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Sexual Prejudice: Understanding Homophobia and Heterosexism, Biphobia and Transphobia

by Kris Coonan, UQ Union, University of Queensland

Keywords: Homophobia; Internalised Homophobia; Heterosexism; Transphobia; Biphobia.


People with same-sex desires and relationships have long been stigmatized. With the rise of the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s, however, the view of same-sex attraction and behaviour as immoral, criminal and sick came under increasing scrutiny. When the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis in 1973, the question of why some heterosexuals harbour strongly negative attitudes toward homosexuals began to receive serious scientific consideration.



Society's rethinking of sexual orientation centred on the term homophobia, which was introduced by heterosexual psychologist George Weinberg in the late 1960s. Weinberg used homophobia to describe heterosexuals' dread of being in close quarters with same-sex attracted people as well as same-sex attracted people's self loathing.



At about the same time, heterosexism began to be used as a term similar to sexism and racism, describing an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any sexual form of behaviour, identity, relationship, or community that is not completely heterosexual and heteronormative. Using the term heterosexism highlights the parallels between sexual prejudice and other forms of prejudice, such as racism and sexism.

Like institutional racism and sexism, heterosexism is taught and perpetuated through societal customs and institutions. Same-sex attraction and relationships usually remain culturally invisible - they are denied or not spoken of at all; when people who engage in same-sex behaviours or who are identified as same-sex attracted become visible, they are subject to attack by society.

Glaring examples of heterosexism in Australia include: hostility to lesbian and gay committed relationships, recently dramatized by the Federal Parliamentary amendment to the Marriage Act to specifically exclude same-sex marriage (even banning recognition of overseas marriages); the media and political furore surrounding "Playschoolgate" (where the ABC was reprimanded by leaders of both the Liberal Party and the ALP for showing a little girl out with her "two Mums"); and the discrepancy in Queensland between the age of consent for vaginal intercourse (age 16) and anal sex (age 18).

Although usage of the two words has not been uniform, homophobia has typically been employed to describe individual antigay attitudes and behaviours while heterosexism has referred to societal-level ideologies and patterns of institutionalized oppression of same-sex attracted people.





While these terms are useful in drawing attention to hostility toward same-sex attracted people, they have important limitations and should be used carefully and appropriately. The misuse of the term "homophobia", for example, has given fuel to fundamentalists and social conservatives who claim that they don't "fear homosexuals" but hate "the homosexual lifestyle". Heterosexism is a more appropriate term to use in many cases, but as an umbrella term "sexual prejudice" is probably the most accurate and useful.

Critics have observed that the widespread catch-all use of the term homophobia is problematic for at least three reasons.

First, empirical research does not indicate that heterosexuals' antigay attitudes can reasonably be considered a phobia in the clinical sense. The limited data available suggest that many heterosexuals who express hostility toward gay men, lesbians and bisexuals do not manifest the physiological reactions that are associated with other phobias.

Second, using homophobia implies that this prejudice is an individual, clinical entity rather than a social phenomenon rooted in cultural ideologies. Additionally, a phobia is usually experienced as dysfunctional and unpleasant. Anti-gay, lesbian and bisexual prejudice, however, is often highly functional for the people who manifest it and they may derive some pleasure and social status from it.

Finally, a phobia generally refers to a fear of a situation or object which may inherently pose some danger. Arachnophobes have an extreme fear of spiders, claustrophobes an extreme fear of small spaces. The fear is exaggerated, but not totally without basis - spiders may bite, small spaces may run out of air.

The term heterosexism is a useful description of social attitudes which arise from cultural ideologies rather than individual attitudes or personal experiences, but it is not a satisfactory replacement for homophobia because of its macro-level focus (the problem here being that individual psychological factors are not considered).


Sexual Prejudice

Gregory Herek (Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Davis) suggests that a more useful term for a scientific analysis of the psychology of these attitudes is Sexual prejudice. Sexual prejudice encompasses all negative attitudes based on sexual orientation. (Herek, 2000)

According to Professor Herek, like other types of prejudice, sexual prejudice has three principal features:

It is an attitude (i.e., an evaluation or judgment).

