Homophobia is a reaction to heteronormativity, a set of social norms supporting heterosexuality as the dominant sexuality as well as the alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007). Responses to actual or perceived homosexuality that can be attributed to homophobia include disapproval, disgust, discriminatory action and verbal and physical assault or violence. Gay hate crimes, discrimination in access to goods and services and unequal treatment under the law are the manifestations of homophobia in action.
It should be noted here that gay hate crimes and discrimination do not only affect those who identify as gay or bisexual but anyone who falls outside the dominant norms of sexual identity or could be perceived to do so. The self loathing of people who realise their homosexuality is at odds with heteronormativity has been called ‘internalised homophobia’. Research indicates that internalised homophobia is associated with risker sex activity and increased alcohol and drug consumption. Internalised homophobia has also been implicated in increased vulnerability to suicide, substance abuse, self harm, eating disorders and overrepresentation in mental health problems generally.
However taking a focus on homophobia can deflect attention away from heteronormativity, arguably the generator of homophobia. We might say if homophobia is the symptom, heteronormativity is the cause. Discussing homophobia but neglecting to mention heteronormativity can imply that homophobia is a problem that is located in the relationships between heterosexuals and homosexuals, but ‘straight’ people can also suffer the effects of homophobia! It is not such a big leap from the problematizing of homo-hetero relationships to the problematizing of homosexuality, the stigma of which takes us right back to the purpose of gay liberation.
If, on the other hand, we turn our attention to heteronormativity, it is possible to see the issue as one of cultural bias as well as something that goes beyond simplistic responses based on ‘being nice to gays’ or ‘having gay pride’. Heteronormativity is a concept that can be applied to heterosexuals, those who identify as gay or bisexual and MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men) alike. Heteronormativity can be used to understand and respond to all kinds of gender relations as well as those who live intersexed lives or identify as transpeople. It doesn’t rely on narrow, polarised versions of sexuality and, unlike homophobia, it doesn’t suggest that those who fall outside the norms (such as MSM) need to identify themselves as gay or bi.
I am not suggesting we should abandon all the awareness-raising work that anti-homophobia laws and policies have achieved or all the action that has been taken to ensure the rights of LGBT people in society. But it is important to acknowledge how homophobia becomes established and that does not only affect gay people. Heteronormativity is something that affects us all.
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