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Editor: Abbie E. Goldberg
Date: 2016
The SAGE Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Homophobia is a contemporary social scientific term coined in the field of psychology to describe negative attitudes toward nonheterosexuals and nonheterosexuality. It has been characterized in a multitude of ways including aversion, disgust, fear, or hatred of homosexuals (gay men and lesbians) and homosexuality, which may be accompanied by anti-homosexual hostility. The term homophobia provided language for a phenomenon that reversed the dominant approach to homosexuality as psychopathological. Research turned from treating homosexual people in therapy to interrogating homophobia as a construct. Homophobia is understood to operate at multiple levels in society, from individuals to institutions. Although the social and cultural significance of the construct of homophobia is important, recent scholarship has called for a reexamination of the term and construct.

The Pathology of Homosexuality and Naming of Homophobia

From the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA’s) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1952, homosexuality was listed as a diagnosable form of psychopathology (i.e., mental illness). The result, clinically, was that no matter the nature of a homosexual patient’s issue or problem, homosexuality as psychopathological was the focus of treatment. Issues or problems that homosexual patients brought to the psychoanalytic couches of the 1950s and 1960s were subjugated to homosexuality itself; that is, any issue or problem was regarded as stemming from the person’s being homosexual. Instead of exploring issues or problems that patients perceived to be primary, psychologists were trained to focus on homosexuality as the primary concern and pursued treatment as such.

Several years prior to the APA’s historic removal of homosexuality from the DSM in 1974, George Weinberg—a psychotherapist who was trained, practicing, and doing research in the era of homosexuality as pathology—coined the term homophobia. Weinberg, a heterosexual man, conceived of his homophobia construct after reflecting on the way that many other psychotherapists would display intense and personally negative responses to coming into contact with homosexuals outside of their work. He recognized their responses as fear, as a phobia, and began calling them homophobes. The word homophobia is the blending and compounding of “homo,” from homosexual (the term homosexual has its own distinctive morphology), with “phobia,” from the Greek word for fear. In simplified terms, Weinberg’s homophobia of the late 1960s characterized a fear of homosexuals—likely born of religion—that was predicated on social fears that homosexuality would spread and destroy the procreative nuclear family, the bedrock of society, thereby destroying society. In the fields of psychology and sociology, the conception of homophobia helped turn scrutiny away from homosexuals (as mentally ill, abnormal, deviant) and toward homophobia as a social issue, as well as toward those who exhibited homophobic attitudes or behaviors and the effect that homophobia had on the lives of homosexual individuals. Researchers, in turn, began to direct their attention to studying homophobia. As Weinberg continued to articulate and advance his conception of homophobia in the late 1960s and early 1970s at speaking events and in periodicals produced by and for homosexual people, the construct of homophobia offered new ways for gay men and Page 545  |  Top of Articlelesbians to conceive of their social locations in society and provided new language that expanded the discourse for activists of the gay rights movement.

Weinberg’s 1972 book, Society and the Healthy Homosexual, was written to be an accessible resource that interrogated homophobia and psychotherapy. Departing from the position of homosexuality as psychopathology, Weinberg endeavored to reframe homosexuality as normal and homophobia and psychotherapy as problematic. Two years later, in 1974, the APA removed homosexuality from the DSM. Many scholars credit this change, in part, to the conceptualization of homophobia. Removing homosexuality from the DSM initiated a change of perspective that affected the health fields (e.g., psychotherapy, medicine) and the social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology).

Institutionalized Homophobia

Institutionalized homophobia refers to instances where homophobic or anti-homosexual ideologies are engrained in the social and cultural institutions of a society. For example, when homosexuality was listed as a pathology in the DSM, homosexuality was positioned as a sickness, abnormal, and bad. It would not have been advantageous to be seen as homosexual or socially supportive of homosexuality. The mental health system, like society in general, viewed homosexual individuals and homosexuality as undesirable and in need of treatment to overcome sickness and abnormality. It follows that when homophobia is institutionalized, large systems that comprise society are encoded with ideologies that subjugate, oppress, and often punish homosexuals and, at times, their allies and advocates. Again, the removal of homosexuality from the DSM is often noted as the deinstitutionalization of homophobia from the field of mental health. That does not mean that the institution of mental health is free of homophobia. Instead, it means that an explicit and radical effort was undertaken that reconfigured the way that the institution of mental health privileged one group of people (heterosexual) while discriminating against another group of people (nonheterosexual).

Other examples of social and cultural institutions that are regularly critiqued for forwarding homophobic ideologies include religion, government, and education. Because many of our contemporary laws, ethics, and morals are shaped by religious teachings, religion is regularly criticized for institutionalized homophobia. For example, most gay men and lesbians who live in a culture dominated by Christianity are familiar with Leviticus 18:22, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” The wording is a bit different depending on which version of the Old Testament it comes from, but the prominent interpretation of this line remains the same in mainstream Christianity and Judaism alike—homosexuality is bad. Thus, a rule from a powerful sociocultural institution can influence not just individual attitudes and beliefs, but whole systems of laws and governance. This is not to say that all religions are homophobic or that all religious people are homophobes. This biblical passage represents an example of homophobic ideology institutionalized in a way that makes it difficult to enact change. It also works to illustrate the way that institutionalized homophobia reaches from one institution to others. Both legal and educational policies have been affected by this instance of what many characterize as institutionalized homophobia. Indeed, homosexuality is often symbolically erased (i.e., not mentioned at all, omitting it from reality) from textbooks in primary and secondary education, and laws may limit the rights of homosexuals so that they are rendered unequal to heterosexuals—both actions serve as examples of institutionalized homophobia. Those who critique religion as a site of institutionalized homophobia may point out that it privileges some relational configurations (heterosexual) at the cost of discriminating against others (homosexual). For instance, religion has slowed the process of realizing marriage equality in the United States.

