Homophobia is the recognised or unrecognised fear or hatred of homosexuals or homosexuality that is present in both heterosexuals and homosexuals (Slater, 1988). Everyone is taught to be homophobic.

Heterosexism is discrimination against homosexuals based on the belief that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality. Heterosexism is built into all of our institutions.

These definitions are preferred for two reasons:

1) they can be easily adapted to define other oppressions;

2) they help to make a distinction between, and stress the importance of, internal and external oppression, i.e. 'phobia' relates to internal and 'ism' to external oppression.


Lesbian Information Service run a 'homophobia awareness from a multi-oppression perspective' training course in which a brainstorm exercise is conducted about words or phrases which the participants can think of that describe homosexuals or lesbians or gay men. The following is a compilation of these responses:

Lead young people astray; perverts; puff; sick; mentally ill; dyke; lezzie; bender; opt out; not natural; all got AIDS; promiscuous; immoral; queer; brave; no grandchildren; mothers fault; fathers fault; can't be trusted with children; arrested development; lesbians haven't met a real man; hormone imbalance; lesbians want to be men; lesbians hate children; lesbians are afraid of childbirth; lesbians wear male clothing; lesbians are all truck drivers; it's a phase; its a crime against nature; it's caused by a genetic defect; lesbians are ugly; gay men are limp-wristed; sissies; obsessed with sex; child molesters; insanely jealous and possessive; there are no black lesbians and gays; they don't live here, they only live in cities; it's a western/white disease; it's a capitalist diseases; one of them; lesley; lemon; ginger; effeminate; indecent; that way inclined; hijra; chhaka; battyman; eccentric; should be shot; artistic; individual; strong; abnormal; promiscuous; mother's fault; flat-heeled brigade; bent; homo's; one of those; sexual deviant; fairies; queens; dangerous; outrageous; woolly woofters; ass poppers; shirt lifters; sex abusers; carry disease.

When the same exercise is performed in relation to heterosexuals the responses have been limited to: straight; normal; healthy; fit; macho men; hetties; queer bashers.

It is pointed out that this exercise can be conducted in relation to other powerless groups and the responses would be similar, i.e. many negative words for oppressed groups and mainly positive words for non-oppressed groups.

These phrases/words come from deep inside our consciousness and affect our beliefs and attitudes.

The participants are then asked where they think these messages come from; their responses invariably include, religion, medicine, law, education, the media, the family and, of course, language.

These are the seven main institutions which send out messages saying that homosexuality is inferior to heterosexuality, that black people are inferior to white people, that minority ethnic people are inferior to English people, that working class people are inferior to middle/upper class people, that disabled people are inferior to non-disabled people, that women are inferior to men.

The process begins with religion, which teaches us that homosexuality is a sin, e.g. Church of England: "homosexual genital acts fall short of this ideal [permanent married relationships]; Catholicism: "[homosexuality is] an aberrant deviation." Judaism: "Traditional Jewish teaching on homosexuality is rooted in the belief that humanity is created heterosexual, and that therefore homosexual attraction must be either a freely chosen sinful act or a manifestation of pathology." (Kahn, 1989). Islam: U.K. Muslim leader Dr Kalim Siddiqui calls for gays to be eliminated. In some Islamic states, e.g. Iran, homosexuals are put to death.

The law tells us homosexuality is a crime, e.g. homosexual acts are illegal for men aged under 18; homosexuality is illegal in H.M. Forces; lesbians who have been in heterosexual relationships often lose custody of their children solely because of their sexual orientation; Section 28 of the Local Government Act, passed in 1988, makes it illegal for local authorities to 'promote' homosexuality. By passing such an act parliament sent out a clear message that homosexuality is undesireable and is inferior to heterosexuality (Foley, 1994).

Medicine tells us homosexuality is a sickness, e.g. until 1973 the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual included homosexuality at the top of a list for sexual deviancies; homosexuality was only removed as a disease from the International Classification of Diseases in 1993; it was not deleted from the British medical data-base until 1994! Medicine tells us that homosexuality is an arrested development phase which needs to be cured and that it is caused by poor parental care.

