Homophobia, unlike most phobias, is not a fear in the strictest sense of conveying fright or terror; however, it is just as extreme and irrational as other phobias. It may be better described as a deep aversion towards men and women who choose partners of the same sex. This aversion is characterised more by anger and contempt than actual fear.
Such aversion covers a vast array of negative attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and behaviour towards people perceived as being homosexual or otherwise having a non-heterosexual orientation.
The rise of HIV/AIDS has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of homophobia. This autoimmune disease is typically associated with sexual activity among gay males, contributing to widespread myths about contracting it. In this particular instance, the misperceptions regarding HIV/AIDS have resulted in feelings of real fear and panic towards homosexuals who are viewed as having the potential to spread it.
The term homosexual is generally used to describe lesbian females or gay males. Females who prefer However, the term gay is often used to refer to both male and female homosexuals. Those who choose partners from both sexes are called bisexual. A transsexual is someone who has undergone a sex change. A particular combination of homophobia and sexism that is directed specifically towards lesbians is called lesbophobia. GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual) is the acronym that categorises these types of individuals.
Homophobic feelings and attitudes range from discomfort, disdain, or distaste to outright dislike, disgust, antipathy or antagonism, revulsion, hatred or loathing, fear of “contamination”, prejudice, and other forms of intolerance; homophobic behavior includes discrimination, oppression, violence, and other aggressive acts. Acts of aggression can range from demeaning images in media, graffiti, degrading jokes, insults or derogatory remarks, and threats, to actual physical attacks.
A person who displays homophobia is called a homophobe. Homophobes generally believe that homosexuality is immoral, sick, or dangerous and may dread being in close quarters with a homosexual.
Two of the most common forms of homophobia are internalised homophobia and institutionalised homophobia.
Internalised homophobia occurs in homophobic individuals who themselves feel an attraction towards members of the same sex; the same-sex attraction is often accompanied by extreme discomfort, shame, or guilt and even denial. In this case, homophobia refers to a person’s own fear of being gay.
Within the internal homophobe is a deep-seated fear of loving others of the same sex as though it were unnatural or abnormal. Individuals with internalised homophobia are just as capable as their heterosexual counterparts of exhibiting discrimination and inflicting violence towards people identified as GLBT.
Institutionalised homophobia tends to be far more severe and powerful because it is sponsored by either religious or state institutions. Inherent in institutionalised homophobia is the fear that homosexuality may permeate or “contaminate” society as though it were some type of contagious disease. Prejudice and discrimination may thrive under societal and religious sanctions to keep heterosexism and procreation in place.
Psychologists Kenneth Smith (1971) and George Weinberg (1972) were the first people to use the term “homophobia” to describe a psychological aversion to homosexuality, effectively calling attention to anti-GLBT prejudice as a social problem. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; instead, homophobia itself had officially become a medical phobia. However, homophobia is not generally viewed as a clinical problem by society; on the contrary, it has become a widely accepted and tolerated set of beliefs and attitudes.
American civil rights leader Coretta Scott King compared homophobia to forms of bigotry like racism, stating that it dehumanised a group of people by denying their dignity and personhood. The consequences and repercussions of homophobia continue to be felt by its targets all over the world.
Homophobia in Australia
According to The Australia Institute, a study conducted by Roy Morgan Research to determine the extent of homophobia in Australia and comprised of over 24,000 respondents revealed a high level of homophobic feeling. In this study, homophobia was identified with those who believed that homosexuality was immoral.
Thirty-five percent of respondents aged 14 years old and above took the stance that homosexuality was immoral. Among those with this viewpoint, 27 percent were women and nearly 43 percent were men. Although older Australians were considerably more homophobic than young adults, teenagers in the 14-17 age group – especially boys – were more inclined to take anti-gay views than young and middle-aged adults.
The degree of homophobia varied greatly across states, cities, and religious affiliations. Among men, the Northern Territory was the most homophobic area. Across the continent, there was generally more tolerance in city areas than in country areas; however, there were also variations among regions within cities. Among those who declared religious affiliations, Catholics showed the least degree of homophobia (34%), closely followed by the Anglican and Uniting Churches.
According to Dr. Michael Flood, an expert on Gender and Sexuality Studies at La Trobe University in Australia, gay men and lesbians experience cultural invisibility, societal rejection of their innermost feelings and desires, denial of civil and legal rights, non-recognition of their civil unions, criminalisation of consenting sexual relations, and subjection to verbal and physical harassment, bashings, or even murders.
One instance is the widely-reported wave of “hate crimes” committed against the gay and lesbian community in New South Wales. Verbal and emotional abuse is often just a short step away from grave physical abuse. Clearly, homophobia can be a matter of life and death for those who do not conform to social and religious expectations of morality and behaviour. Such oppressive conditions can cause acute psychological distress for those who become the target of homophobic individuals or groups
Although not everyone who is homophobic engages in discriminatory, hostile, or violent behaviour towards gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individuals, their attitudes most probably contribute to a general atmosphere of intolerance. This is likely to be interpreted by the small minority of aggressive homophobes as a sanction or condoning of their vilification and acts of violence towards the GLBT community. Hate crimes against this community are a continuing concern in Australia.
Homophobia in Australian schools
Harassment and violence in schools towards same-sex attracted youth (SSAY) is of special concern. School is supposed to be a safe environment for children and adolescents. However, statistics show that the school environment has become hazardous for SSAY. Australian Education Minister Verity Firth recently announced that research findings showed one in five gay high school students had been physically abused because of homophobia.
She added that the most startling statistic was that those who had been physically abused because of their same-sex attractedness were three times more likely to think about harming themselves. In line with the Australian government’s anti-homophobia stance, a pilot program has been launched in 12 schools to actively fight abuse and negative attitudes faced by gay teens. Despite governmental backing to tackle large-scale homophobia, school-age youth who have experienced its harmful consequences tend to be scarred for life.
Homophobia in the Australian workplace
The harassment can continue until adulthood as the GLBT population fights for civil and legal rights as well as the human right to validate their personal feelings and desires. Workplaces can become very unwelcoming environments for gay men and lesbians. Many attempt to hide their sexuality, which is demoralising as well as difficult. Adding to their distress is the constant, haunting fear of having their secret exposed. For those who have “come out of the closet”, the treatment they receive can lead to depression, stress-related illness, substance abuse, and even suicide. A study of 900 gay men, lesbians, and transgender people conducted by the Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research at the University of Sydney found that homophobia in the workplace was widespread. Fifty-nine percent of the population surveyed experienced harassment or prejudicial treatment ranging from sexual and physical assault to verbal abuse, destruction of property, ridicule, unfair rostering, unreasonable work expectations, and career restrictions.
Counselling for homophobia victims and homophobic individuals
Although the tide has turned, the psychological damage of unrelenting verbal, emotional, and/or physical abuse may take years of therapy to heal. Trained Australian counsellors can help individuals on both sides of the homophobia issue. Homophobia hurts everyone. Its victims experience psychological and physical damage. Its perpetrators get locked in rigid patterns of beliefs and behaviour, hindering their ability to form intimate relationships with the same sex and encouraging macho behaviour. It also stigmatises heterosexual people who are seen to have “gay” characteristics. With patient and skillful counselling, victims’ wounds can eventually heal. With greater insight, understanding and compassion can replace prejudice and discrimination.
If you are struggling with issues of homophobia, gay issues or your sexuality, Australia Counselling has counsellors in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Gold Coast and country areas of Australia that work with these problems. Search our Gay and Lesbian Counselling page to find a counsellor near you.