HOME    l    ORGANIZATION    l    NEWS    l    INFO    l    TOPICS    l    RESOURCES    l    LINKS    l    INDEX


Confronting Sexual Prejudice

Definitions: Homophobia, Heterosexism, Sexual Prejudice

This is What Homophobia Feels Like

Getting Up Close to Homophobia

PBS Frontline: Are You Homophobic?

Gregory Herek: Understanding Sexual Prejudice

NY Times: Homophobic? Maybe You're Gay

Roots and Causes of Homophobia

Homophobia: Origins and Cures

Debate: Does Religion Cause Homophobia?

An Illustration of Privilege


Defining Homophobia

Homophobia: The fear, hatred, disgust, mistreatment, or intolerance of same-sex intimacy, relationships, “atypical” gender behavior, and/or people who identify as or are perceived as LGBT.


Heterosexism: The belief in the inherent superiority of heterosexuality and, thereby, it’s right to dominance.  Carries with it the assumption that everyone one meets is heterosexual.


Homophobia refers to the many ways in which people are oppressed on the basis of sexual orientation.  Sometimes homophobia is intentional, where there is a clear intent to hurt lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.  Homophobia can also be unintentional, where there is no desire to hurt anyone, but where people are unaware of the consequences of their actions.


There are four distinct but interrelated types of homophobia: personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural.  Institutional and cultural homophobia are often referred to as heterosexism.


Personal homophobia is prejudice. It is the personal belief that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are sinful, immoral, sick, inferior to heterosexuals, or incomplete women and men.  Prejudice towards any group is learned behavior; people have to be taught to be prejudiced.


Personal homophobia is sometimes experienced as the fear of being perceived as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  This fear can lead to trying to “prove” one’s heterosexuality.  Anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, can experience personal homophobia.  When this happens with lesbians, gay, and bisexual people, it is sometimes called “internalized homophobia.”



Interpersonal homophobia is the fear, dislike, or hatred of people believed to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  This hatred or dislike may be expressed by name-calling, verbal and physical harassment, and individual acts of discrimination or by the rejection of friends, co-workers, and/or family members.


Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are regularly attacked for no other reason than their assailants’ homophobia.  Most people act out their fears of lesbians and gay men in non-violent, more commonplace ways.  Relatives often shun their lesbian and gay family members; co-workers are distant and cold to lesbian and gay employees; or people simply never ask about acquaintances’ lives.


Institutional homophobia refers to the many ways in which government, business, religious institutions, and other institutions and organizations discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation.  These organizations and institutions set policies, allocate resources, and maintain both written and unwritten standards for the behavior of their members in ways that discriminate.


For example, many religious organizations have stated policies against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people holding offices; many schools fail or refuse to allocate funds and staff for lesbian, gay, and bisexual support groups; and many businesses have norms for social events which prevent lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees from bringing their same sex partners while heterosexual employees bring their opposite sex partners.



Cultural homophobia refers to social standards and norms that dictate that being heterosexual is better or more moral than being lesbian or gay, and that everyone is heterosexual or should be.  While these standards are not written down as such, they are spelled out each day in the television shows and print advertisements where virtually every character is heterosexual and every sexual relationship involves a female and a male; or in the assumption made by most adults in social situations that all “normal” children will eventually be attracted to and marry a person of the other sex.


Often, heterosexuals don’t realize that these standards exist, while lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are acutely aware of the standards.  The feeling that results is one of being an outsider in the society.


Oppressing Sexual Minorities

The term "sexual minority" is an expression that refers to persons who aspire to any lifestyle or orientation that doesn’t comply with the mainstream heterosexual concept of normal behavior.

People with homosexual or bisexual orientations have long been stigmatized.

Heterosexism is the assumption that only heterosexual relationships are normal and should therefore be privileged.


Heterosexism is based on societal values that dictate that everyone is, or should be, heterosexual.

Intentionally or unintentionally, our society privileges heterosexuality and heterosexual persons, and devalues, mistreats, or discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited, queer, and/or transgender persons and those perceived to be so.


Heterosexual privilege bestows unearned and unchallenged advantages and rewards on heterosexuals solely as a result of their sexual orientation.

These benefits are not automatically granted to LGBQTT persons.


Heterosexual Privilege


Heterosexual privilege means living without ever having to think twice, face, confront, engage, or cope with anything listed below.  Heterosexuals can address these phenomena, but social/political forces do not require them to do so.


