Homophobia, or heterosexism, refers to the assumption that everyone should be, or is, heterosexual.

This can result in serious forms of prejudice against those who experience same-sex attraction.

In this article, we will be replacing the term “homophobia” with “heterosexism.” This is because “homophobia” places an emphasis on the irrational fears of an individual as opposed to the systems in place that affect a person’s health.

Heterosexism does not refer to the prejudice and discrimination related to a person’s gender identity, or cissexism.

Learn more about cissexism here.

Understanding what heterosexism is can help people identify it and oppose it when they see it, if it is safe to do so.

In this article, we explore what heterosexism is, what internalized heterosexism means, and how to be an ally. We also look at the definition of “outing” and how heterosexism can affect a person’s health.

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Homophobia, or heterosexism, is the assumption that people should be, or are, heterosexual.

Planned Parenthood note that it is the fear, mistrust, hatred, or discomfort toward those who experience same-sex attraction.

It can also take many different forms, ranging from the use of negative and offensive language, to more extreme forms, including bullying, abuse, and physical violence.

Additionally, homophobia can present in the form of systematic oppression. A person can experience discrimination from the government, religious institutions, and other businesses. Examples include:

  • denying same-sex couples of the right to get married
  • being denied housing due to sexual orientation
  • getting fired due to sexual orientation

A person may exhibit homophobic tendencies or thoughts due to their upbringing or conservative religious beliefs.

Internalized heterosexism is a term that refers to those who experience same-sex attraction, yet harbor negative feelings and views about their sexuality.

They can turn their negative feelings in on themselves and struggle to come to terms with their sexual orientation.

They may express this conflict in the following ways:

  • repressing their feelings of same-sex attraction
  • hiding their sexual orientation from the wider community
  • attempting to “prove” they are straight by acting in a stereotypical manner
  • being discriminatory toward those who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual
  • never identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual
  • believing that their feelings are “wrong”

“Outing” is the practice of making a public statement about a person’s sexuality or gender status without their permission.

This can negatively affect people’s lives and result in them being the subject of abuse, discrimination, and in some cases, physical violence.

Heterosexism can affect people’s mental and physical health in many ways.

Systematic heterosexism can also limit a person’s access to high-quality healthcare and make it difficult to get health insurance.

LGBTQIA+ individuals may also find it difficult to tell their clinicians about their sexual identity.

A study found that 68% of LGBTQIA+ youth stated that they did not report their sexual orientation to their clinicians, while 90% reported having reservations about doing so. This means that people may not be receiving culturally competent healthcare.

The research notes this lack of communication can result in:

  • poor relationships between healthcare professionals and the people seeking medical help
  • inadequate interventions to help prevent sexually transmitted infections
  • inadequate screening for communicable infections and illnesses
  • a lack of health-related education

Heterosexism can also occur at home and in schools.

The Youth Risk and Behavior Survey (YRBS) is a cross-sectional, school-based survey that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conduct every 2 years.

The 2019 YRBS found that of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth surveyed:

  • 13.5% felt unsafe at school
  • 11.9% experienced bullying at school
  • 19.4% experienced forced sexual intercourse in their lifetime

In addition, those who experience same-sex attraction are likely to experience rejection by their families.

The CDC note that those who experience familial rejection were more likely to:

  • take their own life
  • report depression
  • use illegal drugs
  • engage in risky sexual practices

Experiencing discrimination in any setting can have a huge impact on a person’s health.

The CDC note that experiencing discrimination can lead to:

  • increased stress levels
  • decreased access to emotional support
  • escalating incidence of depression and suicide
  • interference with chances of long-term relationships and marriage

Mental Health America report that LGBTQIA+ people use mental health services at 2.5 times the rate of the general population.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Help is available for people who are experiencing heterosexism.

There are Gay/Straight Alliances, or GSA clubs, in middle and high schools and affiliated with college campuses. These organizations give LGBTQIA+ young people the chance to get support, build community, and take action on issues that matter to them.

Many communities have LGBTQIA+ community centers striving to meet the wide-ranging needs of their people. According to CenterLink, a service organization for LGBTQIA+ community centers, there are more than 250 such centers across the United States, serving 2 million people.

People who cannot access a community center or GSA club can still find a wide range of support online, such as:

Learn more about the mental health resources available here.

Being an ally means being a vocal supporter of the LGBTQIA+ community, and this support relates to a person’s actions as well as their words.

Individuals interested in making an organizational commitment to fighting homophobia can explore the options available with LGBTQIA+ support organizations.

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, have more than 400 chapters and 200,000 members across the country.

PFLAG programs include online learning, advocacy, publications, and media training to promote pride and inclusion.

People can also:

  • avoid using offensive language to describe those who identify as LGBTQIA+
  • not believe in stereotypes
  • educate themselves about LGBTQIA+ issues
  • respect people’s decisions regarding when and if they want to be openly gay

People can also speak out when they witness heterosexism, for example, when a person makes an offensive joke or bullies others.

If an individual decides to address heterosexism, they should ensure that it is safe to do so.

Some factors to consider might include:

  • whether or not they are in public
  • whether they are with a friend or family member
  • would it be beneficial to address the issue in public, or in private later
  • would it be safer to walk away and leave it

Heterosexism is a form of prejudice against those who experience same-sex attraction.

It can make it difficult for those who experience same-sex attraction to get healthcare or jobs. It can also have negative effects on a person’s mental and physical health. However, there are many different support services available.

Straight people can be allies and take a stand against heterosexism.