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What is homophobia?

Gay pride celebrations around New York City, 2007There is no single definition for the term ‘homophobia’, as it covers a wide range of different viewpoints and attitudes. Homophobia is generally defined as hostility towards or fear of gay people, but can also refer to stigma arising from social ideologies about homosexuality. 1 2 Negative feelings or attitudes towards non-heterosexual behaviour, identity, relationships and community, can lead to homophobic behaviour. This is the root of the discrimination experienced by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Homophobia manifests itself in different forms, for example homophobic jokes, physical attacks, discrimination in the workplace and negative media representation. 3

Attitudes to gay men and HIV

Although in many societies gay men and lesbians are more accepted than in the past, homophobia continues to be prominent around the world. The global HIV and AIDS epidemic has always been closely linked with attitudes towards gay men; a group that is particularly affected by HIV and AIDS.

“Homophobia continues to be a major barrier to ending the global AIDS epidemic”

At the beginning of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, gay men in many countries were frequently singled out for abuse as they were seen to be responsible for the spread of HIV. This view was fueled by sensational reporting in the press, which became progressively anti-gay. Headlines such as, “Alert over ‘gay plague’”, 4 and “‘Gay plague’ may lead to blood ban on homosexuals” 5 demonised the gay community. Groups in the USA monitoring homophobic violence reported an increase in incidents when public awareness about AIDS in America increased in the 1980s. 6

Homophobia continues to be a major barrier to ending the global HIV and AIDS epidemic. In many countries, stigma and discrimination prevent men who have sex with men from accessing vital HIV prevention, treatment and care services. Tackling homophobia can help overcome this, and encourages gay men to be tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Homophobia around the world

The widespread stigmatisation of sex between men in Latin America, which fuels violence against gay people, has been linked to the dominance of ‘machismo’ culture. It was estimated that in 2005 a gay man was killed every two days in Latin America because of his sexuality. 7 However, progressive legislation is being implemented by governments throughout the region in an effort to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens. As a result, no Latin American country criminalises same sex relations. 8 Such policies are fundamental in advancing the rights of LGBT people in Latin America. However, change must also be seen in cultural attitudes if homophobia is to be adequately addressed in the region. In Brazil, where 2,509 gay men were murdered between 1997 and 2007, the government has publicly acknowledged the impacts of homophobia and begun to engage civil society groups in campaigns to promote LGBT rights. 9

In July 2009, the Indian government made the decision to abolish the law that criminalised homosexuality. It was hoped this ruling would lead to a substantial change in attitudes towards gay people in India, where the stigmatisation of homosexuality is deeply entrenched. 10 Lesbians in particular suffer high levels of discrimination, due to the dominance of conservative values and expectations, which exert pressure on women to get married and have children. However, at the end of 2013, the Supreme Court of India decided to re-criminalise adult consensual same-sex sexual conduct. In the four years that the law was annulled, there had been a 50 percent increase in sites providing HIV services for MSM and transgender people. 11 In reaction to the latest development, Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS said:

"The Delhi High Court decision in 2009 had restored dignity for millions of people in India…we want government and civil society to be able to provide HIV information and services to all people, including gay and other men who have sex with men, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and for them to be able to access the services without fear of criminalisation." 12

Despite the important number of countries repealing laws which discriminate against LGBT people, 78 countries around the world maintain laws which make homosexuality illegal. In Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, as well as parts of Nigeria and Somalia, homosexual acts are punishable by death. 13 Two men were executed in Iran for alleged homosexual activity in 2005, 14 and the execution of another man in 2007 sparked international outcry. 15 President Ahmadinejad demonstrated the Iranian government’s attitude towards homosexuality in a 2007 speech in the US, when he claimed, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals". 16 17

In many African countries, such as Zimbabwe and Zambia, homophobia is legitimised by governments. Criminalisation of homosexuality remains strong in 36 countries in Africa, and gay people face persecution and violence from police, employers, hospitals and community organisations. 18 19 Progress is evident in countries such as South Africa, where the law has been changed to improve rights for gay and lesbian people. However, it remains to be seen whether social attitudes towards homosexuality have also improved. 20 At the same time, other African countries are taking steps that regress LGBT rights. New legislation was passed by the president of Burundi in 2009, which criminalises same sex relations for the first time in the country’s history. 21

Negative attitudes towards homosexuality can be common even in areas where it is legal, and in some European countries hate crimes toward LGBT individuals continue to occur. Strong religious traditions in many places severely threaten LGBT equality and some European governments are failing to fully enforce the protection of LGBT individuals from homophobia. 22

In the UK, homosexuality has not been a criminal offence for many years, and the passing of the Civil Partnerships Act legalised same-sex unions in 2004. 23 However, LGBT people living in the UK, particularly young people, continue to face homophobia in their everyday lives. Research has shown that two thirds of young gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying in Britain’s schools. 92 percent of 1,145 lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils reported being subject to verbal abuse, and 41 percent had been physically assaulted. 24 A 2008 survey found that 66 percent of gay and lesbian people would expect to face barriers due to their sexuality if they wanted to run as an MP in the UK. One in five lesbian and gay people in the UK said they had experienced bullying in the workplace as a result of their sexual orientation. 25

In Turkey, although homosexuality is legal, it is still very much taboo. Human Rights Watch have urged for stronger protection measures for LGBT people in the country, following the murders of at least eight transgender people in a two-year period. 26

In a 2010 public opinion poll, 43 percent of Americans who participated believed that gay and lesbian relationships are morally wrong. 27 The Southern states of America are much less tolerant of homosexuality than areas where there is a strong and established gay scene, for example San Francisco in California. However, there are many religious communities who actively oppose homophobia, representing valuable advocates for LGBT rights. 28 For example, the United Church of Christ in the US, which has 1.2 million members, declares itself as "open and affirming", stating that:

"we recognize the presence of ignorance, fear and hatred in the church and in our culture, and covenant not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, nor any other irrelevant factor, and we seek to include and support those who, because of this fear and prejudice, find themselves in exile from a spiritual community" 29

What causes people to be prejudiced against gay and lesbian people?

