Michele Bachmann’s Homophobia: Is it Reaction Formation?Posted: June 19, 2011
A couple of days ago, I read a fascinating piece about Michele Bachmann by The Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It’s a real eye-opener, and the information in it spurred me on a voyage of discovery across the internet as I tried to understand what happened to this woman to cause her to embrace her bizarre religious beliefs and her extreme right-wing political ideology. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus primarily on Bachmann’s homophobia.
Goldberg begins her article with a particularly vivid episode from Bachmann’s tenure in the Minnesota state senate:
In April 2005, Pamela Arnold wanted to talk to her state senator, Michele Bachmann, who was then running for Congress. A 46-year-old who worked at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Arnold lived with her partner, the famed Arctic explorer Ann Bancroft, on a farm in Scandia, Minnesota. Bachmann was then leading the fight against gay marriage in the state. She’d recently been in the news for hiding in the bushes to observe a gay rights rally at the Capitol. So when members of the Scandia gay community decided to attend one of Bachmann’s constituent forums, Arnold, wanting to make herself visible to her representative, joined them.
A few dozen people showed up at the town hall for the April 9 event, and Bachmann greeted them warmly. But when, during the question and answer session, the topic turned to gay marriage, Bachmann ended the meeting 20 minutes early and rushed to the bathroom. Hoping to speak to her, Arnold and another middle-aged woman, a former nun, followed her. As Bachmann washed her hands and Arnold looked on, the ex-nun tried to talk to her about theology. Suddenly, after less than a minute, Bachmann let out a shriek. “Help!” she screamed. “Help! I’m being held against my will!”
Arnold, who is just over 5 feet tall, was stunned, and hurried to open the door. Bachmann bolted out and fled, crying, to an SUV outside. Then she called the police, saying, according to the police report, that she was “absolutely terrified and has never been that terrorized before as she had no idea what those two women were going to do to her.” The Washington County attorney, however, declined to press charges, writing in a memo, “It seems clear from the statements given by both women that they simply wanted to discuss certain issues further with Ms. Bachmann.”
Bachmann’s anxiety at being confronted by three lesbians was so extreme that instead of either responding to their questions or politely excusing herself and calmly walking away, she screamed, cried, and called the police!
Now let’s look at the previous episode when Bachmann was photographed hiding behind bushes to covertly watch a gay rights rally. The context was that Bachmann had just left the State Senate after proposing a bill to ban gay marriage in Minnesota.
“The state Senate on Thursday rejected an effort to force a floor vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage as thousands of ban opponents rallied outside the Capitol. Sen. Michele Bachmann, the Stillwater Republican who’s led the push for the ban, said Senate Democrats have denied her repeated efforts to get the bill heard. Senate leaders countered that Bachmann, a candidate for the U.S. House, is flouting Senate rules to advance her own political career. At the same time, about 2,500 gays, lesbians and their supporters attended a rally on the Capitol grounds just a few hundred yards away, organized by OutFront Minnesota.” [Star Tribune]
After the move didn’t pan out, Michele took to hiding in the bushes to watch the queers rally
Another story reports that during the hearing 100 of the rally participants
…filed inside the Capitol building and took their place in the Senate gallery overlooking the proceedings. With a crowd on hand, Bachmann issued a motion to bypass the committee and have the floor vote on the bill right then and there–a highly unusual move in state Senate proceedings. Even more bizarre: While making her case, she addressed not the Senate floor as per protocol, but the gallery above.
In my opinion, these out-of-proportion reactions suggest that Bachmann’s extreme homophobia is a cover for deep fears that she has about herself or people close to her. I believe she is unconsciously engaging in the defense mechanism of reaction formation to deal with this anxiety.
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Freud theorized that the ego unconsciously uses defense mechanisms to protect itself from being overwhelmed by anxiety-producing thoughts, feelings, and situations. This is one of Freud’s ideas that has been supported by extensive empirical research.