Not questioning your normalcy, sexually and culturally:

Having role models of your gender and sexual orientation.

Learning about romance and relationships from fiction, movies, and television.

Having positive media images of people with whom you can identify.


Validation from the culture, friends, and family:

Living with your partner and doing so openly to all.

Talking about your relationship, and what projects, vacations, and family planning you and your lover/partner are creating.

Expressing pain when a relationship ends and having other people notice and attend to your pain.

Receiving social acceptance from neighbors, colleagues, and new friends.

Not having to hide and lie about gay/lesbian friends and social activities.

Dating the person of the gender you desire in your teen years.

Kissing/hugging/being affectionate in public without threat or punishment.

Living comfortably in a residence hall without enduring the fear of rejection from floor or roommates.

Dressing without worrying about what it represents.

Working without being identified by your sexuality/culture (e.g., you get to be a farmer, bricklayer, artist, etc., without being labeled the heterosexual farmer, the heterosexual bricklayer, or the heterosexual artist).



Institutional Acceptance:

Increased possibilities for getting a job, receiving on the job training and promotion.

Receiving validation from your religious community, being able to be a member of the clergy/religious leadership.

Being employed as a teacher in pre-school through high school without fear of being fired any day because you are assumed to corrupt children.

Adopting children, foster-parenting children.

Raising children without threats of state intervention, without children having to be worried which of their friends might reject them because of their parent’s sexuality and culture.

Being able to serve in the military.

Receiving equal benefits for you and your partner.



Legal marriage, which includes the following privileges:

Public recognition and support for an intimate relationship.

Celebration of your commitment to another with gifts, cards, and congratulations from others. 

Social expectations of longevity and stability for your committed relationships.

Joint child custody.

Paid leave from employment and condolences when grieving the death of your partner/lover.

Property laws, filing joint tax returns, inheriting from your partner/lover automatically under probate laws.

Sharing health, auto, and homeowners’ insurance policies at reduced rates.

Immediate access to your loved ones in cases of accident or emergency.

Family-of-origin support for a life partner/lover.

Access to a hospitalized love one.

Sexual Prejudice

People with homosexual or bisexual orientations have long been stigmatized. With the rise of the gay political movement in the late 1960s, however, homosexuality's condemnation as immoral, criminal, and sick came under increasing scrutiny. When the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis in 1973, the question of why some heterosexuals harbor strongly negative attitudes toward homosexuals began to receive serious scientific consideration.



Society's rethinking of sexual orientation was crystallized in the term homophobia, which heterosexual psychologist George Weinberg coined in the late 1960s. Weinberg used homophobia to label heterosexuals' dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals as well as homosexuals' self loathing. The word first appeared in print in 1969 and was subsequently discussed at length in Weinberg's 1972 book, Society and the Healthy Homosexual.

The American Heritage Dictionary (1992 edition) defines homophobia as "aversion to gay or homosexual people or their lifestyle or culture" and "behavior or an act based on this aversion." Other definitions identify homophobia as an irrational fear of homosexuality.





Around the same time, heterosexism began to be used as a term analogous to sexism and racism, describing an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community (Herek, 1990). Using the term heterosexism highlights the parallels between antigay sentiment and other forms of prejudice, such as racism, antisemitism, and sexism.

Like institutional racism and sexism, heterosexism pervades societal customs and institutions. It operates through a dual process of invisibility and attack. Homosexuality usually remains culturally invisible; when people who engage in homosexual behavior or who are identified as homosexual become visible, they are subject to attack by society.

Examples of heterosexism in the United States include the continuing ban against lesbian and gay military personnel; widespread lack of legal protection from antigay discrimination in employment, housing, and services; hostility to lesbian and gay committed relationships, recently dramatized by passage of federal and state laws against same-gender marriage; and the existence of sodomy laws in more than one-third of the states.

Although usage of the two words has not been uniform, homophobia has typically been employed to describe individual antigay attitudes and behaviors whereas heterosexism has referred to societal-level ideologies and patterns of institutionalized oppression of non-heterosexual people.




By drawing popular and scientific attention to antigay hostility, the creation of these terms marked a watershed. Nevertheless, they have important limitations.

Critics have observed that homophobia is problematic for at least two reasons.


First, empirical research does not indicate that heterosexuals' antigay attitudes can reasonably be considered a phobia in the clinical sense. Indeed, the limited data available suggest that many heterosexuals who express hostility toward gay men and lesbians do not manifest the physiological reactions to homosexuality that are associated with other phobias (see Shields & Harriman, 1984).


