Homophobia is defined as the irrational fear and hatred of gay men and lesbians. It combines the words homosexual and phobia, hence the definition related to panic or fear of people who are sexually attracted to a person of the same sex. Many people contend that the word heterosexism is a more accurate concept because fear or panic is not the problem as much as the power and privileging of heterosexual people over gay men, lesbians, and bisexual people. Heterosexism assumes that all people are and should be heterosexual and asserts that heterosexuality is normal, natural, and right. This entry discusses various aspects of homophobia.
Homophobia is intimately related to sexism in that the denigration of the feminine is central to both. According to Suzanne Pharr in her work on homophobia as a weapon of sexism, homophobia works with heterosexism to enforce compulsory heterosexuality and the nuclear family. Political conservatives and religious fundamentalists criticize feminists and homosexuality for undermining the traditional family.
Misogyny, the cultural hatred of women, is expressed through the disempowering and belittling of girls and women and the encouragement of dependence on men. Lesbians are perceived as man-haters and as females who can do without men; therefore, they are outside the natural order. Gay men are viewed as traitors to male privilege and as threats to male dominance and the natural order. Men who are even slightly effeminate and not necessarily gay are suspect.
An outspoken woman or a woman who does not accept subordinate status may be “lesbian-baited”— called a lesbian whether she is one or not. The purpose of this is to silence her or encourage her to change her behavior. As a result of political backlash to gains won by the women’s liberation movement, the label feminist in many circles is mistakenly equated with lesbian, and as a consequence, many women resist the feminist description. To avoid being called a lesbian, some women choose to be reformist rather than radical—in other words, to tone down their lives and views. The only reason lesbian-baiting has the power to control women’s actions is because it carries a negative connotation.
Heterosexism uses homophobia to blame gay men and lesbians for many societal ills. This victim blaming is an essential component of every form of oppression. Power and control apply to the personal categories of sexual orientation where heterosexuality is privileged, but sexual orientation is often confused with gender identity. Sexual orientation refers to the object of a person’s romantic or intimate desire. Gender identity is an individual’s internal sense of whether the individual is male-identified, female-identified, neither, or both. A common mistake is to assume every trans-gender person is gay and to confuse a gender issue (related to sense of self) with a sexual orientation (related to desire).
Gender normativity assumes a gender binary of men and women. Like heterosexism, if a person does not fit into the norm, it is seen as unnatural and wrong. People who are androgynous, masculine women, effeminate men, transgender, or intersex are judged as abnormal. They are outside societal expectations and may be subject to harm. Many hate crimes that are seen as homophobic are really about gender transgression—people are attacked because they violated a gender norm, rather than a sexuality norm, that the attacker(s) found unacceptable. For example, an effeminate man might not be gay but his femininity may anger other men who harm him because they feel his femininity is not manly.
Young children in elementary schools are exposed to societal homophobia on the playground when the words faggot, gay, and dyke are used in a derogatory way to tease and humiliate other kids. Boys are especially vulnerable to this form of social control. The expression “that’s so gay” to mean something is bad is widespread. The anti-gay climate in schools is well-documented in annual reports by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN). Hence, individuals grow up surrounded by homophobia in schools, in the media, in families, in peer groups, in religious sermons, and in legislation, throughout the life course. One of the consequences of this pervasive exposure to negative messages is internalized homophobia—the entrenched belief that it is wrong, perverted, and “less than” to be gay or lesbian.
The suicide rate for young gay people is three times the national rate for teens in general. Low self-esteem, higher rates of alcohol and drug use, and mental health problems are serious problems in the gay and lesbian communities as a result of individuals feeling they need to be secretive about being gay or lesbian or that they are immoral or sick.
Heterosexist prejudice is seen throughout the institutions of society. On the cultural level, traditional gender roles of masculinity and femininity, definition of the family, religious views condemning same-sex sexuality as a sin, lesbian baiting, name calling, and anti-gay jokes all enforce anti-gay prejudice. Lack of civil rights protections in employment and housing, in access to the rights of marriage, and in the military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are institutional-level discriminations. These and other limitations form a constant message that the gay or lesbian person does not deserve the same rights, protections, or access to resources that heterosexuals have available to them. Validation from the culture is absent, and key mechanisms for job enhancement, adoption or foster parenting children, or relationship benefits such as joint insurance or access to your partner in a medical emergency are lacking. These messages reinforce that the gay or lesbian person is a second-class citizen.
As of 2003, 24 states had no antidiscrimination laws that included sexual orientation. Eleven states had some protection for public employees. Ten states include sexual orientation in their antidiscrimination legislation. There is no federal level antidiscrimination protection.
Hate crimes, which are on the increase against gay people and gender-variant folks are “message crimes” in that they go beyond the crime against the person who is targeted to send a message to the group of which the individual is a member. Of 46 states with hate crime legislation, only 27 states and the District of Columbia include sexual orientation.
The Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (LLEEA), introduced into the House of Representatives and the Senate in May 2005, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to existing hate crimes legislation. The last federal hate crime act was passed in 1968 and does not include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. By September 2005, only the House had passed the LLEEA. However, in 2007, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (LLEHCPA), also known as the Matthew Shepard Act (named after the young man who was murdered in 1998 because he was gay in Laramie, Wyoming) was introduced. The proposed federal bill would expand the 1969 U.S. federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The bill passed the House on May 3, 2007, and passed the Senate on September 27, 2007.
Because of the repression and secrecy of being gay or lesbian, many folks are “closeted”; that is, they do not tell others in their lives that they are gay or lesbian. This means they cannot live full and free lives and need to choose to whom and when they reveal their sexual orientation. To come out as gay or lesbian entails taking risks of safety and losing friends, family, and jobs. Coming out is a personal decision with political consequences because it brings the person into opposition with a power structure that has placed her or him in a subordinate position. One strategy of the political movement for gay and lesbian rights is advocating that all gay and lesbian people come out so that others will realize how many gay and lesbian people there really are. This will also help to break down stereotypes and myths as others realize gays and lesbians are in every type of group, class, and occupation. However, until the risks are diminished, coming out is a difficult act for many to take.
Homosexuality as a mental illness was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-II) in 1973. However, there are still therapeutic attempts to treat homosexuality as a mental illness. Generally referred to as “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy,” these therapists believe homosexuality is wrong, is a choice, and is caused by environmental factors. These practitioners tend to come from a religious perspective and usually incorporate prayer and religious worship in the treatment. Scripture reading, group and individual counseling, aversion therapy, and sometimes electroconvulsive shock therapy are other treatments. Most critics view this as a discredited therapeutic model and raise concerns that it can cause serious psychological harm. To date, there is no empirical evidence that these treatments work. The American Psychiatric Association opposes reparative therapy.
The gay rights movement for equality, full legal rights, and social acceptance formally dates back to June 27, 1969, when lesbians, gay men, and gender-variant people stood up to police during a raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. There has since been a flurry of activism ranging from gay pride parades and events to countless educational forums and trainings, national coming out days, marches on Washington, the formation of national organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, lobbying for legislation, efforts toward full acceptance of gays serving in the military, advocacy for full marriage rights and benefits, and more. Lawrence v. Texas was a milestone for gay and lesbian people when the Supreme Court struck down existing sodomy laws, reversed its own 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick, and affirmed the constitutional right to privacy in June 2003.
Homophobia and heterosexism lock people into rigid gender roles and expectations by promoting only one acceptable sexual orientation. Although homophobia may never be eliminated in society, the pressure toward a more equal and accepting society continues.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; Heterosexual Privilege; Sexual Identities and Socialization; Shepard, Matthew
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