Why are some people homophobic? (Psychological Explanation)


Why are some people homophobic?

What is homophobic? Having or showing a dislike of or prejudice against gay people. Homophobic do not tolerate homosexual or bisexual people, whom they consider “abnormal”. This often results in reactions of rejection, exclusion and hostility. This can lead to being verbally and/or physically violent towards people perceived as homosexual or bisexual.

What is homophobia?

Phobia is fear. And homophobia, the fear of homosexual people. Homosexuals are boys in love with boys, gays, or girls who love girls, lesbians. Some people are embarrassed or disgusted by homosexuals. They insult them, make fun of them or… hit them.

Why do people reject homosexuals?

Some people think that you shouldn’t love someone of the same sex as yourself. That being gay is not “normal”. They reject difference and seek to exclude homosexuals. They are said to be homophobic. They do not want homosexuals to have the same rights as them, such as getting married or adopting a child.

Homophobia exists on the Internet, at school, in the streets, in sports, on TV, and in the family, when parents no longer want to talk to their homosexual child.

In 71 countries, homosexuality is prohibited by law. In 8 countries, homosexuals can be sentenced to death. In many countries, it is homophobia that is punished. If you hear insults, you should tell an adult. Associations also help victims of homophobia, by telephone or on the Internet. Because everyone has the right to be different. A day of struggle recalls this every May 17.

Am I the one who has a problem? No, it’s them!

Even if this is not always the case, being part of a sexual minority can lead to negative reactions on the part of the close entourage, friends, acquaintances or even people you do not know and whose paths we cross.

We can then be led to think that if we are a victim of homophobia or that we risk being so, it is because we are gay, lesbian, etc. “It’s my fault: if I weren’t gay or lesbian, I wouldn’t have these problems, I wouldn’t be rejected, insulted…” This way of seeing things is guilt-inducing, it can lead us to think that we are responsible for what happens to us or can happen to us “because” of our sexual orientation. These types of thoughts can have negative effects on our psychological well-being (e.g. depressing us, making us unhappy or unhappy, causing us to lose self-confidence, etc.).

However, it is possible to have another look at these situations: “if I am discriminated against, victim of homophobia, it is not because I am gay or lesbian… It is because some people don’t not accept my sexual orientation“. With this way of seeing things, it is easier to understand that we are not at fault but, on the contrary, legitimate to defend ourselves and assert our rights.

Read also: Alan Turing Biography | Tragically fated mathematician, computer inventor, artificial intelligence pioneer, WWII hero, and persecuted homosexual

From studies on homosexuality… to studies on homophobia

Psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts have changed their view of homosexuality since the beginning of the 20th century, especially in the West. Some still think that it is a psychological disorder, a form of illness that could be “cured”, but the vast majority of these professionals no longer agree with that.
For example, the American Psychiatric Association no longer considers homosexuality a mental illness since 1973, the American Psychological Association since 1975, and the World Health Organization since 1993. In 2009, the Psychological Association Americana has also shown that there is no scientific evidence to confirm that sexual orientation can be changed by psychotherapy.

Since the 1970s, many researchers in psychology have therefore been interested in attitudes towards homosexuality and in particular in the reasons that lead certain people to have negative attitudes towards homosexuality.

In psychology, homophobia is an “attitude”

What is an attitude? In psychology, we often agree that an attitude is a “psychological tendency”, that is to say a state of mind, more or less favorable or unfavorable, towards objects (for example, new technologies) , actions (eg playing sports) but also towards people or groups of people (eg vegetarians, footballers, etc.).

We can therefore have more or less negative or positive attitudes towards homosexuality and homosexual people. Negative attitudes can manifest themselves in three ways:

beliefs about homosexuality (for example, believing that homosexuality is a disease or that you cannot have a happy romantic relationship when you are gay or lesbian);
emotions and feelings: embarrassment, fear, hatred, etc.
behavior: aggression, insult or harassment towards people because they are homosexual or supposed to be.

In everyday life, in society, we use the term “homophobe” to describe those who reject homosexual people, attack them, etc. Homophobia is also enshrined in French law as a prohibited criterion of discrimination.
However, the principle of the law is to prohibit the discriminatory behavior of individuals, not what they think or feel. From a scientific point of view, in psychology in particular, it is therefore different and more complex since “homophobia” is considered as an attitude that can be translated into beliefs, emotions and/or behaviors.

From this point of view, from when can we say that a person is “homophobic”? Is it enough that she feels a little embarrassment or fear when she meets homosexual people (emotions)? Or that she thinks that homosexual people are less happy than others (beliefs)?

This is why in psychology, it is better to avoid calling people “homophobes” and better to talk about people with negative attitudes (more or less high) towards homosexual people.

Read also: Kiyoshi Kuromiya | Anti-war, gay liberation, and HIV/AIDS activist

Why do we have more or less negative attitudes towards homosexuality?

First, negative attitudes toward homosexuality can be directly encouraged by a society. This is the case in certain countries which punish and encourage the population to punish homosexual people: this is called state homophobia.

