George Weinberg, in Society and the Healthy Homosexual of 1972, coined the term homophobia to refer to the psychological fear of homosexuals and homosexuality. That definition, however, is limited in its focus, as it neglects wider structural sources behind the taboo of same-sex sexual relationships and the negative attitudes and intolerance shown toward any gender or sexual nonconformity in society. Additionally, this concept should also include internal manifestations of self-hatred in GLBTIQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, or questioning) individuals because of the stigma associated with their sexuality or gendered orientation.
Newer terms, such as heterosexual hegemony, come across as better expressions to describe an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community. At issue is sexual prejudice, the negative attitudes based on sexual orientation, whether the target is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual (e.g., “fag” discourse among boys). Unlike homophobia, it conveys no a priori assumptions about the origins, dynamics, and underlying motivations of anti-gay attitudes. Also, using the construct of sexual prejudice does not require value judgments that anti-gay attitudes are inherently irrational or evil.
Homophobia includes bias against family forms that do not conform to heteronormativity. One cited example of such bias was the threat by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to stop federal funding of a PBS kids’ show, Postcards From Buster, because of a controversial episode. The airing of the 2005 “Sugartime!” episode (also called “Sugarland”) was halted because it featured a lesbian couple and their family on a maple sugar tree farm in Vermont. The show is about a cartoon character, Buster, who encounters real-life diverse families, as representative of different regions, religions, and racial/ethnic groups across the United States. The bias in U.S. society against same-sex marriage is also a form of homophobia, particularly with the “defense of marriage” policy arguments that these types of families will lead to the destruction of society.
Other structural examples of homophobia exist in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies used by the military to ban homosexuality; widespread lack of legal protection from anti-gay discrimination and hostility toward individuals and their families in employment, adoption, custody, health care, housing, and other services; the differential treatment of homosexual and bisexual people with HIV or AIDS; and the existence of sodomy laws in more than one third of U.S. states. Extreme forms of homophobia can also be found in hate crimes and anti-gay violence, such as the murders of Matthew Shepard and Billy Ray Gaither because of their sexual orientation.
Complicating any charges or discussion of homophobia is the fact that some people believe homosexual behavior is a sin. Believing that is not necessarily homophobic, but it often gets charged as such when a minority person’s reaction might be that of sensitivity toward a perceived prejudice. It is a difficult issue we face as a society, as some people are unwilling to approve of a lifestyle or orientation that they do not believe in or understand, but that does not make them homophobic. However, there is a difference between remaining true to one’s moral values and attempting to impose one’s values or judgments upon others.
Homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1973. However, many still uphold sexual conversion therapy (aka sexual reorientation) as a cure for what is still perceived to be an identity disorder characterized by distress over one’s sexual or gender orientation or from outside pressure from society or family to change. Research shows that homosexual and bisexual men and women are at a higher risk for mental health problems because of the stigma and stress that they face. Suicide rates among gay or questioning teens remain at relatively high levels in comparison with their peers.
Advocates insist that a real need exists to change the way in which society frames sexuality and gender orientations, as there is much misunderstanding over “nature versus nurture” in sexual orientation (e.g., Do gay parents affect their child’s well-being?) as well as misconceptions about sexuality (e.g., Is there a link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse?). Some suggestions for eradicating sexual stigma and prejudice include education; getting to know gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and their families (e.g., through the organization PFLAG [Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]) by listening to their coming-out stories and experiences; and developing an “allies” support network among heterosexuals for GLBTIQ communities.
- Adam, Barry D. 1998. “Theorizing Homophobia.” Sexualities 1(4);387-K)4.
- “Assault on Gay America; The Life and Death of Billy Jack Gaither.” 2000. Frontline Video Archives. Retrieved March 29, 2017 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/billyjack/).
- Blumenfield, Warren J., ed. 1992. Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price. Boston; Beacon Press.
- Fone, Byrne. 2000. Homophobia: A History. New York; Picador.
- Herdt, Gilbert and Terry S. Stein, eds. 2004. “Homophobia and Sexual Prejudice.” Special Issue of Sexuality Research and Social Policy1(2).
- Herek, Gregory M. “Beyond Homophobia” Blog. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.beyondhomophobia.com/blog/).
- Sears, James T. and William L. Williams, eds. 1997. Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: Strategies That Work. New York; Columbia University Press.
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