Follow TV Tropes


Useful Notes / Homophobia

Go To

"It's the awareness that even in Manhattan and even in 2013, you might easily encounter someone who will cast a disgusted look your way. Or say something nasty. Or, worse, throw a punch."
Frank Bruni, "Gay and Fearful", New York Times

According to Wikipedia, homophobia encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, or intersex (LGBTQIA). Those negative attitudes motivate a full gamut of hostile actions, from ridicule and shunning, to bullying, vandalism, assault, corrective rape and murder. In essence, it is to the LGBT+ community what racism is to ethnic minorities.


The term was coined in the 1960s by psychologist George Weinberg, taking the "homo-" prefix from "homosexual" and joining it to the suffix "-phobia" meaning "morbid or intense fear". Initially, the word referred to a fear of being perceived to be gay, but by the early 1970s, it was used to mean a psychological aversion to queer people generally. Common uses of the word now tend to include elements of heterosexism, the idea that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the norm and therefore superior.

The word "homophobia" has its critics. Some find it misleading since it implies fear rather than disgust or anger. It can also be argued that it implies an individual psychological problem as the root of negative attitudes towards queers as opposed to a socially reinforced prejudice. That said, homophobia has a linguistic staying power compared to other terms, which tend to be more obscure and often present pronunciation difficulties (try these on for size: "homoerotophobia", "homonegativity", "heteronormativity", "sexual prejudice" and "internalized sexual stigma"). In the 21st century, some people proposed the term "homomisia" as an alternative; taking note of how the Greek suffix "-misia" actually refers to hatred, unlike "-phobia," the idea is that the term more accurately describes the nature of the mindset while being less at risk of stigmatizing people with real clinical phobias. At the moment though, its usage is only among a minority of individuals, with "homophobia" still being the most common term.


There are other similar terms (such as "biphobia" and "transphobia") that refer to negative attitudes towards specific subsets of LGBTI people. For purposes of this wiki, "homophobia" is defined as negative attitudes towards or stereotypes about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and/or gender non-conforming people.

It's All About Sex—Or Is It?

"There's no sin like being a woman. When a man dresses as a woman, the audience laughs. When a woman dresses as a man, nobody laughs."
—Quentin Crisp, The Celluloid Closet

Homophobia is ostensibly about sexual orientation (who do you want to date/sleep with/marry?), but because people conflate sexuality and gender, it often involves questions of gender performance (what are you, a man or a woman?). As noted on our Useful Notes page on homosexuality, a number of tropes point up the association some people make between performance of gender roles and preferred sexual partners. This may reflect an idea current in the culture at large as well as one depicted in media, or to put it another way, there may be some Truth in Television in this. At least one legal scholar has held that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires same-sex marriage to be legal based on the "original" meaning of the amendment's wording. On July 16, 2015, the United States' Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (a federal agency that interprets federal law on these matters) issued a ruling that said discrimination against someone on the basis of sexual orientation was already illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and their ruling specified that this was because discrimination against someone on the basis of sex (gender) is included in the text of the act. In December 2015, a U.S. District judge gave a preliminary ruling allowing a Title IX case to go ahead, concluding that the distinction between discrimination based on gender stereotyping and discrimination based on sexual orientation is "illusory and artificial, and that sexual orientation discrimination is not a category distinct from sex or gender discrimination."


Anyone who fails to follow "normal" social rules for their gender can prompt a homophobic response. Specific social rules vary across cultures and historical periods An example: , yet such rules often mandate categories for clothing and hairstyles, speech and body movement, behaviour and deportment, even career choices. Failure to adhere to these rules can be associated with homosexuality, and homophobic responses to such "violations" can be seen as attempts to enforce so-called "traditional" social norms (see the infamous "the way you walk" scene from the 1956 film Tea and Sympathy, excerpted in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet). As these rules contain a certain amount of misogyny, double standards apply; women who cross gender lines may be given grudging respect (since they can be seen as trying to remedy their inferior femininity), while men face severe condemnation for lowering their status by being effeminate. That's why a tomboy gets less criticism than a sissy.