The media confirms these negative images, e.g. homosexuality is either invisible or homosexuals are portrayed in negative roles such as perverts and predators or homosexuality is sensationalised and, more recently, lesbianism in particular is portrayed as a trendy sexual past-time that any female can indulge in.

The family itself is heterosexual: parents bring their children up to be heterosexual; they also instill their homophobic views onto their children and, when support is most needed, i.e. when lesbian and gay youth are coming out, parents often reject their children.

Education perpetuates the negative view of homosexuality through omission, e.g. homosexuality is left out of the curricula (or if it is included it is only in relation to HIV/AIDS); there are no visible role models; bullying of homosexual youth goes unchallenged; and there is no accurate information about homosexuality available.

These institutions interact to both create and perpetuate homophobia. The origins of homophobia can be found in the Bible which in turn influences the law; law then underpins religious beliefs. Most early (and some modern) theorists on homosexuality were influenced by religion (Suppe, 1984) and helped to create and perpetuate further myths about homosexuality (Bridget, 1995; Bullough, 1974; Furnell, 1986; Jeffreys, 1990; Kitzinger, 1989). These negative messages are built into our language and culture and relayed through families, peers and the media, especially the mass media. The invisibility of homosexuality within the education system enables these messages to go unchallenged.

At the same time, these same institutions promote heterosexuality. The media, in particular, is fanatical about heterosexual sex, which is promoted (by television, film, radio, newspapers, magazines, advertisements) every second of the day; parents bring children up to marry and have children; medicine is geared towards the perpetuation of heterosexuality and heterosexual families; religion and law underpin heterosexuality with solemnised rituals and a legal framework; and ten years of enforced education teaches heterosexuality as well as providing the opportunity for children to peer pressure others to participate in heterosexual sex.

It is not surprising, therefore, that everyone is homophobic and remains homophobic until, and unless, they come into contact with information, or people, which challenges these negative messages/images/beliefs.

Effects of Oppression

Everyone is subjected to these messages (to greater/lesser degrees) resulting in heterosexuals and those who belong to other powerful groups internalising a sense of superiority while homosexuals and those who belong to other powerless groups internalise a sense of inferiority. Fig. 1: Some Common Effects of Oppression: Visibility, describes the effects of this system on the psychology of powerful and powerless individuals as well as on the provision of support.

Membership of several powerless groups will result in lower self-esteem and greater vulnerability to mental ill-health, alcohol and drug misuse.

Whilst powerful people are less likely to develop psychosocial problems nevertheless there is more information about their needs and they are more likely to use whatever services are available, which will be geared towards their needs. The opposite is the case for powerless groups. Therapy, for example, is more available to, and more likely to be used by, powerful people.

Everyone is taught to be homophobic but some people (heterosexual and homosexual) are more or less homophobic than others. Weaker identity and low self-esteem makes an individual more susceptible to suggestion; such people are more likely to believe in stereotypes and to have negative attitudes towards oppressed people (unless these images have been challenged) including themselves.



  White         Black
  English       Minority Ethnic
  Middle Class       Working Class
  Heterosexual       Homosexual
  Able-bodied/minded     Disabled
  Male         Female
  Gender Conforming     Gender Non-conforming
  |         |
  Greater Visibility     Less Visibility
  |         |
  More Positive       Fewer Positive
  Role Models       Role Models
  |         |
  Few Negative       More Negative
  Stereotypes       Stereotypes
  |         |
  More Acceptance     Less Acceptance
  |         |
  Less Isolation       More Isolation
_____________|________________   _______________|____________________
|   |     |     |    
Stronger More     Weaker       Less
Identity/Self   Visibility   Identity/Self   Visibility
Esteem   of Issues   Esteem of Issues
|   |   |   |
More     More     Less       Less
Confidence/   Research/   Confidence/     Research/
Assertive   information   Assertive     Information
|     |     |       |
Less Vulnerable More   More Vulnerable Less
to Suggestion Support   to Suggestion   Support
|   |     |       | Better Support   Worse   Support
Mental   Geared   Mental   Not Geared
Health to Needs   Health       to Needs |   |   |     |
Less Need, More     More Need,   Less
& Less Use of, Use of     & More Use of,   Use of
Alcohol & Drugs Services   Alcohol & Drugs   Services

Several broad patterns have been discovered among people
who hold negative views about homosexuality, they included those who had less personal contact with lesbians and gays; who had experienced less (if any) homosexual behaviour; who believed in a conservative religious ideology and who held traditional attitudes about sex roles. Those with more negative attitudes were also: more likely to have grown up in rural areas and small towns; to be older and to be less well-educated (Gagnon & Smith, 1970; Herek, 1984; Herek, 1988; Levitt & Klasson, 1974; Lumby, 1976; Newman, 1989; Nyberg & Alson, 1976; Weinberger & Millham, 1979).

