Many gay, lesbian and transsexual individuals experience harassment and aggression in social groups because of an ingrained homophobia that exists in the general population that makes some members of a group act out against them. The attackers’ profound discomfort can cause them to belittle, bully or even physically abuse the gay person. Although attitudes are changing, homosexuality is still seen as a threat to masculinity and gender roles in the society in some quarters.
The need to define homophobia as a distinct mindset and behavior became necessary as the gay, lesbian and transgender community began to seek equal rights in the 1960s. The work of gay activists caused the public to begin wondering, “What is homophobia?” and “Do I have it?” The term is an amalgam of two words already in use, “homo,” referring to “same sex,” and “phobia,” meaning “an irrational fear of” something. A good understanding of the homophobia meaning gave these activists the ability to hold up a mirror to homophobic reactions. Over time, they were able to present a more favorable picture of the homosexual and transgender lifestyles and gain support for their political efforts.
History of Homophobia
The earliest written proscriptions against homosexuality are found in Jewish Mosaic law. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures tolerated homosexuality as long as the family institution was also preserved. The dawn of Christianity brought rigid rules against homosexual activities and helped to ingrain homophobia in both the religion and the society at large. Disapproval of homosexual activity continued to be part of western culture throughout the centuries and was brought to America with the early Puritans. The Native Americans that the Europeans found in the New World had no fear or aggression against gay, lesbian or transsexual members of their tribes. It is only after the Christian religion was woven into the native cultures that homophobic attitudes became prevalent. Homophobia in America continued throughout its early history until the 1960s, when rigid mores and societal constraints were widely challenged.
Homophobia in Minority Communities
Disapproval of homophobia is often very strong in minority communities. Some of these communities have very deep patriarchal influences in their cultures, and therefore, they find any blurring of gender roles as threatening to the social structure of the group. Latin cultures, in particular, have very strong dictates about “macho” characteristics and the privileges of males in their societies. Black homophobia in the United States has a long history. The reality of black homosexuals having to express their sexuality “on the down low,” is axiomatic of a community that felt gender roles had to be publicly upheld in order to ensure the survival of the community. Interestingly, native cultures on the Africa continent traditionally included a great deal of sexual diversity that only became illegal under colonial rule. Asian cultures take a more generalized approach to its homophobia, insisting that the gay individuals negotiate an exterior traditional Asian family model in public, while maintaining same-sex inclinations in private.
Homophobia in 21st Century America
Some issues such as gay marriage and employment protections for LGBT individuals have gained wide acceptance among the American population. Gay celebrities on TV and in the movies have helped to make homosexuality less threatening to many people.
Sports figures who have “come out” have helped to show that gay, lesbian and transgender individuals are people to be admired and emulated. Homophobia in sports is still evident, with some team members still vocally protesting when an openly gay member joins their team. However, anti homophobia efforts by gay activist groups and the general public are reducing the frequency of these objections. This support for homosexuality shows that the stigma is waning and may soon join other outdated ideas about gender roles.
Homophobia and Young Gays
In many communities, being a gay teen is not an issue. They are accepted as they are, without having to deal with overt acts of homophobia. A growing understanding about homosexuality has helped to foster acceptance of alternative lifestyles. The number of celebrities and public figures who are openly gay shows young people that homosexuality is not a threat to the community and in fact, should be celebrated. However, in smaller communities and small pockets of the broader culture, some males are encouraged to express their masculinity as homophobia. This antagonism may have a religious basis, seeing that homosexual as “sinner,” or as a broader patriarchal power game, with the idea of “acting like a man” in order to uphold the male gender model. Women may also engage in this type of homophobia, insisting that young women “be feminine.” Young transgender people are often singled out for particular harassment. Anyone who does not follow the pre-determined gender roles is met with disapproval and even physical abuse. Fortunately, many young people can be relied upon to help support their gay, lesbian and transgender brethren, reporting these attempts to bully or hurt these individuals.
The term transphobia was coined to parallel the concept of homophobia. The transphobia definition is “intense dislike, fear of or aggression toward transgender or transsexual people.” Some people are extremely threatened by those who do not follow traditional gender roles in their dress and behavior. Interactions with transsexual and transgender individuals make them very uncomfortable. Sometimes, they react to this discomfort with overt acts of hostility and aggression. Many transgender teens are victimized by bullies who harass them in school, in social settings and on social media. Trans teens may also have to deal with radical feminism transphobia, because bullying and aggression against females in the society is also common. Many people who appear to accept homosexuality may continue to have transphobia and may ridicule or act aggressively toward transsexual and transgender individuals. Questioning transphobia openly can help to get these individuals to face their inner conflicts about transgender issues.
Internalized Homophobia & Suicide
Unfortunately, homophobia and transphobia are widespread in the society. Many gays, lesbians and transgender young people live in areas of the country where religious views permeate the culture. They may see and hear negative images about homosexuals and transgenders daily. It is not surprising that these young people begin to internalize this negativity, which can lead to self-hatred and depression. As much as 30 percent of gay, lesbian and transgender young people attempt suicide. This figure is attributed to the constant repetition of negative views about homosexuality and transgender lifestyles. Any young person who is struggling with issues should be encouraged to see an experienced psychology professional who can help them sort out the external and internal components of the identity. The internalized homophobia scale is a test that was designed to help these young people understand how deeply these ideas have been ingrained in them and how to replace these concepts with more positive images. Some of the issues addressed on the questionnaire are:
- I wish I weren’t gay/lesbian/transgender.
- I have tried to stop being attracted to same-sex individuals.
- I feel alienated from myself in regard to my sexuality.
- I feel being gay/lesbian/transgender is one of my shortcomings.
Helping the young person to examine these questions and the values they have internalized into their own thinking can be instrumental in developing a healthier self-concept.
A number of activists and celebrities have spoken on the issue of homophobia and intolerance. These words have inspired and encouraged many in their struggle to change minds and attitudes:
- Rita May Brown: “The only queer people are those who don’t love anybody.”
- Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person for his color, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
- Ellen DeGeneres: “Asking who’s the ‘man’ and who’s the ‘woman’ in a same-sex relationship is like asking which chopstick is the fork.”
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “I would not worship a God who is homophobic… I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven.”
Fighting Homophobia and Transphobia
- Give support to groups like Homophobia Is Gay, an organization that works to implement laws against homophobic bullying in schools and educates teachers and school official about the special problem of bullying of gay young people.
- Write letters to the editor in local newspapers and other media to inform the public about homophobia facts, homophobia statistics and the wealth of homophobia articles on the Internet.
- Join efforts to stop homophobia and the bullying of gay, lesbian and transgender in your local school.
- Organize local efforts for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia to help foster an understanding of gay, lesbian and transgender issues.
- Support gay, lesbian and transgender friends in social situations and on social media to help stop bullying.