There are people who feel an intolerable discomfort with the presence of other people (be it in media or on the street) who cannot be quickly and easily placed in the gender binary. The (at times false) equivalence of gender non-conformity with homosexuality generally serves to compound the dread. This is part of the nostalgia of the opening theme from All in the Family: one couplet runs, "And you knew where you were then/ Girls were girls and men were men." The book Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States chronicles gender policing by law enforcement, from sumptuary laws "requir[ing] individuals to wear at least three articles of clothing conventionally associated with the gender they were assigned at birth", to the arrests and harassment of gender non-conformists for the "crime" known colloquially as "walking while trans", a concept and phrasing derived from the racially motivated charge of "driving while black". Such policing is often done in the name of protecting an area's "quality of life", again because those breaking gender norms are presumed to be involved with an outlaw sexuality (entailing "public lewdness" and/or prostitution). As the authors of Queer (In)Justice put it: individual's mere presence in public spaces is experienced as a disruption of the social order. Queer, transgender and gender non-conforming people are threatening because they place in question identities previously conceived as stable, unchallengeable, grounded and "known", which serve as critical tools of heterosexist culture.
Thus, any fear there may be lurking in the concept of homophobia may have less to do with homosexuality per se than with fears of disorder and/or loss of social status.

Stereotypes and Erasure

Tackling any sort of prejudice is hard, and especially so if it's been around for a long time and has lots of institutional support built around it, of which a lot will be unthinking and made more as reflexes than anything else. Some basic concepts that will help here are:
  • Assumed Heteronormativity: If a person is not identified as queer, that person is assumed to be straight.
  • Erasure: If queer people aren't mentioned, they disappear. Related to the assumption above.
  • Hypersexuality: The related ideas that sex is the sum total of queer people's identities, and that all they think about and/or do involves sex.
  • Criminality/Evil/Decay: Associating queer people by definition with one or more of these undesirable traits.
Of course, trying to avoid one can easily lead you to another, like trying to avoid the hypersexuality so much that queer characters have no sexuality (which tends towards erasure). It's rather like steering a boat among shoals—overcompensate and you just run aground somewhere else.

By the Book

"...You went in a gay bar, you knew you were liable to be arrested, or the place be raided. I've been in those situations. There were still not just attitudes, there were laws's being. The core of one's being."
—Jay Presson Allen, The Celluloid Closet

Institutionalized homophobia refers to policies and laws against LGBTI people that are enforced by governments, religious authorities, and other powerful groups, using whatever persuasive and coercive powers are at their disposal. Such laws and rules may vary in detail and severity. They may criminalize same-sex relations, set a higher age of consent for same-sex conduct, mandate or forbid certain topics of discussion in regards to sexuality, even prescribe standards of dress and grooming. They include anti-sodomy laws (often referring to "crimes against nature"), the above-mentioned sumptuary laws, and charges of "public lewdness", prostitution, and fraud (for "impersonating" another gender). The Queer (In)Justice authors also describe how some law enforcement and corrections officials abuse their authority to shame, humiliate, and degrade LBGTI people with whom they interact: publicizing or threatening to publicize arrests, subjecting people to invasive and often unlawful searches to touch or inspect their genitals, denying people protective custody (leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault, for which victims are often punished), or else offering the "protection" of solitary confinement, as well as beatings or demands for sexual favours. Civil and family law codes can offer their own difficulties: lack of protection against discrimination in housing and employment, limiting marriage and adoption to opposite-sex partners, and onerous restrictions in child custody agreements, if not outright loss of custody and/or visitation.

While legal sanctions can have the most severe impact on individuals, other institutions can pursue homophobic and/or heteronormative policies in different, even subtle ways. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rates theatrical films prior to release in the U.S., supposedly to advise parents on the movies' content. Kirby Dick's documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated discusses how films with gay content are consistently given stronger ratings by the MPAA, thereby limiting the numbers of younger viewers who can see them. The film illustrates the point with a side-by-side comparison of films; the actors are performing the same acts in case after case, yet in case after case, the depictions of homosexual couples are given R and NC-17 ratings while the heterosexual depictions get PG, PG-13, or R ratings. The more stringent ratings can reduce the audience and box office receipts of queer films. Whether the officials of the MPAA actually hold homophobic views or are simply catering to "mainstream" prejudices, the chilling effect on filmmaking is the same.

Some religious leaders (usually those of a conservative or fundamentalist stripe) castigate LGBTI people from their pulpits and through media outlets. Sometimes religious groups (again the conservative/fundamentalist sort) campaign for laws that penalize LGBTI people, while others have no need to lobby the government since they are the government, or at least an influential part of it.