There are many factors that can cause a person to be homophobic. Research has shown that prejudice against gay people and homosexuality can be influenced by the person: 30 31

  • Having strong religious beliefs that disapprove of sex and/or homosexuality
  • Having little/no social contact with lesbian and gay people
  • Reporting no homosexual experiences or feelings

'When you're scared, especially of something you actually know nothing about, hatred is a natural reaction.' - Robert, 25 32

However it is not possible to identify exactly what causes a person to be homophobic, as many different influences inform a person's attitudes. Different people grow up exposed to similar beliefs about sexuality but form quite different attitudes towards gay men and lesbians.

Prejudice among young people

A demonstration calling for laws against homosexuality to be repealed, BelgiumA recent survey of 37 European countries found that over half of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people had experienced bullying in school. 33 Furthermore, it is not just LGBT people who experience homophobic bullying; all young people who do not act in line with gender stereotypes can be subjected to severe bullying. 34 For example, in some cultures boys are stereotyped as sporty and strong decision-makers, and girls are expected to be emotional and expressive. As a result, boys who show their feelings or who are too intimate with other boys are often labelled as homosexual by their peers. Between girls, close friendships that involve embracing, touching and sharing thoughts and feelings are more legitimate and are less likely to be seen by their peers as an indication of homosexuality. However, girls who are considered to be too boyish or who hold feminist views often face the likelihood of being labeled as lesbians. 35

Young people often use words associated with homosexuality as standard insults, reinforcing the conception that it is undesirable to be gay. 36 This can silence young people who are experiencing gay feelings and stop them from coming out, and even encourage young gay men to pretend to be heterosexual and join in homophobic taunts to protect themselves.

Many gay and lesbian adults who began to identify themselves as 'different' in their school years say that the absence of support, understanding or information was sometimes a source of distress in itself and often magnified their anxieties. A 2007 survey in the UK found that four out of five young lesbian and gay people have no access to any information about LGBT issues at school. 37

'I was waiting and expecting to hear something about homosexuality, safe sex and different things in sex education. Maybe some information that could help me. But I got nothing.' - Tim 38

Young students who have lesbian and gay parents can also face prejudice:

"At school I would get people coming up to me and saying, your mum's gay. And I was like - it started to get to me because I realised then it wasn't normal, it was different. I sort of felt picked on and the amount of times I went to see the teachers and they said, just ignore them, they'll get bored. They never did get bored." - Sacha 39

The effects of homophobia

There are many different ways in which LGBT people experience homophobia, including malicious gossip, name-calling, intimidating looks, internet bullying, vandalism and theft of property, discrimination at work, isolation and rejection, sexual assault, or even being sentenced to death. All forms of homophobia are destructive, not just for people living openly as LGBT, but for society as a whole. 40

Living in a homophobic environment forces many LGBT people to conceal their sexuality, for fear of the negative reactions and consequences of coming out. 41 For people who have been brought up to believe that homosexuality is wrong, the realisation that they might be gay can cause feelings of shame and self-loathing, leading to low self-esteem. Suppressing homosexuality involves denying an important part of a person's identity, and can have a serious impact upon their life and relationships. Furthermore, the dilemma of whether to ‘come out’ or not can cause a great deal of personal distress.

LGBT people who make the decision to declare their sexual orientation can face prejudice and discrimination from their family, friends, and also from wider society. Homophobia can cause extreme harm and disruption to people's lives. For example, many LGBT people have become homeless as a result of being rejected by their families after revealing their sexual orientation. In the US, between 20 and 40 percent of young homeless people are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. 42

What can be done to tackle homophobia?

Effectively tackling homophobia means addressing prejudicial attitudes and discrimination in all areas of society. Political leaders, police forces, health services, broadcasters and employers can all positively influence the way that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are treated.

Public campaigns are a way to reach a large number of people with messages challenging homophobia. In 2010 the Football Association in the UK planned to use a public campaign to address the problem of homophobia in football. However, just before the video advert launch, it was unexpectedly delayed.

Schools have an important part to play in challenging homophobia. Homophobia is fueled by lack of awareness, and educating young people about LGBT issues is fundamental to overcoming widely accepted prejudice. 43 Furthermore, when schools respond strongly to homophobic bullying, LGBT students are more likely to feel able to be themselves, more likely to feel part of the school community and more likely to be happy. There are various ways in which schools can ensure that students of all sexualities feel included and valued. Teacher training and the integration of sexual orientation into the curriculum, are important for building knowledge and understanding. Providing information and support for LGBT students, and taking assertive action against homophobic bullying, are also vital for creating an environment where all students are supported. 44

Community based organisations play an important role in addressing homophobia. They have the scope to provide support to LGBT people who might feel marginalised and isolated, especially in societies where homosexuality is illegal. Such groups can also influence the attitudes of the general public and can campaign for tolerance towards homosexuality.

Finally, many governments throughout the world uphold laws that ban homosexuality. Repealing these laws would reduce discrimination against LGBT people, encouraging societies to embrace the diversity of different sexualities. Eradicating homophobia is crucial for improving quality of life for LGBT people, promoting fundamental human rights, and also preventing the spread of HIV.



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