The Social Psychology of Homophobia: Toward a Practical Theory


Any good political activist knows that bringing about social change requires both theory and practice. The struggle for lesbian and gay rights is no exception. We need a theory, a plan for where we are going, and we must keep revising that plan as we deal with the world’s realities. With Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and the continuing influence of theNew Right, this need is more pressing than ever before. For one important part of our campaign – eliminating homophobia – I think we already have some plans and theories about the sources of homophobia and how we can confront them. But these theories are largely unarticulated and, therefore, not easily subjected to critical analysis.

Why are people homophobic? Ask this question in a group of lesbians and gay men, and someone inevitably responds with a variation on the follow-ing theme: people are homophobic either because they fear their own latent homosexuality or because they are insecure in their own masculinity or femininity. This answer represents one of the most popular “commonsense” explanations for homophobia. It is a theory that guides our practice.

Another theory is evident in many gay rights campaigns, where there is an effort to let voters “get to know” lesbians and gay men through canvassing and “pressing the flesh.” This tactic reflects the theory that homophobia stems from ignorance: that heterosexuals who meet gay people will learn that they are just nice folks, and that reducing ignorance in this way will reduce prejudice. But this approach does not fit well with the first theory – that homophobia results from insecurities with one’s own masculinity or femininity. People who are insecure about their sexuality and feel threatened by lesbians or gay men probably prefer to remain as ignorant as they possibly can and thereby avoid the whole issue.

These two theories offer conflicting strategies. We could cite other examples, all of which point out the need for careful theorizing about homophobia, coupled with hands-on, real-world efforts to eliminate it. To borrow from an old song, like a horse and carriage, our theory and practice really do go together – we cannot have one without the other.

In this paper, I will sketch a theory that I have found useful for understanding the social psychology of homophobia, i.e., how heterosexual individuals social interactions and personal experiences shape their reactions to lesbians and gay men. The gist of the theory is this: people in American society today react to lesbians and gay men in many different ways and for many different reasons. If we hope to minimize the negative reactions and foster the positive, we must understand this very complicated process. Homophobia is not a monolithic, unified phenomenon. Changing individual attitudes and societal institutions requires recognition that there are homophobias.

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With the publication of Professor Donald G. Casswell's monumental work Lesbians, Gay Men, and Canadian Law in November, 1996, the Canadian discussion of the legal rights of lesbians and gay men has reached a level of sophistication commensurate with its