Stereotypes and Prejudice

Many stereotypes and prejudice have at least a smidgen of Truth in Television; any degree of truth certainly makes it much easier for a stereotype to gain traction and become widespread. However, stereotypes can easily evolve into or reinforce prejudice, and they can act as a memetic transmitter that eases homophobic ideas into mainstream thought. They can also help to pressure LGBTI people to act in a certain way and make it harder to see LGBTI people who do not conform to the stereotypes.

The Butch Lesbian and Lipstick Lesbian tropes can serve as a good example. First, the tropes can serve to push lesbians into choosing between simplistic masculinity and simplistic femininity. Second, the tropes themselves are exaggerated versions of what is viewed as normal masculinity and femininity, i.e. the tropes put up a pattern for behaviour that is simultaneously judged as abnormal — it's almost right and normal and whole, but not quite.

Who's a Bigot? Who's a Victim?

Most people don't wish to be seen as any kind of bigot, and many if not most people who express homophobic views don't believe themselves to be bigoted. People confronted over their homophobia are apt to claim they have known and befriended gay people or deny they intended any insult or criticism. Those with religious objections to same-sex relations may claim to still love gay people. Of course, for people who disagree with those beliefs, these professions of love may ring hollow.

As LGBTI people have become more visible, some people who express homophobic bigotry claim the mantle of victimhood for themselves, as if allowing LGBTI people to engage in commerce and civil life on an equal footing would also force them to violate or renounce their religious beliefs. Such claims imply that their religious practices take absolute precedence over the beliefs and interests of everyone else, and it's tempting to ask if the same kind of blanket religious exemption could be extended to, say, outlaw the production and sale of pork products.

Even people who themselves experience homophobic bigotry can express it against others. Flamboyant gay men, "butches" (lesbians who present a masculine appearance), bisexuals, transgender people, and gender non-conformists (even performers such as drag queens/kings) experience specialized forms of homophobia from others in the LGBTI community as well as from members of the general public. A mild form is the wording of some personal ads that include phrases like "no butches" or "straight-acting men only". Pew Research found in a 2013 survey that bisexual people are more likely to remain closeted than gays or lesbians (two-thirds would not out themselves on social media versus one half of gays and lesbians). A bisexual man named Jeremy Stacy recounted being confronted while participating in a West Hollywood pride celebration:

"One guy came up to me and said, 'You're really gay.' I told him I had a long line of ex-girlfriends who would vehemently disagree. And he said, 'That doesn't matter, because I know you're gay.'"

It seems likely that a gay man would object (rightly) if someone told him, "You don't know your own mind. You're not gay, you're really sick/crazy/evil", yet he seemed to have no qualms about strongly implying that a bisexual man doesn't know his own mind regarding his orientation.

It's rather less surprising to find examples of heterosexual people facing homophobic bigotry when they break the rules of heterosexist culture. Once Julia Gillard became the first female Prime Minister of Australia and her partner former hairdresser Tim Mathieson found himself spotlighted as the country's "first bloke", it was probably only a matter of time before someone questioned his sexuality, as radio presenter Howard Sattler did in a June 2013 interview with then-Prime Minister Gillard. Though the incident cost him his job, Sattler didn't seem to think the question was beyond the pale: he was quoted later saying, "She should have known it was coming." It's difficult to see why she should have expected such a question without factoring in some combination of heterosexism and homophobia, specifically the first bloke's former employment in a "pink collar" job.

"Internalized homophobia" describes the troubling combination of same-sex attraction and prejudice against homosexuality in a single person. It can be highly destructive to those who suffer from it as well as to other people. It is thought to be a major factor in the high suicide rate among LGBT youth (up to 30 percent attempt to kill themselves). It can also drive sufferers to engage in extreme repression and denial coupled with forced outward displays of heteronormative behaviour, attempting to at least appear "normal". Some of these people rise to leadership positions in politics and religious organizations, from which they promote anti-LGBT laws and policies, and their self-loathing fuels their fervour and goads them to political success. They can be ferociously effective opponents of gay rights because their sense of self-worth depends upon it.

Tropes that are influenced or underpinned by homophobia are listed in the index.