Downcast young woman

Homophobia has historically been defined as a fear of being around people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or another non-heterosexual orientation, or the fear of becoming gay. In contemporary usage, however, the term is  most commonly used to describe a person who dislikes, abuses, or attempts to “convert” people who are not heterosexual.

Understanding Homophobia

While true phobias are typically characterized by a chronic avoidance of the item causing the phobic reaction, people who are homophobic generally do not exhibit this type of behavior. Instead, they may actively seek out people who are gay in an attempt to convert them or intimidate them. Homophobic behaviors may also manifest toward people who are not actually gay but who are believed to be so, such as men who are considered effeminate, women who work in construction, and other people who in some way align with homophobic stereotypes.

Homophobia frequently has an institutional origin. Religious organizations that believe homosexuality to be sinful are more likely to produce members with homophobic tendencies. Similarly, nations that outlaw so-called “homosexual behavior” or otherwise stigmatize homosexuality are far more likely to have a homophobic population. Negative media stereotypes of gay people may also perpetuate homophobia, and there is some evidence that homophobic celebrities can cultivate homophobic attitudes in their fans.

Several studies have demonstrated that men are more likely to display homophobic behaviors and attitudes. Research has also shown that men are more likely to use anti-gay slurs.

Homophobia may correlate strongly with age, political affiliation, religion, and educational level. Young people, those with higher levels of education, those who are non-religious or who belong to liberal congregations, and those with left-leaning political orientations are less likely to display homophobic attitudes. However, this correlation is not absolute. The American conservative group Log Cabin Republicans, for example, supports gay rights.

History of Homophobia

Although homosexuality is now widely known to be a natural expression of human sexuality, in the past, homosexual behavior was often condemned. Society’s focus on homosexuality sharpened during the 1860s and 1870s, when European public officials recognized that some individuals centered their lives on the pursuit of sexual pleasure rather than on having a household, family, or children. These individuals were regarded as sexual deviants and classified based on sexual behavior, and homosexuals represented a major class within this population. Shortly afterward, these so-called “sexual deviants” became the targets of psychiatric, medical, and legal intervention, and in the 1870s, many began to band together to fight the social and political influences that sought to criminalize sodomy and other “deviant” acts.

Homosexual people faced a great deal of persecution in 20th century America. Economic crises led many individuals to search for employment in larger cities, away from their homes and families. Many found housing in shared flats, industrial dormitories, or other same-sex housing facilities, and those who were not heterosexual were often able to locate each other and act on their desires, away from family and religious condemnation.

However, the 1950s saw many gay and lesbian people entrapped, brutalized, and even raped by the police. The end of World War II saw the dishonorable discharge of thousands of homosexual servicemen and women, who were often simply dumped in the port cities of San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Under executive order by President Eisenhower, one’s sexual orientation was a valid reason to be fired from a job, and the United States Postal Service aided these dismissals by tracing the mail of those suspected to be homosexual in an attempt to gather evidence for termination.

Historic events likely to have facilitated and furthered homophobic behavior:

  • 529 BC – The ancient Romans pass a law ordering the execution of homosexuals.
  • 1225-1274 – Aquinas claims that homosexuality is against natural law.
  • 1533 – England passes its first anti-homosexuality law.
  • 1610 – Colonial America passes its first sodomy law.
  • 1655 – New Haven becomes the only American colony to order the death sentence for women practicing same-sex relations.
  • 1772 – The sodomy trial of Captain Robert Jones stirs public debate on homosexuality in England.
  • 1857 – Homosexuality is linked to adverse mental health issues.
  • 1859 – Charles Darwin introduces natural selection, which prompts some theorists to view homosexuality as disadvantageous and a “mistake.”
  • 1920 – Sodomy criminalized by the United States military.
  • 1933-1944 – Homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis.
  • 1936 – Neurologist and sexologist Albert Moll attempts to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals.
  • 1942 – U.S. military implements a policy to reject gay draftees.
  • 1944 – Carl Vaernet, a Danish endocrinologist, attempts to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals at Buchenwald, a concentration camp.
  • 1945 – Restitution payments for gay survivors of the Holocaust are withheld.
  • 1940-1950 – Republican demagogues state that homosexuals in the federal government are a threat to national security.
  • 1951 – Homosexuality is classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association.
  • 1968 – Homosexuality is redefined as a sexual deviation by the American Psychiatric Association.
  • 1978 – Openly gay U.S. official and gay rights leader Harvey Milk is assassinated.
  • 1986 – The Roman Catholic Church describes homosexuality as an “objective disorder.”
  • 1996 – The Defense of Marriage Act is signed by President Clinton, federally preventing same-sex marriage.