Fig. 2: Some Common Effects of Oppression: Discrimination, outlines the effects of external discrimination on powerful and powerless people.

Worse education means that powerless people will be less able to communicate (especially verbally) or to be assertive. They are more likely to internalise the anger they experience in response to the daily oppression they face. Because we live in a culture that promotes alcohol use and the main social outlet for many powerless people is the pub, they are more likely to use alcohol (or drugs) to help deal with their feelings.


  |           |
  Better Education       Worse Education
  & Wider Horizons       & Lower Horizons
  |           |
  Better Employment Opps     Worse Employment Opps
  More Job Satisfaction       Less Job Satisfaction
  Better Pay         Worse Pay
  Less Unemployed       More Unemployed
____________ |________________________   _____________________|______________
| |   |     | |   |
More Ind. More   Less     More Dep. Less   More
from Family Status   Trouble     on Family Status   Trouble
| |   with Law | |   with                       Law
Less Homeless/ More |     More Homeless/ Less   |
Harassment Power Less     Harassment Power More
| |   likely     |   |   likely
More Own More Custodial   Less Own Less Custodial
Houses Influence Sentences   Houses Influence Sentences
| |   |     |   | |
Better   More Social More     Worse   Fewer Social Less
Housing   Outlets   Justice     Housing   Outlets   Justice

Biological research suggests that a natural chemical called seratonin is found in the brain. High levels of seratonin give us a sense of well-being and acts as a dampener on a whole range of instinctive behaviours, including aggression. Studies of violent offenders have shown that their seratonin levels are low. Low seratonin is also found among suicide cases - people who internalise violence against themselves. High self-esteem raises seratonin levels whilst low self-esteem - and low ranking in the social hierarchy - results in lower levels of seratonin. Alcohol further reduces seratonin levels in the brain. (Raine, 1995). Anyone who has low self-esteem and drinks alcohol is, therefore, highly vulnerable to suicide and/or aggressive behaviour. Anger can erupt in physical and verbal abuse against other powerless people, as well as against oneself.. Powerless people are, therefore, more likely to be aggressive and/or have mental health problems; they are more likely to come into contact with the law.

Because of access to privilege, powerful people are more likely to hold powerful positions in society i.e. members of parliament, judges, doctors, teachers, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, housing workers, social workers, parents, which they can - knowingly or unknowlingly - use to discriminate against homosexuals and other powerless groups.

In the same way that researchers are more likely to empathise with, and produce results that are socially desirable to, members of their own sex (Kite, 1984) powerful people are more likely to empathise with people of a similar background and less likely to empathise with someone from a different background. This lack of empathy, added to ignorance of the experiences of oppressed people as well as internalised attitudes towards powerless people, usually leads to discrimination and injustice.

A recent survey about discrimination against lesbians and gays (Snape, Thomson, Chetwynd, 1995) found that over half of the homosexual respondents described physical attacks, insults shouted in the streets and the use of insulting language in the press as serious or very serious problems and that discrimination was thought to be prevalent in matters relating to employment, housing, insurance, police and the courts. In a survey conducted by Stonewall 35% of lesbians and gay men who took part had suffered attacks with black and disabled gays experiencing the highest levels of violence whilst 52% of the gay teenagers had been victims of violence (Pink Paper, 17 Nov 1995).

Palmer (1993) found that 46% of the 1,845 lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents in Britain had experienced harassment at work because they were known or suspected of being lesbian or gay. This took the form of physical violence, threats, aggressive questions, homophobic abuse, jokes or teasing.

