Homophobia: Is it Fear, Prejudice, or Both?

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When we talk about phobias we usually think of situations like feeling fearful of public speaking, experiencing panic when riding an airplane or being terrified of spiders or snakes. But what about homophobia? Is homophobia a true phobia or is it more of a cultural bias against those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered? In this post we are going to explore how some define homophobia including the psychiatric community. We are also going to take a look at some research on homophobia as well as the associated danger with this type of fear or prejudice.

What is homophobia?

The American Psychiatric Association defines homophobia as a "term that refers to the irrational fear and prejudice against homosexual persons." Despite this definition homophobia is rarely considered a clinical problem requiring psychiatric treatment. AVERT, the international HIV and AIDS charity organization adds to the definition of homophobia in this way: "Homophobia is generally defined as hostility towards or fear of gay people, but can also refer to social ideologies which stigmatise homosexuality." An Australian counseling site provides a more detailed description of this term differentiating between internalized homophobia (extreme emotional discomfort, shame, guilt, and denial, of feelings of attraction towards members of the same sex) and institutionalized homophobia which is the religious or cultural belief that homosexuality is an aberration which could permeate or contaminate our society.

In one of the few studies on homophobia, University of Arkansas psychology professor Jeffrey Lohr found that disgust was the underlying emotion of what we label as homophobia and not fear. In this sense the researchers concluded that homophobia is not a psychopathology or phobia in need of clinical treatment but is more of a societal attitude. Yet is this always true? Are there people who are clinically treated for their homophobia?

Is homophobia ever considered a psychiatric disorder?

In some cases homophobia can significantly contribute to a mental disorder. In a 2006 study published in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology,   homophobia was a contributing factor in psychotic crimes of violence which resulted in two deaths. Of the five in-patient men who were studied, all suffered from paranoid psychosis and all of them had assaulted their victims with the intent to kill. Homophobia was the motivating force behind their acts of violence.

Homophobia may also be clinically treated when the individual has what is known as internalized homophobia (feelings of self-loathing and shame for being gay). A case study published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy (1998) entitled, "Treatment of homophobia in a gay male adolescent", suggests ways to help homosexual teens to overcome stereotypes and accept their sexual identity.

Can homophobia be measured? Some measures have been developed to rate one's homophobia or negative feelings about homosexuality including the _Homophobia Scale _ created by Dr. Henry Adams and his colleagues at the University of Georgia in 1996. You may take the 25-item questionnaire   on the PBS site.

What are the dangers of homophobia?

Let's face it, most people who might be described as homophobic usually do not see anything wrong with their feelings, thoughts, or attitudes about people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. Homophobia is not a traditional phobia but is more of a pervasive societal prejudice which is still condoned by many institutions. The true sufferers of homophobia are the thousands of individuals, who are discriminated against, bullied, and subjected to violence simply because they are gay. In some cases the end result of homophobia is death. Some victims are murdered like Larry King, a 15 year old gay teen who was shot to death execution style by one of his 8th grade classmates in 2008.   Astonishingly some blame the victim in this controversial case because he was "too flamboyant" and believe that Larry King provoked his classmate to bring a gun to school and shoot him. him.

"Homophobia is most dangerous when it serves as the justification for violent action against homosexuals."   -The Anti-Defamation League  

Suicide is also a danger for many homosexuals. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -1989). Many of these children, teens, and young adults are bullied into taking their own life. Just last month ABC news reported on the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay college student who jumped off a bridge days after his roommate allegedly posted video on the Internet of him having sex with another man. His death was one of five suicides by gay teens across the country within the span of three weeks. On youtube you can find memorial tributes to gay teens who took their own life due to harassment and bullying.   Many people believe that homophobia was the root cause of these tragic deaths.

What is the appropriate "treatment" for homophobia?

Homophobia is not considered a psychiatric condition but instead, a societal attitude which may contribute to discrimination, persecution, and violence towards homosexuals. Education is the key towards ending the hatred and bigotry of gay individuals. Here are some resources to help:

  • GSNA Network: Empowering Youth Activists to fight homophobia and transphobia in schools.