At some point, you've probably heard a homophobic remark, such as someone saying "That's so gay!" to indicate dislike or disapproval. Often, people dismiss these comments or think they don't really harm anyone. However, these comments and the attitudes that underlie them can actually have a lot of negative consequences for people of all sexual orientations.
The reason people make these remarks is homophobia: the irrational fear of homosexuality that results in prejudice and discrimination towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. In this section, we'll examine the causes of homophobia and a related phenomenon, heterosexism.
Causes of Homophobia
Homophobia is directly related to both power and sexism. Sexism is the belief that men are superior to women, resulting in prejudice and discrimination towards women and femininity. Sexism systematically gives men more power than women.
This is a broad statement, so let's examine how sexism works. Consider two things that are sometimes joked about: men doing housework and women being advanced scientists. The idea of men doing housework is made fun of because housework is considered "women's work," or beneath men. In general, however, men are thought to be capable of doing housework (or capable of learning to do housework).
In contrast, the notion of women being advanced scientists is made fun of because of stereotypes that all women are unable to do advanced science. In general, women are (wrongly) thought to be incapable of being advanced scientists. While there are clear distinctions between advanced science and housework, jokes about these two things follow a clear pattern of sexism: tasks that women usually perform are seen as beneath men, and tasks that men usually perform are seen as above women.
One consequence of this system, besides devaluing women, is creating strict gender roles. Gender roles are the behaviors that society thinks are appropriate for men and women. What's wrong with strict gender roles? In the context of homophobia, strict gender roles devalue homosexuality and bisexuality by saying that it is only appropriate for a woman to be sexually or romantically involved with a man and for a man to be sexually or romantically involved with a woman. This leads to a culture that privileges heterosexuality over homosexuality, a system known as heterosexism.
How is heterosexuality privileged? Consider the following list, containing privileges that heterosexual people have simply by being heterosexual but that are often denied to homosexuals:
- Publicly holding hands or displaying affection with someone you love without fearing for your safety
- Bringing your significant other to a work, school or family gathering without having to worry about losing your job or alienating others
- Being able to marry someone you love
- Having people assume the correct gender of those you might be attracted to, such as by asking if you think someone of the opposite sex is "hot"
- Being considered "normal"
Homophobia affects people of every orientation, but it also has specific consequences for those who are not heterosexual. At school, many non-heterosexual students fear disclosing their sexual orientation. It is less acceptable for these students to date those they are attracted to. This can lead to feelings of isolation or shame, and also to violence against students who are or are believed to be non-heterosexual.
There are also many problems caused by homophobia that affect people of all sexual orientations. It limits everyone's choices for how to express themselves and how to act.
Back to top
Fighting Homophobia: How to Be an Ally
What can you do to reduce the impact of homophobia in your daily life?Here are some tips for being an ally:
- If you hear someone make a homophobic remark, express your disagreement with that attitude.
- Be gender-neutral when you ask about someone's date, and you might make that person more comfortable.
- Join or form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in your school. GSAs are clubs that support students of all orientations working together to combat homophobia and raise awareness of how to make a more welcoming community.
Back to top
Outlet UNIQUE (Understanding Issues in the Queer Experience) Homophobia Workshop. Outlet is a program of the Community Health Awareness Council in Mountain View, CA.
Lee, Jennifer. "The Man Date: What Do You Call Two Straight Men Having Dinner?" The New York Times. 10 April, 2005, Late Ed.: Section 9, Page 1.