In 1994 a group of feminist-lesbian psychologists put forward a motion to set up a lesbian section of the British Psychological Society (BPS); in response to this request Dr. Colin Newman, the executive secretary of the BPS said: "By accepting a Section devoted to the study of lesbianism, the Society will be giving a public signal that it endorses behaviour which, by the biblical standards they personally seek to follow, is incompatible with their own standards of morality." (The Guardian, 6/1/94).

It is not only homophobic heterosexual people in positions of power who discriminate but also homophobic homosexuals. The major focus of the outing campaign of Outrage is to highlight the hypocracy of influential, closet, homosexuals.

Combined Effects of Internal and External Oppression

Most people belong in both powerful and powerless groups. The effects of belonging to a powerful group can sometimes offset the effects of belonging to a powerless group. For example, middle class, male, homosexuals are less likely to believe the negative stereotypes of homosexuals; partly because they are likely to have access to positive role models through better education and partly because they will have a higher self-esteem, having internalised messages of superiority in relation to their class and their gender (of course, this will be less applicable to those who are sissies). Access to privileges can lead to status, power and influence which can help to counteract the negative effects of internalised homophobia.

It is the combined effects of internal and external oppression that makes powerless people - especially those who are multi-oppressed - vulnerable to mental health problems. Internal oppression begins in childhood, takes on gigantic proportions during adolescence, can continue for a person's entire life and, combined with external oppression, can mean the difference between life and death.


Bridget, J. (1995) Etiology of Lesbianism Resource List, Lesbian Information Service.

Bullough, V.L. (1974) Homosexuality and the Medical Model, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 1(1), p99-110.

Foley, C. (1994) Sexuality and the State, Liberty

Furnell, P.J. (1986) Lesbian and Gay Psychology: A Neglected Area of British Research, Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, Vol 39, p41-47.

Gagnon, J.H. & Smith, W. (1970) Psychosexual development. The sexual scene. Chicago: Aldine (quoted in Lumby)

Herek, G.M. (1984) Beyond "Homophobia": A Social Psychological Perspective on Attitudes Toward Lesbiana and Gay Men, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 10(1/2), p1-21.

Herek, G. M. (1988) Heterosexuals' Attitudes toward Lesbians and Gay Men: Correlates and Gender Differences, Journal of Sex Research, Vol 25(4), p451-477.

Jeffreys, S. (1990) Anticlimax, London, The Women's Press.

Kahn, Y.H. (1989) Judaism and Homosexuality: the traditionalist/progressive debate, Journal of Homosexuality, 1989, Vol 18(3/4) p47-82.

Kite, M. (1984) Sex Differences in Attitudes Toward Homosexuals: A Meta-Analytic Review, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 10(1/2), p69-81.

Kitzinger, C. (1989) The Social Constructionof Lesbianainism,
London, Sage.

Levitt, E.E. & Klasson, A.D. (1974) Public Attitudes Toward Homosexuality: Part of the 1970 National Survey by the Institute for Sex Research, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 1(1), p29-43.

Lumby, M.E. (1976) Homophobia: The Quest for a Valid Scale, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 2(1), p39-47.

Newman, B. S. (1989) The Relative Importance of Gender Role Attitudes to Male and Female Attitudes Toward Lesbians, Sex Roles, Vol 21 (7/8), p451-465.

Nyberg, K.L. & Alston, J.P. (1976) Analysis of Public Attitudes toward Homosexual Behavior, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 2(1), p99-107.

Palmer, A. (1993) Less Equal Than Others, Stonewall.

Raine (1995) from BBC Television programme: 1995.

Slater, B. (1988) Essential Issues in Working with Lesbian and Gay Male Youths, Professional Psychology: Reseaach & Practice, Vol 19(2), p226-235.

Snape, D. Thomson, K, Chetwynd, M. (1995) DiscriminationbAgainst Gay Men and Lesbians, Social & Community Planning Research.

Suppe, F. (1984) In Defense of a Multidimensional Approach to Sexual Identity, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 10(3/4), p7-14.

Weinberger, L.E. & Millham, J. (1979) Attitudinal Homophobia and Support of Traditional Sex Roles, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 4(3), p237-246.

© Jan Bridget, 1996