Second, using homophobia implies that antigay prejudice is an individual, clinical entity rather than a social phenomenon rooted in cultural ideologies and intergroup relations. Moreover, a phobia is usually experienced as dysfunctional and unpleasant. Antigay prejudice, however, is often highly functional for the heterosexuals who manifest it.

As antigay attitudes have become increasingly central to conservative political and religious ideologies since the 1980s, these limitations have become more problematic. However, heterosexism, with its historic macro-level focus on cultural ideologies rather than individual attitudes, is not a satisfactory replacement for homophobia.


Sexual Prejudice


Scientific analysis of the psychology of antigay attitudes will be facilitated by a new term. Sexual prejudice serves this purpose nicely. Broadly conceived, sexual prejudice refers to all negative attitudes based on sexual orientation, whether the target is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. Given the current social organization of sexuality, however, such prejudice is almost always directed at people who engage in homosexual behavior or label themselves gay, lesbian, or bisexual (Herek, 2000).

Like other types of prejudice, sexual prejudice has three principal features:

It is an attitude (i.e., an evaluation or judgment).
It is directed at a social group and its members.
It is negative, involving hostility or dislike.

Conceptualizing heterosexuals' negative attitudes toward homosexuality and bisexuality as sexual prejudice – rather than homophobia – has several advantages. First, sexual prejudice is a descriptive term. Unlike homophobia, it conveys no a priori assumptions about the origins, dynamics, and underlying motivations of antigay attitudes.

Second, the term explicitly links the study of antigay hostility with the rich tradition of social psychological research on prejudice.

Third, using the construct of sexual prejudice does not require value judgments that antigay attitudes are inherently irrational or evil.

(From:  Herek, G. M., The context of anti-gay violence: Notes on cultural and psychological heterosexism, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1990.  Herek, G. M., The psychology of sexual prejudice, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2000.  Shields, S. A., & Harriman, R. E., Fear of male homosexuality: Cardiac responses of low and high homonegative males, Journal of Homosexuality, 1984)


Relevant Resources

Sexual Prejudice: Understanding Homophobia & Heterosexism by George Herek
Heterosexism Enquirer
Privilege & Oppression: NCDD Report on Heterosexual Privilege
McGill Equity Subcommittee on Queer People
One Institute: Overcoming Homophobia & Heterosexism
Wikipedia: Heterosexism
I Have Heterosexual Privilege if...
BCTF Homophobia & Heterosexism Action Group
Heterosexism: Definitions & Responses
US Dept of Health & Human Services
NCDD Model: Heterosexual Privilege
Queer Theory
Sage Publications: Deconstructing Heterosexism in the Counseling Professions
Group Exercise From GLSEN
Born Different


I Have Heterosexual Privilege if...

I don’t have to worry about hiding my friends, partner, and my weekend activities and can talk about it when I come in to work on Monday morning.

I don’t have to feel like a split personality.
I am able to be fully who I am at work or school without having to worry about what others may say about my partner or friends.
I don’t have to lead a double life.

If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure that my neighbors will be neutral, pleasant, and/or accepting of me.

I can turn on the TV or radio or open up to the front page of the paper and see people of my orientation widely and positively represented.

When people talk about our national heritage or civilization, I am shown that people like me did contribute to it in positive and healthy ways.

I can, at my workplace, talk about my partner or have a picture on my desk, without fearing that people will automatically disapprove or think that I am being “flamboyant,” “blatant,” or “forcing my beliefs” upon them.

I can be open about my sexual orientation at work without fear of reprisal in terms of job promotion, loss of job, or be accused of negatively affecting the work climate.

I can bring my partner to work related parties and events and be seen as promoting a positive familial climate.

I can get paid leave from work and/or condolences when grieving for the death of a long term partner.

My friends can be seen with me without being afraid of being labeled by others.

I can go apartment or house hunting with my partner without fear of reprisal.

I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my sexual orientation most of the time.

I can avoid spending time with people who look upon my sexual orientation with repulsion, hatred, loathing, or even pity.


I can publicly hold hands, kiss, or otherwise express affection to my loved one without fear of harassment or attack.

I can express myself sexually without the fear of being prosecuted for breaking the law.

My romantic and emotional intimacies have not been reduced to being based upon an act of sex.

I can go wherever I want and know that I will not be harassed, beaten, mugged, or killed because of my sexual orientation.