It is directed at a social group and its members.

It is negative, involving hostility or dislike.


Are Some Heterosexuals More Likely To Be Prejudiced Than Others?

Reputable research shows that heterosexuals' attitudes toward same-sex attracted people are consistently correlated with various demographic, psychological, and social variables.

It is important to remember, though, that these associations describe general patterns in the population. Not all individuals fit these patterns. Also, these are correlations, so it is not completely proven that these demographic variables cause sexual prejudice, just that the variables tend to be found together.

For example, the belief that same-sex attraction is chosen is correlated with greater sexual prejudice. This may mean that believing same-sex attraction is a choice leads a person to hold negative attitudes toward gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Alternatively, it may mean that people who hold negative attitudes toward same-sex attracted people for another reason are more receptive to beliefs that seem to attach blame to a person for their sexual orientation. [N.B. Could we say that this is also true of gay and lesbian people who are prejudiced toward bisexual people? I think so.]


Demographic Correlates

In contrast to heterosexuals with positive attitudes toward same-sex attracted people, those with negative attitudes are more likely to be:



less well-educated

residing in geographic areas where negative attitudes represent the norm (for example, rural areas).


 Political and Religious Values.

Those with negative attitudes are:

more likely to attend religious services frequently

more likely to endorse orthodox religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of the Bible

more likely to describe themselves as politically conservative, rather than liberal or moderate.


 Personality and Attitudinal Characteristics

Those with negative attitudes:

display higher levels of psychological authoritarianism

are less sexually permissive

are more supportive of traditional gender roles.


Perceptions and Experiences of Gay Men and Lesbians

Those with negative attitudes:

are more likely to believe that a person's orientation is freely chosen

are less likely to have had close personal friends or family members who are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual.


Sexual Prejudice: Motivations

According to Herek, a variety of motivations underlie sexual prejudice. He suggests that the best way to reveal those motives is to ask how a particular person's prejudicial attitudes benefit her or him psychologically:

"This functional approach has been used to understand attitudes in many different domains. Its basic assumption is that people hold and express particular attitudes because they derive psychological benefit from doing so. For any individual, attitudes toward different objects can serve different functions. Moreover, different individuals can express attitudes toward an object that appear to be identical but actually serve different functions. A final assumption of this approach is that attitudes are dynamic and are affected by situational variables. Different situations make different psychological needs salient, which can affect the extent to which a particular attitude is functional or not in that situation.

Thus, a functional perspective assumes that heterosexuals have different motivations for their attitudes toward lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. Four principal psychological functions have been identified that underlie those attitudes.

First, attitudes serving an experiential function assist heterosexuals in making sense of their previous interactions with same-sex attracted people. They do this by helping the individual to fit those interactions into a larger world view, one that is organized primarily in terms of the individual's own self interest. Some heterosexuals accept same-sex attracted people in general on the basis of pleasant interaction experiences with a specific same-sex attracted person. Others hold negative attitudes toward the entire group primarily as a result of their unpleasant experiences with particular individuals.

Sexual prejudice can only serve an experiential function when the heterosexual has had personal contact with same-sex attracted people. For those who have not had such contact, same-sex attracted people are primarily symbols. Whereas attitudes toward people with whom one has direct experience function primarily to organize and make sense of those experiences, attitudes toward symbols serve a different kind of function. Such attitudes help people to increase their self-esteem by expressing important aspects of themselves – by declaring (to themselves and to others) what sort of people they are. Affirming who one is, is often is accomplished by distancing oneself from or even attacking people who represent the sort of person one is not (or does not want to be). [Once again, not that we could apply all of these insights to gay and lesbian prejudice toward bisexuality. One gets to feel "superior" and "pure" by scapegoating bisexual people].

 Three different attitude functions have been identified that serve these symbolic purposes.

Attitudes serving a value-expressive function enable heterosexuals to affirm their belief in and adherence to important values that are closely related to their self concepts.

