updated: 20 August 2003
The origins of homophobia
Homosexuality is just one of many variable traits among humans. People vary in height, skin colour, musical talent, food preferences and religious beliefs. Most differences are not made into issues. Where they are, e.g. race, religion or gender, we donít usually consider the trait itself, but the hostility to it, as the issue.
Race is not the issue, racism is. Peopleís differing faiths are seldom the issue -- we treat that as a matter of private belief -- but religious intolerance is the social issue before us. We understand that to be female is not in itself the issue, but sexism is.
With sexual orientation, people tend to focus on homosexuality as the issue, when by the same principle as the above examples, it should be homophobia that should be the real issue. Here, homophobia is loosely defined as negative attitudes towards and intolerance of homosexual persons.
Some may argue that homosexuality is unique in that there are moral constructions against it. But moral constructions are merely the rationalisations for underlying homophobic attitudes, just as once upon a time, moral constructions were used to justify slavery or to subordinate women (and are still used today).
Here are a few URLs which provide insight into the psychology of homophobia, accompanied by a summary of their contents:
This webpage from the Public Broadcasting Service of the USA leads into a collection of articles examining various aspects of homophobia.
Professor Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, a psychotherapist, makes the point that homophobia is quite unique among other kinds of hatreds in that it starts off as a hatred of certain acts, which is then extended to a class of people. Other hatreds, e.g. antipathy to blacks or women, are expressed in terms of general categories. She suggests that homophobes hate acts that they themselves can and usually do engage in, so, to repudiate these acts they must assign them clearly to another category of people. The category is all that stands between them and those acts.
She notes that when the differences between themselves and certain types of homosexuals are clear, homophobes are less strident about categories. They can go to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and enjoy being photographed with the drag queens. (In the Asian context, think about how many tour groups happily watch transvestite shows in Thailand). But when homosexuals are too close to home -- when they hold hands or kiss in public like heterosexuals -- the line of difference, the categorization, is threatened and homophobes are enraged.
Male prejudice against gay males is a form of sexism. It is part of male denigration of femaleness. The psychoanalyst Richard Isay has argued that fear of homosexuality per se is secondary in homophobic men to their fear and hatred of what they perceive as feminine in other men and in themselves.
For this reason, men are not generally prejudiced against lesbians, who present no threat to their masculinity. However, some men view butch lesbians as competitors for the attention of women, and see in femme lesbians a spurning of men. Sometimes we see the reaction where the men say, letís show them what real love is -- and from here, itís a short hop to sexual assault.
Women can have a fear of being approached or even raped by a butch lesbian while they react to a femme with what might be called an anxiety of similarity -- "she is just like me, so I could be a lesbian like her."
Researchers using questionnaires and interviews have developed a profile of the homophobic person. He or she is authoritarian, status conscious, intolerant of ambiguity, and both cognitively and sexually rigid. But the homophobes thus profiled are motivated less by conventional sexual morality than by a desire to preserve a double standard between the sexes, that is, to preserve traditional-- traditionally sexist--masculine and feminine gender roles.
Some researchers have postulated that homosexuality is an anxiety-based phenomenon. Psychoanalytic theories suggest that homophobia is a result of repressed homosexual urges. Anxiety about homosexuality typically does not occur in individuals who are same-sex oriented. Instead, it usually involves individuals who are ostensibly heterosexual but have difficulty integrating their homosexual feelings or activity.
Henry Adams led a groundbreaking research project in 1996 to test the above theory. See the summary by Charlene Muehlenhard, PhD.
In brief, Adams et al studied 64 white heterosexual men. Through an attitudes questionnaire, they were divided into two groups: 35 were classified homophobic and 29 non-homophobic. Then the participants put on penile gauges and watched videos of heterosexual sex, male-male acts and lesbian acts (This was included because heterosexual men find lesbian sex highly arousing, while homosexual men are unaffected by it. Itís a very useful differentiator, ensuring that no homosexual men were mixed in the study group).
While watching the male-male porn, the homophobic group showed a greater degree of sexual arousal than the non-homophobic group.
The results lend support to the theory of homophobia as repressed homosexual desires. However, other explanations are possible and further research is needed.
From her research, Karen Franklin outlines some motivations for gay-bashing:
The most common reason, she found, was peer dynamics, where people in groups often commit an act to prove oneís masculinity, or just to not back down and let one's peers down.
