closetIn one of the latest episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” a character named Mac finally reveals that he is gay after 11 seasons of being in the closet. A running joke throughout the show was that Mac has always been secretly gay, despite being outwardly homophobic. Because of his strict Catholic upbringing, Mac has shown plenty of hostility toward gays and lesbians in many different ways, such as fighting gay marriage or giving a five-hour sermon on the evils of homosexuality. When he finally reveals that he’s gay, the rest of the gang simply exclaims that they already knew.

The trope of the homophobic character who is secretly gay isn’t exactly new. It’s been used several times before in television shows such as “Glee” and films such as “American Beauty.” In all these situations, a character is outwardly homophobic and may even bully gay characters. Later it is revealed that this character is secretly gay and his or her homophobia was likely a means of dealing with repressed feelings.

This is also true in real life. The most obvious example is the evangelical Christian pastor Ted Haggard, who preached about the immorality of homosexuality before being caught with a male prostitute. There are plenty of other stories about anti-gay activists who ended up being gay or bisexual. But is this a common occurrence?

One study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that participants who display negative attitudes toward homosexuality or homosexual individuals also reported being aroused by male homoerotic stimuli. However, one explanation is that homophobic men may experience anxiety when viewing homoerotic stimuli and that anxiety can increase someone’s level of arousal.

A much more in-depth series of studies was published in the Journal of Personality and Psychology where researchers looked at the discrepancies between participants’ implicit and explicit sexual preferences. The first study had participants group words such as “gay” and “straight” into categories such as “me” and “others” while being shown pictures of gay and straight couples. This was meant to test each person’s implicit sexual orientation. Someone might claim to be straight, but if they had a slow reaction time when grouping “me” and “straight,” it could be likely that the person could be gay. Other tests had participants choosing between pictures of gay and straight couples, filling out questionnaires about their lifestyles and family, and writing down words that they associated with other words.

The study found that those who had grown up in an accepting household were more in touch with their implicit sexuality. On the other hand, those who grew up in a controlling household were more out of touch with their implicit sexuality and more likely to support anti-gay policies, even if they secretly reported homosexual preferences.

It does make sense that someone who is homosexual would have a much harder time being open about their sexuality if their family or others that they know are intolerant of such a lifestyle. While attitudes towards LGBT+ individuals have become more progressive over the years, there is still much more work to do. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2015, 55 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage and 39 percent oppose it. In 2001, the numbers were very different: Only 35 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage and 57 percent opposed it.

Homophobia seems to be least common among younger and more well-educated people. Millennials, those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, support same-sex marriage more than any other age group. While discrimination is still a problem, it should diminish with time.

Closet image via Shutterstock.