When attitudes serve a social expressive function, expressing the attitude strengthens one's sense of belonging to a particular group and helps an individual to gain acceptance, approval, or love from other people whom she or he considers important (e.g., peers, family, neighbours). [or gay and lesbian peer group with regard to bi prejudice].

Finally, attitudes serving an ego defensive function lower a person's anxiety resulting from her or his unconscious psychological conflicts, such as those surrounding sexuality or gender. So, people who are firmly committed to a view of themselves as exclusively heterosexual because of cultural or religious beliefs may defend themselves against the fear of their own same-sex desires by exhibiting rampant sexual prejudice against same-sex attracted people. [the parallels are again obvious. "If you can be bi, maybe I can be bi!" This is particularly problematic for lesbian women who've had to endure years of heterosexist disrespect of the "all she needs is the right man" variety. Unfortunately, it's often bisexual women who bear the brunt of the backlash, rather than the heterosexist culture itself].

 It is important to recognize the nexus between individual attitudes and cultural heterosexism. A particular manifestation of sexual prejudice can serve one or more of these functions only when the individual's psychological needs converge with the culture's ideology about same-sex attraction. Prejudice against same-sex attraction can be value-expressive only when an individual's self-concept is closely tied to values that also have become socially defined as antithetical to homosexuality. It can be socially expressive only insofar as an individual strongly needs to be accepted by members of a social group that rejects homosexuality. It can be ego defensive only when lesbians, bisexuals and gay men are culturally defined in a way that links them to an individual's own psychological conflicts." (Herek, 2000)


Internalised Homophobia

Those who counsel same-sex attracted people often encounter examples of self-hatred to various degrees in their clients. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this self-loathing (or internalised homophobia) is more likely to be pronounced in those individuals who come from backgrounds which include the demographic correlates listed above, including: conservative values; lack of tertiary education; fundamentalist religious beliefs; lack of exposure to positive same-sex attracted role-models; and very conservative or traditional views about gender roles and attributes.

Individuals with internalised homophobia will tend to see their same-sex attraction as "sinful" and "curable" and will often express a desire to "change" their orientation. They are extremely vulnerable to homophobic health practitioners and religious mentors and are often recruited by "conversion therapists" and "ex-gay" ministries. The suicide rate amongst these individuals - especially those recruited by "ex-gay" ministries- is extremely high. It is absolutely vital to put these people in touch with supportive counsellor's with whom they can identify as soon as possible. Many will be reluctant to go along to a gay or lesbian counsellor initially and will often exhibit extreme hostility and resistance to practitioner's who are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual. These people may fare better with an LGBT-friendly "straight" practitioner initially, until they begin to come to grips with the source of their own homophobia. Psychology and counselling clinics at the major Brisbane Universities are a good option for this, or you can refer them to Indigo House (which is not specifically gay and lesbian identified), or Relationships Australia when sexuality issues are affecting close relationships. If they are reluctant to access any ongoing counselling, another initial option is to refer them to the online articles by Duane Simolke and Michael Flood listed in the References section at the end of this document. In the case of those who are very religious, it is also imperative to put them in touch with LGBT-supportive church groups, such as Catholic Acceptance or the Metropolitan Community Church, or refer them to online resources such as the site by "Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance" (also listed in the reference section below).

Internalised homophobia is not always so overt and a less obvious form can be evidenced by a variety of attitudes, including a tendency to attribute one's psychological problems to sexual orientation (i.e. seeing depression as being caused by one's sexual orientation, rather than by societal prejudice and oppression). It is vitally important to help a person with this view to a healthier self-concept by gentle questioning as to the source of their depression or anxiety. Consider the following example:

A gay man tells you, "I'm gay, and I'm really depressed".

You would not use a reflecting technique to say: "So being gay is making you really unhappy".

You would say: "What has been happening to make you feel depressed?"

This allows him the opportunity to identify the prejudicial attitudes of significant others, or cultural heterosexism, as the cause of the depression, rather than the depression being intrinsically tied to his sexuality. For example, he may then say:

"My Father says he won't have a poofter for a son".

to which you might then reply:

"Why do you think your Father has such negative attitudes to gay people?"