I can talk about my sexual orientation without people thinking that it is abnormal, unnatural, a crime against God or Nature, or that I am a freak.

I have never been accused of being “disgusting,” of flaunting my sexuality, or of being obsessed with sex for sharing romantic experiences.

I can expect my family to include me and my partner at family events, occasions and gatherings.

I can be pretty sure I will not be denied the right to marry whomever I choose to.

I need not fear emotional and financial truncation from my family because of my sexual orientation.

If I decide to adopt a child, I am perfectly certain that my sexual orientation will not be an issue of concern; or that I will be seen as influencing a child towards a particular sexual orientation.


I can be pretty sure that I can raise, adopt, and teach children without people believing that I am a child molester or will force them into my sexual orientation.

I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to our familial existence in positive ways.

I can raise my children without fear of state intervention because of my sexual orientation.

I can be pretty sure that my children will not be made fun of, ridiculed, or harassed because of who raises them.

I can approach my medical doctor and be open about my health and illnesses without fear of being judged or denied service.

I can approach the legal system, social service organizations, and government agencies without fearing discrimination because of my sexual orientation.

I can join the military and be open about my sexual orientation.

I can belong to a religious organization or denomination of my choice and know that I will not be condemned or denounced by the religious leaders and the members because of my sexual orientation.

I can be close friends with people who do not share my sexual orientation.

I can teach from pre-school through high-school without fear of being fired any day.

I can teach about lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender or intersex people without being seen as having “a bias” because of my orientation, or of forcing a “homosexual or personal agenda” on students.

I can easily find academic courses and institutions that give attention to people of my sexual orientation.

I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling tied in and accepted, rather than isolated, outnumbered, held at a distance, or feared.

I can worry about homophobia without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

I have the right to inherit jointly-owned property when my partner passes away.

I can receive tax breaks, health and insurance coverage, and spousal legal rights through being in a long term relationship.

I can get auto and homeowners’ insurance policies at reduced rates with my partner.

I have the right to visit my partner in the hospital and intensive care and make important medical decisions for him/her.

I can legally sponsor my partner to live in the United States who is not a US citizen or Permanent Resident.

I can expect that most social institutions will validate me by social gestures such as nurture, support, and the usual celebratory cards, emails, and phone calls that celebrate who I am and my relationship to another person.

I don’t have to constantly explain that I am not “a pedophile.”

I have never been asked if I am heterosexual because I had a bad homosexual experience.

I have never been accused of hating women because I am married to a man.

(From Shiva Subbaraman, University of Maryland)


More Prejudice


Homophobia/biphobia/transphobia take many different forms, including physical acts of hate, violence, verbal assault, vandalism or blatant discrimination such as firing an employee, evicting someone from their housing or denying them access to public accommodations.  There are many other kinds of homophobia/biphobia/transphobia and heterosexism that happen every day.  We often overlook these more subtle actions and exclusions because they seem so insignificant by comparison.  They are not.  The following are examples of homophobia/biphobia/transphobia.


Looking at an LGBT person and automatically thinking of his or her sexuality or gender rather than seeing her/him as a whole, complex person.

Failing to be supportive when your LGBT friend is sad about a quarrel or breakup.

Changing your seat in a meeting because an LGBT person sat in the chair next to yours.

Thinking you can spot one.

Using the terms “lesbian” or “gay” as accusatory.

Not asking about a woman’s girlfriend/partner or a man’s boyfriend/partner although you regularly ask “How is your husband/wife?” when you run into a heterosexual friend.

Thinking that a lesbian (if you are female) or gay man (if you are male) is making sexual advances if he or she touches you.

Feeling repulsed by public displays of affection between lesbians and gay men but accepting the same affectional displays between heterosexuals.

Feeling that LGBT people are too outspoken about civil rights.

Assuming all LGBT people are sexually active.

Feeling that discussions about homophobia and heterosexism are not necessary since you are “okay” on these issues.

Assuming that everyone you meet is heterosexual.

Feeling that a lesbian is just a woman who couldn’t find a man or that a lesbian is a woman who wants to be a man.

Feeling that a gay man is just a man who couldn’t find a woman or that a gay man is a man who wants to be a woman.

Not confronting a homophobic remark for fear of being identified with or as LGBT.

Worrying about the effect an LGBT volunteer/co-worker will have on your work or your clients.

