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Psychologist Urges Caution In Speculation About Orlando Gunman's Sexuality

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Investigators here in Orlando are pursuing reports that the shooter at Pulse nightclub used gay dating apps and had been seen at the club several times before. And so a familiar narrative returns - speculation that the shooter could have been motivated by self-hatred as a closeted gay man. Gregory Herek urges caution. He is a professor of psychology at UC Davis and has written extensively about prejudice against gay men and others. Welcome to the program.

GREGORY HEREK: Hello. It's good to be here.

SHAPIRO: When you first heard these reports that the shooter may have been using a gay dating gap called Jack'd in coming to the club, what first went through your head?

HEREK: Well, my first thought was wondering if, in fact, those reports were substantiated. I'm not sure, even now, to what extent they have been. But then I had a thought similar to what you just described - that this a familiar narrative. People seem to want to take this narrative away from instances of anti-gay violence and anti-gay prejudice, but it's really not a very useful way of trying to understand those acts.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say it's common that people associate this narrative with acts of anti-gay violence and prejudice? What do you mean by that?

HEREK: Well, the idea of these repressed homosexual urges and personal conflicts about sexuality probably goes back to psychoanalytic theory. And it's made its way into popular culture, so that people often make these assumptions. What it ignores, though, is that even today, homosexuality is still very stigmatized American society. And everyone grows up learning about that stigma and internalizing it, regardless of their own sexual orientation.

SHAPIRO: So what does the research show about the connection between repressed sexuality and homophobia or anti-gay acts?

HEREK: There isn't a great deal of research. There's a lot of speculation. But certainly there's as much research suggesting that there is not some sort of underlying same-sex attraction associated with strong anti-gay attitudes as suggesting that there is.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying - I think a lot of people may have heard this idea that the most anti-gay people are themselves repressed homosexuals. Are you saying that's got no founding in science?

HEREK: I'm saying that that has happened, but, yeah, we don't have support to say that that's typically the case. And, in fact, we have much more evidence for saying that it's not.

SHAPIRO: Whether or not the killer a Pulse nightclub used gay dating apps or went to gay clubs, there are lots of old films and plays and other characters where, you know, the evil villain is a tortured gay man.

HEREK: Right.

SHAPIRO: Why is this such a pervasive theme, if it isn't, in fact, supported by the facts?

HEREK: Until 1973, homosexuality was officially classified as a mental illness. And so portrayals of people who are homosexual typically hewed to that line and portrayed people as being mentally ill, being sick - and not only being sick, but also being evil, being criminals, having all of these other negative attributes.

SHAPIRO: I think at this point everybody understands that homosexuality is not a mental illness. But is there a reason to believe that intense homophobia, stigma, being told evil that you're and wrong and you don't deserve to exist and you have to change could drive a person to be mentally ill or to commit atrocious acts?

HEREK: Well, it is the case that many people, as they recognize their own same-sex attractions - that they have to unlearn all of the things that they've learned throughout their life about homosexuality being so evil and bad and undesirable. And they also have to learn how not to apply those attitudes to themselves and to develop a sense of positive identity. That is a process that people have to go through.

The vast majority of people who identify as gay or lesbian or bisexual go through that process successfully. There are people who have more trouble with the process. And harboring those negative societal attitudes, buying into the culture's stigma and directing those negative feelings toward oneself are known to be associated with low self-esteem, depression and other types of psychological distress.

SHAPIRO: That's professor psychology Gregory Herek, psychology professor at UC Davis who's done a lot of research and writing on sexual orientation and prejudice. Thanks for joining us.

HEREK: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.