This allows him to explore the factors in his father's background and social group which causes his father's sexual prejudice. From here, he is on the road to locating the problem where it really belongs and you can assist him to find strategies to cope with the sadness his father's attitude causes. You could talk to him about P-Flag and put him in touch with Shelley Argent who can talk to him about other parents who have had the same attitude, but who have come to be more supportive in time. Or he can meet other parents, many of whom are willing and able to act as "surrogate" parent figures who can support him in his sexuality. You can put him in touch with a coming out support group where he can share his sadness and fears with others at a similar stage in their journey and where he can recover and regroup to face the world and regain strength to resist social and interpersonal homophobia and heterosexism. Referring someone to a counsellor is not always necessary where there is no suicidal ideation or clinical condition present, but it should always be suggested if you think these things may be present. Remember that not all LGBT people in the early stages of coming out will be comfortable accessing identified LGBT services, so you should have other suggestions available for those who are not ready to access LGBT services.

Internalised homophobia may also be evidenced by an acknowledgement of one's same-sex attraction which is always accompanied by a desire to differentiate oneself from "overt" gays and lesbians. I call this the good gay/bad gay syndrome. It is usually also accompanied by a marked degree of sexism and a strident commitment to traditional gender roles and attitudes about "appropriate" masculine and feminine behaviour. These people are characteristically obsessed by displaying their status as "real men" or "real women" - but according to sexist societal ideologies. Their anxiety is usually such that they avoid any association with men they consider to be "effeminate" or women they consider to be "butch". They are overly concerned that their own masculinity or femininity may be called into question. They may frequently use homophobic language to describe other lesbian and gay people, such as "bulldykes" or "screaming queens". The homophobic nature of this response is evidenced by phrases such as "I may be gay, but..." Sentences beginning this way indicate the underlying belief that to be gay is to be "less than", but to transgress traditional masculinity or femininity is even lesser.


Transphobia or Prejudice Against Transgender and Transsexual People

This type of prejudice is obviously likely in those who have internalised heterosexist and homophobic messages - whether they are heterosexual or gay, lesbian or bisexual. We need to acknowledge that there is a great deal of discrimination against and oppression of trans* people in the gay and lesbian community as well as the heterosexual world. Like heterosexuals who derive a great deal of their self-concept from demarcating themselves sharply from the "opposite sex", some gay and lesbian people may feel extremely threatened by those who blur the distinction between "man" and "woman", "masculine" and "feminine" [or straight and gay - as is the case with bisexual people]. Interestingly, some of these individuals may be quite comfortable with "passing" trans* people (i.e. those who transition completely, appear either very feminine or very masculine and take on their gender roles according to prevailing cultural mores), but be extremely averse to trans* individuals who do not "pass" on any of these levels. This type of transphobia or "gender panic" will only be overcome when we have overcome the sexism which is the legacy of a traditionally patriarchal society. Many trans* activists, such as Kate Bornstein, argue that homophobia and heterosexism have their roots in a rigidly enforced patriarchal gender-binary, where men and women are seen as "very different" in biologically essentialist ways. A number of queer scholars and theologians agree, arguing that in fundamentalist religious systems, homophobia and heterosexism are inextricably linked with rigid gender demarcation. Kate Bornstein has suggested that rather than trans* people being a subset of the gay and lesbian community, gays and lesbians are actually a subset of "trans". The reason for this, Kate argues, is that in our culture, being a man or a woman is fundamentally tied to one's object of sexual attraction being the "opposite" sex. This attitude heavily implies that being gay or lesbian entails being "not quite a man" or "not quite a woman". In order to overcome the kind of internalised homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism this belief system entails, we must come to a position of personal strength where we no longer buy into needing to prove ourselves to be "real men" or "real women". The road to this position entails questioning ourselves and others about why we feel the need to demarcate men and women so strongly and what influences in our culture and upbringing have convinced us that this is necessary, desirable or inevitable.