Wondering why lesbians and gay men have to “flaunt” their sexuality, when all around you on TV, billboards, and in film heterosexuals are exhibiting much more blatant behavior.

Avoiding mentioning to your friends that you are involved with a women’s organization or a men’s organization that emphasizes domestic skills, because you are afraid that they will think you are LGBT.

Asking your LGBT colleagues to speak about LGBT issues, but not about other issues about which they may be knowledgeable.

Assuming that a lesbian or gay man would be heterosexual if given an opportunity.

Focusing exclusively on someone’s sexual orientation and not on other issues of concern.

Being outspoken about LGBT rights, but making sure everyone knows that you are heterosexual.

Being afraid to ask questions about LGBT issues when you don’t know the answers.

Overcoming Homophobia & Heterosexism

What can I do about homophobia and heterosexism? Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, two-spirited, queer, transgendered, trans-identified or heterosexual, we all share the responsibility to end homophobia and heterosexism. Here are some tips:

BE NON-JUDGMENTAL. Being LGBQTT is not something to be ashamed of or judgmental about. Homophobia, not sexual orientation or gender identity, is the problem.

USE GENDER INCLUSIVE AND NON-HETEROSEXIST LANGUAGE. Do not assume that you know someone's sexual orientation and/or the gender of one's romantic/sexual interests. Use inclusive language even if you know someone is heterosexual. Help educate and encourage others to use inclusive language, as well.

ASSUME THAT ANYONE COULD BE LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, QUEER, TWO-SPIRITED, TRANSGENDERED OR HETEROSEXUAL. Don't assume that everyone is heterosexual "unless you know otherwise" or that everyone should be heterosexual. Similarly, don't assume that someone is LGBQTT based on stereotypes or assumptions about one's friends.

DON'T TEASE OR HARASS OTHERS for exhibiting behaviors that are not traditionally associated with their gender (or what you perceive their gender to be).

DON'T "OUT" PEOPLE. Do not force anyone to disclose one's sexual orientation. Also, if you know that someone is LGBQTT or is questioning one's sexual orientation, don't assume that you may tell anyone else. Be sensitive to the fact that some people are "out" in some areas of their lives, but not in others.

DON'T THINK OF LGBQTT PERSONS SOLELY IN TERMS OF THEIR SEXUAL ORIENTATION. Just as the lives of heterosexual people include far more than their attraction to members of the opposite sex, LGBQTT persons also have friends, skills and multifaceted interests unrelated to their sexual orientation. Don't define anyone by one's sexual orientation.

DON'T ENGAGE IN HOMOPHOBIC JOKES, COMMENTS, SLURS OR OTHER BEHAVIORS. Speak up against these when you witness them. If you don't, your silence condones and encourages such behaviors.

EDUCATE YOURSELF. If there are things you don't know or understand about LGBQTT issues, do some research, ask questions or contact a group that deals with these issues.

TALK ABOUT SEXUAL DIVERSITY. Maintain an inclusive group, classroom, living or workspace by talking openly and respectfully about LGBQTT issues when they come up. Treat these issues as you would any other issue.

REMEMBER THAT AN INDIVIDUAL'S SEXUAL ORIENTATION INVOLVES MORE THAN SEXUAL BEHAVIOR. It includes attraction, companionship, intimacy and emotional attachments as well as sexual activity.

DO NOT FORCE PEOPLE TO HIDE their sexual orientation or gender identity.

DON'T ASSUME THAT LGBQTT PEOPLE ARE SUFFERING or have regrets about their sexual orientation and want to be heterosexual. Likewise, if someone who is LGBQTT is having problems, don't assume that sexual orientation is the cause.

RECOGNIZE INTERSECTIONS AND SIMILARITIES OF PREJUDICE. Heterosexism and other forms of oppression and discrimination have similarities and areas of overlap. For example, a black lesbian may experience homophobia, racism and sexism. An East Asian man may be disadvantaged by racism in ways that are similar to the ways a gay man is disadvantaged by homophobia and heterosexism.

ENGAGE IN INCLUSIVE PRACTICES. Create work, study and living environments in which gender and sexual diversity are included, modeled and valued.

(From McGill Equity Subcommittee on Queer People / McGill University General Information, James Administration Building, 845 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec H3A 2T5, Tel.: 514-398-4455)




HOME    l    ORGANIZATION    l    NEWS    l    INFO    l    TOPICS    l    RESOURCES    l    LINKS    l    INDEX



Association for Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling of Alabama