquent. As the discussion continues, a situation of "pluralistic ignorance' develops in which each person believes that the others are more committed to carrying out the act than they really are. Rationalizing their behavior in various ways, they perform the deed in a state of "shared misunderstanding." (Mawson, 1987, p. 52)

Eric's feeling that he was compelled to join in the altercation once it was underway is thus explained by the dynamics of collective action, in which the group--often under the leadership of its most impulsive member--takes on a life of its own . Even when motives are consciously formulated, in such situations there is often a large gap between the original plan and the extent of actual destruction, with participants later expressing that things went further than they intended. The role of rationalization thus becomes important both to enable collective criminality in the first place and to reduce subsequent guilt. Rationalizations identified by Sykes and Matza (1957) include denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim (e.g., the victim "asked for it"), condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher loyalties. Eric used several of these rationalizations in reframing the incident as self-defense (the man struck him first), claiming he was provoked (by being stared at), condemning his condemners as homosexuals with "special rights," and invoking peer loyalty.

The peer influences described by Eric and Brian are consistent with my survey results, in which peer group dynamics--including the desire to feel closer to friends, to live up to friends' expectations, and to prove both toughness and heterosexuality to friends--were the primary motivation for a distinguishable group of assailants. Peer dynamics was the only motivational factor in my survey that was significantly more endorsed by male than by female assailants, suggesting its particular relevance in male group contexts.

Because it offers direct--rather than secondhand--evidence, group violence against homosexuals is an ideal way for men to demonstrate their masculinity to their peers. Not only is there the stereotype, mentioned by Brian, that homosexual men are unlikely to fight back, but in addition they are fairly easy to locate in urban areas and are less likely than others to report assaults to police . Thus, in group assaults the homosexual victim can be seen as fundamentally a dramatic prop, a vehicle for a ritualized conquest through which assailants demonstrate their commitment to heterosexual masculinity and male gender norms while simultaneously engaging in homosocial bonding with eachother. ...

Thrill Seeking

For Brian, a primary motive in committing assaults was to "have fun." He and his friends launched their adventures with excited anticipation and high energy. They prepared like athletes before a game, stretching their limbs, rehearsing their moves, avoiding alcohol and drugs. Brian explained:

It wasn't because we had something against gays, but because we could get some money and have some fun. It was a rush. A serious rush. Massive rush. Danger, fight-or-flight syndrome, pumps up the adrenaline. And when we get over on someone, it really heightens the rush.... It was nothing at all against gays. They're just an easy target. Gays have a reputation that they can't fight. It's a stereotype, it's not always true.... Women are easy targets, too, but that's cowardly. That's lame. I've never hit a woman. But if someone's male, and an adult, and the sizes are reasonable, then he's fair game. At least that was my attitude at the time.

This sporting tenor is not unusual. Consider this account by a man who was invited on a gay-hunting expedition at a college party by some young men who did not realize that he himself was openly gay:

Nothing could better illustrate the casualness with which antigay violence is perpetrated than their casual invitation, the absence of . . . hostility or rancor motivating it. It was more like they were bored and looking for something interesting to do, to liven up the evening.... They were inviting me to join them in what was essentially a social activity. Our great grandfathers who grew up in rural areas used to go out and hunt rabbits and squirrels for fun. Nowadays, in urban areas, they hunt gays and Latinos. (Varnell, 1991, p.4)

Factor analysis of survey respondents' motivations identified this thrill-seeking motivation as primary for a distinguishable group of assailants. Thrill seekers included both men and women who assaulted out of boredom, the desire for excitement and fun, and the wish to feel strong. A comparison of the survey accounts of thrill seekers and peer-driven assailants revealed both commonalities and differences. Both types of assailants exhibited only minimal animosity toward homosexuals. However, peer-driven assailants tended to recognize the harm to victims while downplaying their own roles and freedom of choice, whereas thrill seekers typically minimized the impact on victims by depicting incidents as harmless and amusing. This was certainly true of Brian who jokingly described how funny his victims looked as they desperately tried to avoid being beaten and robbed.

The discovery of a distinguishable thrill-seeking motivation for antigay assault concurs with other study findings that alleviation of boredom is the most frequent reason given by teenagers for criminal and rebellious behavior in general and that homosexuals are the most frequent targets of thrill-motivated assaults . But what is at the root of the pervasive boredom and social alienation suggested by this motivation?

Social Powerlessness

In contemporary American society, young people--from the poor to the upper middle classes--are systematically neglected and devalued. Lacking access to meaningful, challenging experiences, and sensing a declining potential for success in today's increasingly service-oriented economy, they are often frustrated, discouraged, and socially alienated . Young White males in particular face the contradiction of being taught to expect hegemonic masculine power while being denied any real access to it. This contradiction fosters "power- seeking, adventurist recreational activities at the expense of others who also lack power within the social order," such as women, racial minorities, and homosexuals. Trapped in a temporal vortex between devalued adolescence and adult male privilege, teenage males are given tacit permission to engage in a certain degree of rowdiness and aggression, under the auspices of "boys will be boys." This is particularly true for young men from more privileged strata, such as the fraternity boys discussed earlier, for whom peer group dynamics and thrill seeking often lead to exaggerated displays of masculinity regarding which society largely looks the other way.