There could also be an ideological motive, either religious or moral, or some kind of disgust for homosexuality.
Thereís also thrill-seeking, which is more about going out and having a good time at somebody else's expense. This motivation is often seen in young people who feel socially alienated or powerless in their lives. And gay persons are socially acceptable targets because discrimination against gays is still legalized and encoded. There is a cultural backdrop that says it is permissible to verbally or physically assault gay persons.
Then there is also perceived self-defence. This is very complex, as it first springs from stereotype of gay persons, men particularly, as sexual predators. Primed by stereotype, the assailants misread body language and other signals from the gay person and respond aggressively even when objectively, itís unwarranted.
People who subscribe to rigid gender norms Ė how men are supposed to behave and how women are to behave Ė often see gay people as transgressors. Once seen in such light, they become justifiable targets for bullying and assault. Some people then take it upon themselves to be defenders of gender norms for various reasons, even to make up for their own personal inadequacies in meeting cultural standards of masculinity.
The internalization of masculine subjectivities begins as early as preschool, when parents and teachers react more negatively to sex role deviations among boys than among girls, and continues throughout adulthood. The peer group initiations of adolescence are particularly central in boys' incorporation of misogyny and heterosexism as essential components of masculine identity.
Leela Grace conducted a qualitative study in her college of how attitudes towards homosexuals are formed. From the completed questionnaires, she grouped her respondents into 4 categories: (1) non-accepting, (2) negative with some acceptance, (3) accepting with reservations, or (4) accepting, and searched for patterns in their expressed reasoning.
The non-accepting group generally demonstrated almost complete intolerance of homosexuality and tended to base their beliefs on religion (specifically the Bible). In addition, most had barely even spoken face to face with anyone who was gay. Sometimes the respondents admitted that their beliefs had kept them at a distance from anyone who was gay.
Grace concludes that first of all, the person learns to believe that homosexuality is bad and sinful. This belief makes them afraid and keeps them from becoming more informed on the subject. They avoid all people and information relating to the subject for fear of being identified as or with a homosexual. Thus, their beliefs are self-reinforcing as there is never a chance for them to discover a new way of looking at the subject or the people.
The second group -- Ďnegative with some acceptanceí -- seemed to have negative beliefs which, for various reasons, had been tempered somewhat, or which they tried to conceal in interpersonal interactions. They made statements such as: "I condemn the act but the people, I do not," and "I donít mind them as long as they donít put their sexuality on me."
This group learnt their beliefs either from upbringing or religion, or both, but had tempered it through some sort of interaction with people who are gay. Their beliefs still kept them somewhat at a distance from close interactions, but they also seemed to be more open-minded and self-reflective, and able to see the person beyond the orientation.
The third group -- Ďaccepting with reservationsí -- tended to hold a generally positive, accepting attitude towards homosexuality, but expressed some hesitancy to approve of it completely, or made statements indicating underlying homophobia.
Respondents made statements such as
"I personally donít agree with it, but I donít think I have the right to make their decisions on how they should feel."
"If I am around lesbians that is ok, but when around gay men, that kind of makes me uneasy."
"I am okay with it but I really donít like seeing it."
The majority of the respondents in this group had a close friend or family member who was gay or bisexual. Although there was a feeling of unease, they seemed to have moved further to seeing the person and not just the sexual orientation.
Grace found that the respondents who were Ďacceptingí were predominantly female. The members of this group tended to make very strong positive statements of belief, often speaking of such things as individual choice, non-judgement, freedom from discrimination, and the right to strive for happiness. Many also expressed their belief that homosexuality was something people were born with and therefore should not be questioned.
The vast majority stated that they had learned their beliefs by being taught to be respectful, non-judgmental, and open-minded by their families, and most of them had close friends or relatives who were gay.
In conclusion, Grace said her study showed the powerful impact of how children were taught. Those who were taught to believe in the evil nature of homosexuality continue to condemn and fear, and few were able to break from their binding beliefs to find out more for themselves. Those who were taught to be open-minded and respectful discovered the joys of diversity and were able to look beyond appearance, or sexual orientation, and discover the person beneath.
She added that this research also showed the incredible transformative power of friendship and person-to-person interaction.