Social Homophobia

While institutionalized homophobia is anti-homosexual ideologies encoded into the social and cultural institutions of society, social homophobia can Page 546  |  Top of Articlebe considered the public or interactional manifestation of institutionalized homophobia. It is the “doing” of homophobia—the action of reifying homophobia. It can be a direct or indirect speech act of name-calling to ostracize or humiliate someone for being nonheterosexual or not heterosexual enough. Social homophobia may also be expressed through avoidance, exclusion, and isolation. If individuals feel targeted, they may feel compelled to affirm their heterosexuality. Whether someone being targeted is nonheterosexual or heterosexual, the message of homophobia is clear: It is bad to be homosexual. Some masculinities scholars have argued that homophobia is the cornerstone to being a real, masculine man. Social homophobia has the potential to incite fear of being perceived as nonheterosexual. Individuals (whether nonheterosexual or heterosexual) who are unable to negotiate social homophobia may face depression and anxiety. Some homosexuals internalize homophobia; this is referred to as internalized homophobia, and it has been linked to a wide range of negative intrapersonal outcomes, including depression and anxiety.

Homophobia, Sexual Stigma, Heterosexism, and Sexual Prejudice

Although the term homophobia has played an integral role in much social and cultural change, recent scholarship has identified limitations and questioned its continued use for three reasons. First, the nature of homophobia is not consistent with other phobias. Phobia sufferers generally understand that their fears are irrational, yet they still have a physiological response (e.g., sweat, shivering). Whereas phobias are typified by anxiety, empirical researchers argue that negative emotional reactions to homosexuals and homosexuality tend to be that of anger and disgust, which is in line with similar findings on negative emotional reactions associated with race. It follows that hostility, violence, and brutality toward homosexuals and homosexuality are more consistent with anger than fear. Second, homophobia is an unproductive framework for social change because it tends to conceptually limit anti-homosexual attitudes or actions to the homophobic individual—it does not encompass the culture and society. Further, homophobia has been extended to describe more phenomena (e.g., institutionalized homophobia, social homophobia, internalized homophobia). Scholars argue that broadening the use of the term is an indicator that we, once again, need new language—just as we once needed homophobia. Third and finally, homophobia has been criticized as outdated because it is conceptually built upon a false binary of heterosexual versus homosexual. Fifty years ago, gay liberationists argued that the binary should be destroyed because there was no true heterosexuality—every heterosexual was repressing his or her homosexuality. In this context, homophobia made sense as one rejecting one’s own homoerotic desires. However, we have moved beyond many of the limitations that rendered the binary sensible, so homophobia no longer works because we know that sexuality is much more complicated than the labels heterosexual or homosexual suggest.

To continue understanding the anger, hostility, discrimination, and oppression faced by nonheterosexuals, scholars have taken up three interrelated areas of research: sexual stigma, heterosexism, and sexual prejudice. First, sexual stigma refers to shared knowledge concerning sexuality within a culture or society. No matter what individuals of a culture may personally believe, they are aware of what constitutes good and bad sexually in their culture. Sexual stigmas have permanence. It is through people that sexual stigmas have meaning, and that meaning is widely understood as negative. Individuals with sexual stigmas understand themselves through stigma because it permeates their identity, and what differentiates them from people who are not sexually stigmatized are power and resources. There are exceptions, as sexual stigmas are in constant negotiation. In some ways, sexual stigma expands the space of institutionalized homophobia. Second, heterosexism provides the information and rules that keep sexual stigmas negatively positioned. For instance, the roles and rules of gender performances and expectations are bound in heterosexism. In upholding the rules and expectations that support sexual stigmas, the Page 547  |  Top of Articlehierarchy is maintained, and power remains with those who are not stigmatized. The way that individuals enact heterosexism is through their sexual prejudices. Third, sexual prejudice refers to persistent negative attitudes that individuals have on the basis of sexual orientation. Although sexual prejudice may occur regarding any sexual orientation, including heterosexual, it is usually directed toward nonheterosexual individuals. Sexual prejudices are attitudes that occur along binaries of good/bad, right/wrong, and they are associated with people as they are grouped. For example, men having sex with men is bad because, categorically, being nonheterosexual is bad.

The influential construct of homophobia, which involves thinking about anti-homosexual attitudes and behaviors as individual accomplishments, is limited. Thinking about sexual stigma, heterosexism, and sexual prejudices reveals a more complex framework that allows us to better interrogate hostility based on sexual orientation. Each of these concepts allows for new ways to examine anti-homosexual attitudes and behaviors from various locations—from the individual’s actions to the cultural taken-for-granted beliefs.

Derek M. Bolen and Dianah McGreehan

Further Readings

Adam, B. D. (1998). Theorizing homophobia. Sexualities, 1(4), 387–404.

Fone, B. (2001). Homophobia: A history. New York, NY: Picador.

Haaga, D. A. F. (1991). “Homophobia”? Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(1), 171–174.

Herek, G. M. (2004). Beyond “homophobia”: Thinking about sexual prejudice and stigma in the twenty-first century. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 1(2), 6–24.

Herek, G. M. (2007). Confronting sexual stigma and prejudice: Theory and practice. Journal of Social Issues, 63(4), 905–925.

McCormack, M. (2013). The declining significance of homophobia: How teenage boys are redefining masculinity and heterosexuality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Smith, K. T. (1971). Homophobia: A tentative personality profile. Psychological Reports, 29(3), 1091–1094.

Weinberg, G. (1972). Society and the healthy homosexual. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Young-Bruehl, E. (1998). The anatomy of prejudices. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6482300182