Reaction formation is a highly neurotic defense mechanism in which a person appears to others to be “protesting too much”–for example, exaggerating how much she loves or hates something to the point that observers wonder if this behavior is a cover for the opposite feeling.
Everyone uses defense mechanisms; most of the time they are healthy, but they can cause problems. Bachmann’s use of reaction formation seems to me to be pathological. In the first example, Bachmann expresses a fear of homosexuals that is startlingly out of proportion to what actually occurred. In the second example, she shows curiosity and intense interest in the activities of people rallying in favor of gay marriage and looks at members of this group as she proposes an anti-gay bill.
Although the two incidents described above are obvious examples of reaction formation, they are not isolated incidents. Bachmann regularly expresses a stunningly out-of-proportion hatred and fear of homosexuality and homosexuals even when she is speaking in highly structured public settings. Here are a few examples of statements Bachmann has made about homosexuality.
On what will happen if her same-sex marriage ban amendment fails to pass in 2004: “It isn’t that some gay will get some rights. It’s that everyone else in our state will lose rights. For instance, parents will lose the right to protect and direct the upbringing of their children. Because our K-12 public school system, of which ninety per cent of all youth are in the public school system, they will be required to learn that homosexuality is normal, equal and perhaps you should try it. And that will occur immediately, that all schools will begin teaching homosexuality.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, appearing as guest on radio program “Prophetic Views Behind The News”, hosted by Jan Markell, KKMS 980-AM, March 6, 2004.
On the gay community and same-sex marriage: “This is a very serious matter, because it is our children who are the prize for this community, they are specifically targeting our children.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, appearing as guest on radio program “Prophetic Views Behind The News”, hosted by Jan Markell, KKMS 980-AM, March 20, 2004.
“And what a bizarre time we’re in, Jan, when a judge will say to little children that you can’t say the pledge of allegiance, but you must learn that homosexuality is normal and you should try it.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, appearing as guest on radio program “Prophetic Views Behind The News”, hosted by Jan Markell, KKMS 980-AM, March 6, 2004.
Bachmann’s fear and hatred of homosexuality is so intense that it almost suggests an old-fashioned syndrome that has recently been used as a legal defense–“homosexual panic:”
An acute syndrome that comes as a climax of prolonged tension from unconscious homosexual conflicts or sometimes bisexual tendencies.
Is it possible that Michele Bachmann is unconsciously struggling against homosexual feelings? Or could she be struggling to repress fears of someone close to her being gay? Of course I don’t know, and I can’t possibly diagnose Bachmann. But since she is a public figure and a possible candidate for President of the U.S., I do have every right to examine any evidence that she may have serious psychological issues.
In order to discuss my speculations about this, I need to provide some relevant background. I will do that in another post, since this one is already so long. For now I will suggest a few possibilities, which I’ll expand upon in part 2.
First, Bachmann’s father and mother divorced when she was an adolescent. Three years later, her mother married a second time–to a man with five children of his own. One of Michele’s stepsisters, with whom she was very close, is now an out lesbian who has lives with her long-time partner. Could this be a source of Bachmann’s irrational fear of homosexuality?
Second, as I rather broadly hinted in a June 4 post, Michele’s husband, Marcus Bachmann is a “therapist” who has been widely rumored to believe he can “cure” homosexuality. At the same time, Marcus himself is widely rumored to be a closeted gay man. Like Bachmann, he has publicly expressed hostility and disdain toward homosexuals. He is also Michele’s primary adviser. Could Marcus be the source of Michele’s intense anxiety about homosexuality?
Third, via Ripple in Stillwater, the high school young Michele attended appears to have a problem with discrimination against gays and lesbians. The school district was sued for discrimination in January. Did the culture of her high school contribute to Bachmann’s fear of homosexuality?
I’ll expand on these possibilities in my next post. I welcome your reactions as well as any speculations you may have on this.