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Three important areas of research have emerged on homophobia since the 1970s. Since Weinberg (1972) first popularized the term homophobia in his book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, where he defined it as the dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals,” we have seen the emergence of sophisticated psychological instruments, a vast array of surveys and qualitative studies that explore the attitudes, feelings and social practices that constitute homophobia.
While scholars such as Sears and Williams (1997) now define homophobia more broadly as prejudice, discrimination, harassment, or acts of violence against sexual minorities, including lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered persons,” psychological instruments also differentiate between homophobic attitudes and feelings. For example, MacDonald and Games’ (1974) 30-item instrument, Modified Attitudes Toward Homosexuality, and Hudson and Rickett’s (1980) Index of Homophobia, which uses a scale to measure reactions to homosexual individuals, have become standard ways to assess homophobia. Although these psychological instruments are able to differentiate between attitudes as cognitive beliefs and feelings as deeply seated emotional responses, they do not capture how attitudes and feelings affect social practices.
The second and largest area of research on homophobia is the development of a huge variety of surveys on homophobic attitudes among adults. The general findings of these surveys in the USA show that the demographic characteristics of those who hold negative attitudes about homosexuals are more likely to live in the Midwest, the South or small towns and rural areas. Moreover, negative attitudes are more likely to be held by men who are older and less well educated. Increases in college-educated Americans and a general liberalizing of attitudes towards homosexuality since the 1970s but particularly salient during the 1990s has been supported by survey research in general. These surveys also show that men have stronger homophobic attitudes or feelings than women, and that men evidence a stronger dislike for gay male homosexuality than lesbianism.
Nayak and Kehily (1997) argue that identities are always constructed, and gain their meanings, through cultural oppositions. Hence, masculine identities are constructed through their opposition to feminine ones, gaining their meaning through excluding feminine identities but at the same time depending upon them for definition. This understanding, they argue, explains why young men are not necessarily against homosexuality itself but rather its associations with femininity and the lack of a masculine self-identity that it implies. They thus view homophobia as a practice that establishes boundaries of purity and pollution between pure heterosexual masculine men and polluted non-heterosexual feminine ones.
An even more violent heterosexual masculine identity, which depends on homophobia for its constitution, is analyzed by Sanday (1990) in her study of fraternity gang rape. Sanday shows that fraternity brothers promote compulsory heterosexuality in acts of gang rape by using homophobic social sanctions which deride those brothers who do not participate as homosexual or unmanly. At the same time, however, a sublimated homosexuality is expressed by the fact that the frat brothers are having sex with one another through the woman being gang raped. Homosexual desire is expunged out of the act of gang rape through homophobic and compulsory heterosexual discourses that construct masculine heterosexual brothers who pull train,” that is, gang rape a woman, as exclusively heterosexual.
In sum, homophobia has become an important topic in social science research. The growing sophistication of psychological instruments, the increasing number of surveys, and the numerous qualitative studies analyzing homophobia help us to better understand this complex phenomenon and its conceptualization as a form of deviance. Future quantitative and qualitative research on homophobia is still needed to fill in the literature, especially on men who consciously and behaviorally identify as heterosexual and commit the largest number of hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Similarly, more research on the most effective strategies for reducing homophobia is warranted. This research would help policymakers and others in mitigating the pernicious effects of this social problem.
- Adam, B. (1998) Theorizing homophobia. Sexualities 1 (4): 387—404.
- Herek, G. and Glunt, E. (1993) Interpersonal contact and heterosexuals’ attitudes toward gay men. Journal of Sex Research 30 (3): 239—44.
- Nayak, A. and Kehily, M. (1997) Masculinities and schooling: why are young men so homophobic? In: Steinberg, D., Epstein, D. & Johnson, R. (eds.), Border Patrols: Policing the Boundaries of Heterosexuality. Cassell, London.
- Sanday, P. (1990) FraternityGangRape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. New York University Press, New York.
- Sears, J. and Williams, W. (eds.) (1997) Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: Strategies that Work. Columbia University Press, New York.