But these negative attitudes are also reinforced when homosexual people are treated differently from others, for example by prohibiting same-sex marriage, or even by concealing the existence of homosexuality (for example when homosexuality is not not addressed in some courses on sexuality at school). This is called heterosexism or heterocentrism.

However, granting the same rights does not solve everything because other factors come into play. Here are a few that are best highlighted in psychology research.

1. Gender and gender roles

In patriarchal societies (those where men have power, i.e. the majority of societies), masculinity is valued more than femininity. Thus, women can be valued when they adopt traditional masculine roles (for example when they manage to do a job deemed masculine because it is physically difficult) while men who adopt traditional feminine roles can be mocked (for example they do sewing).

Some men therefore feel the need to protect the masculinity that would be “attacked” by homosexuality. Indeed, this may appear to them as a sort of threat to their status, in particular because there are prejudices according to which homosexual men are not really men like the others, therefore they are similar to women: they they’re not manly, they’re not strong, they’re not dominant. They feel, in a way, endangered in their legitimacy by a definition of man different from their own. On the other hand, women have less need than men to reject homosexuality to maintain a good image of femininity. . Numerous studies show that women have more favorable attitudes than men towards gay men. As masculinity would guarantee the “good functioning” of society, gay men would be more targeted by negative attitudes than lesbian women, whether from men or women.

Studies support this hypothesis because they show that there is a link with gender attitudes: the more people agree with traditional conceptions of gender roles (i.e. they think that men have to fill “men’s roles”, women “women’s roles”), the more negative attitudes they have towards homosexual people. And this link exists more in men than in women.

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2. Religiosity

Religiosity is the term used in psychology and sociology to talk about religious feeling. This notion is complex to define, because it describes both the reasons for practicing a religion, and the way to do it.

According to people, religion will not be practiced for the same reasons:

  • sometimes the practice of a religion has a more social than religious objective (extrinsic religiosity): to have social relations, to be accepted and integrated into a social group…
  • for others, religiosity serves above all as a guide (intrinsic religiosity): one believes for oneself and one tries to follow the rules laid down by religion to guide one’s life
  • finally, religiosity can represent a means of finding answers on the meaning of life (quest religiosity).

In addition, religiosity covers a very wide variety of practices, in terms of frequency (going more or less often to religious services, for example), the way of interpreting religion (from moderation to fundamentalism) and the importance given to religion in their life by the believer (they will describe themselves as being more or less religious, give it more or less importance).

The notion of religiosity being complex, the links with attitudes are also complex. While many religious dogmas disseminate a negative image of homosexuality, believers are not necessarily obliged to adhere to them because the interpretations of the texts may vary. Furthermore, personal moral values (such as tolerance) or personality traits (such as empathy) also play a major role in how these precepts are integrated.

The study by Whitley (2009) reveals from these different definitions that the higher the intrinsic religiosity, the more the attitudes towards homosexuality are negative.

As for quest religiosity, it shows an inverse link: the higher it is (i.e. one is interested in religion to find answers on the meaning of life), the less the attitudes are negative, probably because these people are open to reflection, more open-minded and therefore more tolerant towards other groups in society.

On the other hand, he finds no link between extrinsic religiosity and negative attitudes. These results show that people who have a religious belief or practice are not necessarily homophobic.

3. Contact with homosexual people

Knowing homosexual people, having close, friendly, warm relationships with them, allows heterosexual people to understand that homosexual people, in many ways, are no different from others. This leads to a reduction in prejudice and a better understanding of the difficulties that homosexual people may face in their daily lives. These contacts also make it possible to see that there are as many differences between homosexual people as there are differences between heterosexual people.

For example, not all straight men like soccer, and not all gay men like Lady Gaga! Similarly, you can be a gay man and do boxing, and be a heterosexual man and enjoy high fashion.

4. Beliefs about the origin of homosexuality

People who believe that homosexuality is biological and not a choice tend to have fewer negative attitudes than those who believe that homosexuality is acquired over the course of life, for example:

  • by the influence of other people,
  • by deliberate choice.

The role of these beliefs is still debated. Conversely, those who believe that homosexuality is not a choice may have integrated this idea because they had positive attitudes at the base.

Homophobic people may fear that they or those close to them will become homosexual, which intensifies their rejection or fear of homosexual people. This is also why some associations fighting against homophobia are accused of “proselytism”, as if their goal, instead of defending individuals, was to convince people to become homosexuals.

5. Personality traits

Certain personality characteristics also play a role.

For example, what is called authoritarianism, which is the fact of being attached to traditional values (for example, a “real” couple can only be composed of a man and a woman) and respect for the social order. The stronger the authoritarianism in a person, the more prejudice they have towards people who are “different” or who threaten their traditional core values.

Another example is what is called social dominance orientation. It is a preference for hierarchy between groups in society and for social inequalities rather than equality between groups.
It is thus understood that the stronger these personality characteristics are, the more the attitudes towards sexual minorities are negative because these minorities, through their claims to be treated equally in society, question traditions and “superiority” or the advantages that are granted to heterosexual people.