A useful way to start this conversation with someone who exhibits sexism toward the "opposite sex", homophobia toward "effeminate men" or "masculine women", or transphobia against those who "do not pass" is to ask:

"What's wrong with a man being feminine?"

"What's wrong with a woman being masculine?"

"Why must individuals be clearly one or the other?" "What about intersex people? Should they all be forced to have surgery?"

Ultimately you are likely to get down to the bare-bones of a reply such as:

"It's not natural!" or

"It's not normal".

To which you can reply, "Heterosexist and homophobic people use that argument to attack gay and lesbian people too. In earlier times, sexists and racists used that argument to deny women and minority ethnic groups full citizenship. Who decides what is normal and natural? And what justifications do they usually use for their prejudices?" Same-sex attraction and sexual activity is found throughout the animal kingdom. Gender expression is by no means uniform in nature or even across human cultures. Intersex individuals have always occurred "naturally". What then is the source of our prejudice?

Ultimately, a desire to avoid association with people who are not "straight-acting" or people who are identifiable as trans* may stem from fear of violence and persecution. This is similar to a person with some minority ethnic heritage choosing to pass as "white" in a racist society. It is difficult to be judgmental of this fear-avoidance strategy - some people are braver than others and some have no choice - but we should all be aware that these strategies to enhance our own safety come at the expense of others. With fewer people willing to publicly resist and challenge racism and sexual prejudice (and sexism), the more likely these blights will continue.

Of course, the prejudice may also run the other way. Transgender people may be homophobic. "I may be transgender, but I'm not gay!" Lgbt people may actively avoid heterosexual people, calling them "breeders". This latter phenomenon is a defensive strategy which is a naturally occurring reaction amongst members of a socially oppressed group, who may begin to see all of those people with automatic privilege as complicit in their oppression.

"Divide and conquer" is a tried and tested method and it is effectively exploited by a patriarchal, racist and sexist culture to ensure division within the so-called LGBT/I community as well as amongst women and amongst oppressed religious and ethnic groups. We have the choice to collude or to resist and overcome. The solution starts within each of us. We need to look at our own fear and discomfort and identify the social influences that have inculcated them within us. My daughter is incredibly blasé and unperturbed by gender diversity and blurring - she thinks it's fun and it in no way appears to undermine her sense of who she is. The first time she ever saw me dressed in "drag" on my way to a party, she asked me "Do people sometimes think you're a boy?" "Well, I suppose some might", I said. "Cool!" she replied. She was seven at the time. Children are very instructive. She has observed from very early on that while her primary school universe is populated with "boys" and "girls", there are also "boyish girls" and "girlish boys". She sees no problem with this, except that bullies sometimes pick on them and tell them what they are and are not "allowed" to do and be.


Biphobia / Sexual Prejudice Toward Bisexual People.

Along with prejudice against transgender people, it is also true that many gay and lesbian identified people - along with many heterosexuals - exhibit hostility and mistrust toward those who identify as bisexual. Once again, I believe the culprit is the fact that we have bought into a dichotomising either/or view of the world. You are either a man or a woman. You are either a heterosexual or a homosexual. You can't be non-gendered or differently gendered and you can't be attracted to both men and women!

Why not?

