Sublimation Is The New Reaction-Formation For Homophobia
Freud argued that all neurotic or psychologically atypical behavior is caused by dissonance. He defined dissonance as when the person one is, is different from the person one feels one should be. He argued that this causes what he called repression; the dissonance is pushed into the unconscious mind, where it is expressed through several defense mechanisms.
One famous example is homophobia; the fear of being homosexual. People who are homophobic are afraid that they are homosexual, and this fear is pushed into the unconscious mind where it manifests through what Freud called reaction formation. The person acts like the opposite of what they fear they really are. In the case of homophobia, the person typically behaves in a hypermasculine way. They try to prove to themselves and others that they are not homosexual through hypermasculinity which often includes misogyny and hypervigilant fear and hate of people with atypical sexuality and gender identity.
There is a very interesting thing happening in our culture today. It’s not new, but it’s more visible than ever and seems to be growing.
Freud argued for another defense mechanism called displacement or sublimation. This is when a person acts on their subconscious fear by using a substitute object and an elaborate excuse or metaphor to explain their behavior in order to make it more acceptable to themselves and to others. This allows them to behave according to their subconscious desires while still officially identifying as the opposite.
In recent years, there has been a huge surge in personal ads, gay dating apps, and in gay culture at large of people who identify as straight and are looking only for transgender people. Scrolling through Grindr at present, I can see dozens of nearby examples. I believe this is a clear example of displacement/sublimation. These people do not outwardly identify as homosexual, but want to act on those subconscious urges. Joining a gay sex app and then adding an all-caps headline to their profile that they are looking for trans people only allows them to dip a toe into their true selves while still identifying as the opposite.
Being a straight guy means being attracted to women. So if a straight guy approaches a trans man, then they are calling that person a woman. This is a very abusive behavior, deliberately misgendering the trans person. If the straight guy approaches a trans woman, this alone is not inherently abusive.
This is probably a very cathartic experience for people who are homophobic, but it is an expression of mental unhealth. It is an expression and extension of a deep problem which is not being addressed and is likely to escalate until actually dealt with.
There is also a long history of “gay panic” where a homophobic person is doing something like this and suddenly has a crisis of identity and decides to injure or murder the other person involved to prove they are not homosexual. This effect can be exacerbated by Post-coital Tristesse where some people feel intense sadness and guilt after sex, leading to unusually intense reactions against their partners. Venus Xtravaganza is a famous example. She was a transgender sex worker who described numerous instances of this happening to her in the documentary Paris is Burning, and she was eventually murdered by a John.
There is also the fact that self-identified straight men have the highest undiagnosed HIV and STI rates of any group, and the poorest attention to sexual health.
There are many examples of ways this phenomena can negatively impact transgender people as well as homophobic people, but it is also possible to imagine scenarios where both groups are empowered and enabled to find that palliative catharsis in the experience.
I interviewed an expert in human trafficking and sexual violence who said that most self-identified males define good sex as sex that ends in them having an orgasm and vice versa for bad sex. This expert also said that most self-identified females define good sex as sex that doesn’t hurt or doesn’t involve physical violence, and vice versa for bad; with neither party making any mention of the female-identified party achieving the orgasm which is assumed for the male-identified party.
There is a clear line between healthy sexual encounters and abusive encounters, and there are many behaviors and actions which are good indicators of future violence and abuse. Power and control dynamics and any physical violence are both excellent indicators of future abuse and violence.
In the words of atheist Elizabeth Gilbert, “[Saint Anthony] said, in his solitude, he sometimes encountered devils who looked like angels, and other times he found angels who looked like devils. When asked how he could tell the difference, the saint said that you can only tell which is which by the way you feel after the creature has left your company.”