Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!
Homophobia is an “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals.” The dictionary definition is pretty good but, like many definitions, it falls short of expressing the depth of the word and its impact. Homophobia affects all queer individuals—not just those who identify as homosexual—in a variety of ways.
Homophobia is an ever-present obstacle in the lives of LGBTQ folks. To be clear, I’m using homophobia to encompass all types of anti-LGBTQ attitudes and discrimination. Within homophobia there are more specific terms such as biphobia (which targets bisexual folks) and transphobia (which targets transgender and gender nonconforming folks).
Homophobia is everywhere. Every queer person has experienced some form of it, from hearing phrases like “you’re so gay” to to experiencing direct physical violence. There are different types of homophobia such as internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural homophobia. All forms of homophobia work together, strengthening and perpetuating anti-LGBTQ beliefs.
Internalized homophobia is when a queer person internalizes anti-LGBTQ beliefs, such as that being gay is a sin, or makes a person inferior. This can lead to extreme feelings of worthlessness, fear of coming out, and depression.
Interpersonal homophobia is when a person expresses homophobic feelings towards a person through verbal or physical violence. This includes name-calling, exclusion from friend groups, physical abuse, or bullying. This can come from peers, teachers, family members, and even friends.
Institutional homophobia is homophobia taught or perpetuated by institutions such as schools, religious institutions, businesses, and (perhaps especially) governments. Institutional homophobia is used to actively discriminate against the LGBTQ community through laws, regulations, and funding. These different institutions work together to create a culture that accepts, promotes, and enforces homophobia.
Cultural homophobia is the unwritten social standards that say heterosexuality is normal or correct, and that homosexuality is wrong or immoral because it deviates from that. Cultural homophobia is perpetuated through things like mass media (like the majority of TV shows and books that have only cisgender, heterosexual characters) and individual actions (like using “gay” or “lesbian” to insult people, or automatically assuming that everyone is heterosexual and cisgender).
These different forms of homophobia all contribute to the marginalization of LGBTQ folks. LGBTQ young people often face these intersecting forms of oppression without understanding that none of it is their fault.
Words are meaningful, so think before you speak! Homophobic slurs continue a cycle of violence and promote anti-LGBTQ attitudes. If you hear these phrases, call them out!
• “That’s so gay.”
Using words like “gay” to insult people is an example of homophobia. It continues the homophobic message that being gay is bad, and that calling someone gay is an insult to who they are.
• “Use your gaydar.”
You can’t tell someone’s sexuality from their appearance. Assuming that anyone—including other queer people—can tell if someone else is gay because of how they look perpetuates that idea that queer people are “other” or someone fundamentally different than “regular” (i.e. heterosexual) people.
• “No homo.”
People often use this phrase to let other people know they aren’t queer in any way when expressing complementary views about people of the same gender because that would be bad. Wow. First, it’s time to retire the idea that being gay is bad or lesser. This phrase is especially popular for boys who are taught that showing emotion is a feminine characteristic and that femininity is weakness. Second, it’s time to move past the idea that compliments are only expression of sexual interest.
• “It’s just a phase.”
Phrases like this undermine a person’s autonomy. Having pink hair was a phase for me, but being queer never was. Many queer people do go through a period of uncertainty about what words best identify how they feel—mainly because we have to unlearn internalized homophobia.
• “I just want you to be normal.”
I’ve heard a lot of queer people talk about their parents worrying they wouldn’t have a “normal” life because of their sexuality. Being gay, or bisexual, or asexual is normal! Viewing heterosexuality as “normal” or “correct” is harmful and incorrect. It’s homophobic views, perpetuated by a homophobic culture, that sustains these homophobic views.
• “Now that you’re gay…”
This phrase is silly because a person doesn’t suddenly turn gay. When a person comes out, they aren’t a new person. They are the same person just with a better understanding of their identity.
For more information on homophobic language, check out this Stonewall Education Guide!
Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!
Amanda lives in Indiana with her growing family of felines and books. She recently earned her BA in Women’s Studies and English and hopes to use her knowledge and skills to destroy the patriarchy, or at the very least create more spaces for communication and engaged activism. Amanda’s hobbies include infrequently blogging, working with nonprofit organizations, rereading Harry Potter, and caring about things. Follow on Twitter @amandandwords