Conversely, other personality characteristics may play a role when they lead to positive attitudes towards homosexual people. Empathy, for example (the ability to understand the emotions of others), makes it possible to understand how painful it is for a homosexual person to be confronted with homophobia.

But by the way, what is the “use” of being homophobic?

Some researchers believe that homophobic attitudes would be “useful” for the psychological functioning of certain people who would derive psychological benefit from them: this is called a “psychological function”. Thus, Gregory Herek, an American researcher, has identified 4 main functions:

The social adjustment function:

it involves having negative attitudes in order to be accepted by a group, for example a group of friends, who consider that homosexual people should be rejected. Also, for example, the fact of attacking a homosexual person thus makes it possible to prove that one shares the values of the heterosexual group and to be accepted and maintained in this group.

The function of expressing personal values:

for some individuals, homosexual people represent a symbol that is contrary to their values, values that are important in the way they define themselves. By rejecting homosexual people, these individuals express their values, reinforce them and may even feel that they are doing justice.

The experiential function:

it happens that individuals have unpleasant experiences with homosexual people, as one can have with anyone. To the extent that society harbors negative prejudices about homosexual people, these individuals may think that if these experiences were negative, it is because these people were homosexual.

The defensive function:

some psychologists think that sexuality is something that is psychologically fluid, that it is not necessarily fixed, that it can evolve over the course of life and that it is not simply characterized by the 3 categories that are usually mentioned (i.e. heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality). Thus an individual who defines himself as heterosexual can, at some point in his life, have fantasies about people of his sex and at the same time be afraid of being homosexual or of becoming one. For these individuals, homosexuals represent an unacceptable part of themselves that they are afraid of, which can make them anxious and against which they want to fight. They can thus seek to affirm, for themselves and for others, their heterosexuality by rejecting homosexual people, by avoiding them or by attacking them, for example.

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Can you be gay/lesbian… and homophobic?

Yes ! Gay or lesbian people may have discriminatory beliefs, emotions and behaviors towards other homosexual people and towards themselves. This is called internalized (or internalized) homophobia. For example, they may believe that their attraction to people of the same sex is a disease or that you cannot be happy or happy in a relationship when you are gay or lesbian. They may also feel shame or disgust towards themselves but also fear towards other homosexual people, especially if they think they are unhealthy. In some cases, they can even engage in discriminatory behavior, such as rejecting other homosexual people and even attacking them.

How to explain that one can be homophobic by being gay or lesbian? From an early age, children receive stereotyped information about homosexuality (from those around them, their friends, the media, etc.). Many stereotypes concerning homosexuality exist and are conveyed in society, so a person can integrate them, internalize them, when they do not yet know that one day they will be attracted to people of the same sex. It is therefore not always easy to have a “positive” image of homosexuality when one is gay or lesbian oneself. Thinking about certain things will make them very uncomfortable: imagining having sex with people of the same sex, fear of having to reveal their sexual orientation to others, fear of having to associate with other homosexual people, not being able to bear to be associated with them, etc. Because of this internalized homophobia, some people refuse their attractions and try to give up living their homosexuality. Some people force themselves to have heterosexual relationships even if they are not happy with it.

What are the consequences of this internalized homophobia? In 2010, Newcomb and his colleagues analyzed several studies on the effects of internalized homophobia. They conclude that it can cause depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation but also risky sexual behavior (such as the lack of use of means of protection against sexually transmitted infections). Other studies show that the more people have a high level of internalized homophobia, the more difficult it is for them to be happy in a relationship. Internalized homophobia also leads some people to reject other gay or lesbian people. By avoiding them, they will deprive themselves of the support and help that these people would be able to give them to face the difficulties they may encounter.

It is therefore important for their psychological health and their social life that gay or lesbian people manage to accept their sexual orientation and that they have a positive image of it, and above all that they have a positive image of themselves.


Attitudes towards sexual minorities are therefore complex and scientific research and debates in psychology on the reasons for these attitudes should make it possible to better combat homophobia. As Anna Ghione’s book or Lilian Thuram’s interview below show, for example, it is fortunately possible that some homophobic people will change their point of view. Their personality traits, their sensitivity and their commitment will play in this process of change, but also their life experiences and their encounters. This is why it is useful to open the dialogue, even if the evolution can take years.

For homosexuals affected by internalized homophobia, succeeding in getting rid of negative prejudices is crucial because it is essential to their long-term development. This will be doable if they manage to identify how homophobic beliefs may have been instilled in them, and why they persist.

If gay or lesbian people have people around them who have negative attitudes towards homosexuality, it is important to rely on other people, those who have positive attitudes and who are also called “allies”. They will be able to support them personally (in case of difficulties in accepting their sexual orientation or when they are victims of homophobia), but also socially by supporting access to equal rights.

Sources: PinterPandai, Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc., State Government of Victoria – Australia

Photo credit: cuncon via Pixabay

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