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Homophobia is usually defined as the irrational fear and hatred of gay men and lesbians. It combines the words homosexual and phobia; hence it refers to fear or panic regarding people who are sexually attracted to a person of the same sex. Many people contend that the word heterosexism is a more accurate concept, since 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 people are heterosexual and asserts that heterosexuality is normal, natural, and right.
Homophobia is also related to sexism in that the denigration of the feminine is central to both. Males who are even slightly effeminate are seen as traitors to male dominance. Females who do not “stay in their place” are also targets of homophobia. An outspoken woman or a woman who does not accept subordinate status may be lesbian baited—that is, called a lesbian whether or not she is one. The purpose of this is to silence her or to encourage her to change her behavior.
An additional confusion is the erroneous connection between sexual orientation and gender identity. Sexual orientation refers to the object of a person’s romantic or intimate desire. Gender identity is an individual’s sense of being male identified, female identified, neither, or both. A common mistake is to assume every transgendered person is gay and to confuse a gender issue (which is related to sense of self) with sexual orientation (which is related to desire).
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. The expression that’s so gay is also used as an insult. Hence, individuals grow up surrounded by homophobia in schools, in the media, in families, in peer groups, in religious sermons, and in legislation. One of the consequences of this frequent exposure is internalized homophobia, that is, the belief by homosexuals themselves that homosexuality 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.
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, 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 or access to resources that heterosexuals have available to them.
Legal Protection and Hate Crimes
As of January 2008, 13 states and the District of Columbia banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Seven states had legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. There is no federal level anti-discrimination 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 that the individual is a member of. For this reason, taking a stand against hate crimes is important, so as to say that it is not okay to target this group and that it is a serious offense. Of 45 states with hate crime legislation, 12 states and the District of Columbia cover sexual orientation and gender identity, 20 states include sexual orientation, and 13 states include neither sexual orientation and gender identity (as of April 2008).
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to existing hate crimes legislation. It passed the House in 2007, but when introduced into the Senate as an amendment to the Senate Defense Authorization Bill, it was stripped of the gender identity provision. It passed, but 6 weeks later it was dropped. The last federal hate crime act was passed in 1968 and does not include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.
Due to the repression and secrecy of being gay or lesbian many people are closeted, that is, they do not tell others that they are gay or lesbian. This means they cannot live full and free lives and need to pick and choose to whom and when they reveal their sexual orientation. To come out as gay or lesbian entails taking risks of losing friends and family, jobs, and safety. Coming out is a personal decision with political consequences because it brings the person in opposition to a power structure that has placed him or her 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. This may break down stereotypes and myths as others realize gays and lesbians are in every type of group, class, occupation, and so forth.
Advances in Gay and Lesbian Rights
Homosexuality as a mental illness was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. However, there are still some mental health professionals who treat homosexuality as a mental illness. Generally referred to as reparative therapy or conversion therapy, its practitioners believe homosexuality is wrong, is a choice, and is caused by environmental factors. These therapists tend to come out of a religious perspective and usually incorporate prayer and religious worship in the treatment. The American Psychiatric Association opposes reparative therapy, as it can cause serious psychological harm and there is no empirical evidence that the treatment works.
The gay rights movement for equality and social acceptance formally dates back to June 27, 1969, when lesbians, gay men, and gender-variant people stood up to police harassment during a raid at the Stonewall Bar in New York City. There has been a flurry of activism since then, 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, in June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down existing sodomy laws and affirmed the constitutional right to privacy.
Homophobia and heterosexism are hurtful in that they lock people into rigid gender roles and expectations. People are unable to be their authentic selves and contribute their full potential to society. Homophobia silences and stigmatizes people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and nonconforming heterosexuals, because they are different.
- Blumenfeld, W. (Ed.). (1992). Homophobia: How we all pay the price. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.
- Pharr, S. (1988). Homophobia: A weapon of sexism. Little Rock, AR: Chardon.
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