Is There Treatment for Homophobia?

Because homophobia is rarely used as an actual diagnosis and is more often a pejorative for people with anti-gay sentiments, people who are homophobic rarely seek treatment. Instead, social awareness campaigns attempt to combat homophobia, which often stems from a lack of education or exposure. Amnesty International and The Human Rights Campaign are two notable organizations that have scheduled anti-homophobia demonstrations. Pride, an annual LGBTQI community event, welcomes allies, and heterosexual people who attend Pride events may find their stereotypes challenged upon exposure to a wide range of diversity. Because exposure to gay people is correlated with fewer anti-gay sentiments, people with gay friends and/or family members may have a deeper understanding of human sexuality and more knowledge about different sexual orientations.

Education on human sexuality, especially in youth, can help prevent homophobic behaviors and beliefs from developing. For example, the Same Difference program, which aims to reduce homophobia and celebrate diversity in schools, has been shown to challenge the stereotypes of participants and lead them to develop stronger empathy for others along with a greater understanding of human sexuality.

A person might also help reduce homophobic attitudes by challenging or avoiding microaggressions against people who are not heterosexual. Microaggressions are a subtle, often unconscious, form of oppression that send the message that certain groups or individuals are inferior. The use of remarks such as “That’s so gay” is one form of microaggression that may contribute to a homophobic culture. A person might casually use “gay” as an insult without realizing the harmful potential of the remark, and avoiding such language can help create an inclusive culture where individuals are accepted no matter their sexual orientation.

Avoiding heteronormative language is another factor that may contribute to the reduction of homophobia. When a person automatically assumes that a man’s date will be a woman or that a person must identify as either male or female, that person is supporting, consciously or subconsciously, the belief in a gender binary and that heterosexual people are the norm. Even if the person making the assumption is not actually homophobic, the heteronormative assumption can still have the effect of perpetuating homophobia.


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Eaklor, V. L. (2011). Queer America: A people’s GLBT history of the United States. New York: The New Press.
  3. Fone, B. R. (2001). Homophobia: A history. New York, NY: Picador USA.
  4. Ford, M. (2013). A brief history of homosexuality in America. Retrieved from https://www.gvsu.edu/allies/a-brief-history-of-homosexuality-in-america-30.htm
  5. Hatheway, J. (2003). The Gilded Age construction of American homophobia. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  6. Herek, G. M. (n.d.). Hating gays: An overview of scientific studies. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/roots/overview.html
  7. Lancaster, R. N., & Di, L. M. (1997). The gender/sexuality reader: Culture, history, political economy. New York, NY: Routledge.
  8. NoBullying.com. (2015). Homophobia: History and definitions. Retrieved from http://nobullying.com/homophobia
  9. ProCon.org. (2013). Historical timeline: History of the born gay debate and theories of sexual orientation. Retrieved from http://borngay.procon.org/view.timeline.php?timelineID=000027
  10. Rafferty, A. (2013, October 1). Homophobia. Retrieved from http://www.pamf.org/teen/sex/homophobia.html
  11. Same difference – Reducing homophobia in schools. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fpnsw.org.au/samedifference
  12. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2015). Persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich. Retrieved from http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005261

Last Updated: 05-17-2016

  • Leave a Comment
  • Aurora

    October 7th, 2016 at 6:19 AM

    Hey, I’m writing a paper on phobias…I need a authors name and your credentials….if you could reply before tomorrow this would help a lot…! Thank you.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    October 7th, 2016 at 8:43 AM

    Hi Aurora,
    This article was written by GoodTherapy.org staff. To cite it, you can either use GoodTherapy.org as the author, or cite it as you would for an article with no author.

    Good luck! :)
    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Ämy

    June 23rd, 2017 at 4:29 PM

    Ig its closed

  • Redpill_1

    May 26th, 2021 at 8:10 PM

    i think i am homophobic, should i seek help?
    I try to avoid any female homosexual and i find extremely hard to not hate those females, i don’t have the fear of them i just hate them

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