However, if violence becomes a pervasive way of life and endures into adulthood, the scale tilts from socially excused to maladaptive. Eric's aggression, which led to 3 years behind bars and cost him an education, is illustrative of a violent lifestyle that falls outside the ideals of hegemonic masculinity. Describing how he drank and fought his way through adolescence, Eric said, "I used to beat people up, just to beat them up. When I ran out of people I didn't like, l'd beat up people my brother didn't like." Of his assault on the businessman, he commented, "I got satisfaction out of kicking the guy."

Eric's masculinity has the exaggerated quality of masculine protest , in which violence is employed as an overcompensation for perceived weakness. Connell (1995) views this protest masculinity as a social, rather than individual, practice. In what he labels marginalized masculinity, economically and socially disempowered men like Eric "claim the potency that European culture attaches to masculinity" through a facade of power when their actual circumstances provide "no real resources for power". In other words, males who incorporate the gender-norm expectations of hegemonic masculinity yet cannot realize these expectations due to their economic or racial status may act out in extreme manners, often with homosexuals as their targets.

This is by no means to imply that the majority of men from lower-class or racial minority backgrounds respond to poverty and oppression with hypermasculinity and violence, even in the most compelling of peer group situations. In most cases, a predisposition is engendered through childhood socialization involving not only poverty and social oppression but also violent victimization and exposure to violence . Eric, for example, experienced not only childhood violence but also parental abandonment, alcoholism, and death. And when Andrew was a child, his sadistic father routinely beat him with weapons while verbally deriding him. Andrew said it had taken him many years to learn to control the violent impulses engendered by this paternal abuse.

One of the hallmarks of the marginalized masculinity that may develop out of childhood poverty and violence is a preoccupation with a masculine front, or the protection of reputation and pride. Recall Eric's explanation that his relative's gay friend deserved punishment for disrespecting him. And although the businessmen whom Eric and his friends assaulted "didn't even know it was coming," among Eric's peers the assault was far from surprising. For them, the men's eye contact, laughing derision, and profanity were provocative challenges requiring physical response. Indeed, cognitive research has identified sets of norms, rules, and expectations that are shared within subcultures and lead to this type of predictable, even ritualized, social aggression.

Studying a group of economically and socially disenfranchised White youths similar to Eric's peer group, Pinderhughes (1991) found perceived powerlessness and victimization to drive their ritualized social aggression against both homosexuals and African Americans, whom they perceived as "taking over". In these situations, power and violence are in a sense opposites, for "where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears when power is in jeopardy" (Arendt, 1969, p. 56). Thus, whereas violence is often seen as an expression of power, in Eric's case it can be alternatively conceptualized as a response to real or perceived powerlessness, wherein affluent, presumably gay men wearing expensive clothing symbolize undeserved "special rights" for minorities. ...


Analyzing assailants' self-disclosed motivations illustrates how a combination of primarily social factors, rather than a simple and singular psychological element such as hatred or repressed homosexuality, explains antigay violence. The mutually reinforcing melding of hierarchical gender norms, peer dynamics, youthful thrill seeking, and economic and social disempowerment explains how individuals as divergent as Brian, Andrew, and Eric ended up on such parallel missions. In a nation that glorifies violence and abhors sexual diversity, a minority perceived to violate gender norms functions as an ideal dramatic prop for young men to use in demonstrating their masculinity, garnering social approval, and alleviating boredom. This becomes more true as heterosexuality increasingly becomes a primary measure of masculinity and as gay men and lesbians become increasingly visible in the media and popular culture. Furthermore, for members of economically and socially marginalized groups, gay men in particular are ideal targets because of their symbolic identification with upper-class privilege.

The three cases presented in this chapter illustrate how antigay violence can be seen primarily as an extreme manifestation of pervasive cultural norms rather than as a manifestation of individual hatred. This distinction explains why assailants typically express little remorse despite the fact that their expressions of cultural hostility are experienced by gay men and lesbians as vicious terrorism. This distinction is also critical if we hope to reach assailants and potential assailants at the clinical and educational levels, because people who have assaulted homosexuals typically do not recognize themselves in the stereotyped image of the hate-filled extremist.

Excerpted with permission from Unassuming Motivations: Contextualizing the Narratives of Antigay Assailants in Gregory M. Herek, Ed., Stigma and Sexual Orientation: Understanding Prejudice Against Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998), pp. 1-20.

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