In the case of the gay and lesbian community, this is a very reactive prejudice. Because fundamentalists, biblical literalists and social conservatives have for so long argued that homosexuality is a "sinful choice" or a threat to the social fabric by social anarchists bent on destroying "the family" or subverting the "natural order" and civilisation itself (?!), we have been duped and brow-beaten into a position where we have felt that we have to defend our desires, loves and preferences by assuming a "don't be nasty to me, I can't help it" attitude. This is how so many of us get sucked into pointless arguments of the "what caused it" variety (who cares? why do they?). Bisexual people seem to threaten this defensive position. As previously mentioned, a lot of antipathy toward bi women from lesbian women may be a deflected anger at a heterosexist culture that says "all you need is the right man". Ironically enough, gays, lesbians and heterosexuals who are prejudiced against bisexuals all seem to have the same reaction to bisexual individuals: "Ooh-er, if they can be attracted to either men or women, maybe that means that I can be attracted to either men or women". The commonly encountered response is denial - bisexuals don't really exist ! So some will view those who identify as bisexual as either: really heterosexual and just "trying out" same-sex sex; or really gay, but they just can't admit it yet. Research seems to indicate that bisexual individuals are primarily attracted to qualities other than gender, or qualities regardless of gender (i.e. "gentleness", "athleticism", "intelligence", some sort of spiritual quality, or even just really nice legs!) That doesn't mean that the rest of us have desires that operate in the same way. Many of us seem to be attracted to persons of a particular sex/gender primarily because a particular set of attributes or qualities seem to be overwhelmingly found in that sex/gender. Maybe it's pheromones and some of use are more powerfully "keyed" to one scent or the other. Why do we care? Why do we continually have to search for the reason and justify it? Only because of social beliefs and powerful ideologies. You don't see chimpanzees wandering around going, "gosh, why on earth am I attracted to Lancelot Link and Mata Hairy? Most of the other chimps don't feel this way! Hmmm, maybe I should try banana-aversion therapy".


Sexual Prejudice and the Anti-Discrimination Commission

In April 2003, the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act was amended to include provisions which legislate against discrimination or vilification on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity. If you are contacted by someone who reports unfair treatment in employment or in the provision of goods and services or who has been vilified because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex, you should refer them to the Anti-Discrimination Commission of Queensland. [N.B. "Vilification" in these provisions is defined as the act of inciting violence or ridicule of a person on the basis of their perceived sexual preference or gender identity].

The Commission can be contacted via phone on: (State-wide), or via email:







Adams, H.E. et al (1996). Is Homophobia Associated With Homosexual Arousal?'. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 105, No. 3, pp 440-445.

Bistrup, Scott (2000), Homophobia: The Fear Behind the Hatred: an essay on the origin and nature of homophobia,

Coonan, Kristina (2003), Homophobia - Why? A Possible Underlying Dynamic,

Coonan, Kristina (2002), Queer Theory Demystified, theory

Flood, M.  (1997), Homophobia and Masculinities Among Young Men (Lessons in becoming a straight man), Presentation to teachers, O'Connell Education Centre, Canberra, 22 April, 1997.

Herek, G.M. (1997). Heterosexual's Attitudes to Lesbians and Gay Men. Does Coming Out Make a Difference? In M. Duberman (Ed.), A queer world: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies reader (pp. 331-344). New York: New York University Press.

Herek, G.M. (1987). Religion and prejudice: A comparison of racial and sexual attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 13 (1), 56-65.

Herek, G.M. (1990). The context of anti-gay violence: Notes on cultural and psychological heterosexism. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 5 (3), 316-333.

Herek, G.M., & Capitanio, J.P. (1996). "Some of my best friends": Intergroup contact, concealable stigma, and heterosexuals' attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22 (4), 412-424.

Herek, G.M., Cogan, J.C., Gillis, J.R., & Glunt, E.K. (1998). Correlates of internalized homophobia in a community sample of lesbians and gay men. Journal of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, 2, 17-25.

Herek, G.M. (2000). The psychology of sexual prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(1), 19-22.

Herek, G.M. (2002). Heterosexuals’ attitudes toward bisexual men and women in the United States. Journal of Sex Research, 39 (4), 264-274.

Herek, G.M. (2004). Beyond "homophobia": Thinking about sexual stigma and prejudice in the twenty-first century. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 1(2), 6-24.

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (1996-2004), Homosexuality and Bisexuality: all sides to the issue,

Sears, J.T. and Williams, Walter L. (1997). Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: strategies that work. New York, Columbia University Press.

Simolke, Duane (1999), Reactions to Homophobia, extract from Holding Me Together: Essays and Poems, Excel Publishing. Reproduced at

Tuerck, Catherine (no year of publication), The Subtler Forms of Homophobia, From the PFLAG-Talk/TGS-PFLAG Virtual Library,


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