Democracy & Justice

What Is Homophobia?

Homophobia and homophobic laws restrict the rights and freedoms of millions of people in Europe and around the world. But what are the causes of homophobia and to what extent does it affect LGBTI people in the European Union?

by Franziska Otto

What does "homophobia" mean and what does it imply?

The term "homophobia" is composed of the Greek words "homos", meaning "equal", and "phobos", meaning "fear". It denotes negative attitudes, prejudices and rejection towards homosexual people.

The term was first used in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the American psychologist George Weinberg. In his then groundbreaking book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, Weinberg framed his definition of homophobia as a disorder in the brain befalling the homophobe. Due to this definition as an anxiety disorder, the word "homophobia" is criticised by parts of the LGBTI community (LGBTI is the English abbreviation for "lesbian, gay, bi-, trans-, and intersexual"). They argue that the term is misleading, as homophobic people are not afraid of homosexual people, but feel dislike and hostility.

Science distinguishes three different dimensions of homophobia. First, affective homophobia, which is when, for example, a person feels an unpleasant sensation when they see two people of the same sex kissing in public. Second, cognitive homophobia, which refers to attitudes, such as when people demand that certain rights should not be granted to homosexual people. Lastly, behavioural homophobia, which is expressed through offensive remarks and physical violence.

For homosexual people, homophobia can lead to real restrictions of their freedoms, and not only because in some countries rights are taken away from them. Even in liberal states, they may not dare to show affection to their partner in public or completely avoid certain places, fearing violence.

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What are the causes of homophobia?

As with all forms of discrimination or hostility towards any given group of people, there can be a multitude of reasons for homophobia.

We humans have a tendency to categorise and pigeonhole things in order to make our world simpler and easier to understand. Very often, this takes place as an automatic process in the brain. So, a group of people can be put into the same pigeonhole, and certain characteristics will then be ascribed to them. Of course, these prejudices can also be negative, for example due to the fact that people tend to reject what is foreign and unknown. If a person has no contact with homosexual or queer people in their daily life, homophobic prejudices can arise. Queer is a collective term for all those people who are not heterosexual or who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Environment and upbringing also play an important role. For example, if you live in an environment where words like "gay" and "faggot" are used as insults, this leads to the group being perceived more negatively.

Another reason can be attitudes towards traditional gender roles and what a "real man" and a "real woman" are supposed to be like. Homosexual relationships turn these ideas upside down, since they make this kind of division impossible. Homophobic people sometimes feel that this poses a threat to their way of life.

Finally, religion can also be a cause of homophobic attitudes. In all holy scriptures of monotheistic religions, passages can be found that can be interpreted as rejecting sexuality, especially male sexuality. Of course, this does not automatically make all religious people homophobic. The decisive factor seems to be whether or not a person is generally inclined towards fundamentalism.

When is the International Day Against Homophobia?

The International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia takes place every year on May 17th.

This date is significant for the LBGTI community because it was on the 17th of May 1990 that homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organisation's ICD-10 diagnostic code. Since then, homosexuality is no longer officially considered a disease.

The day creates attention for the problems that affect LGBTI persons worldwide. More than two billion people still live in countries where same-sex relationships are a criminal offence, and in eleven countries there is even the threat of the death penalty.

Homophobia in Europe: What is the situation in European countries?

In recent years, Europe has made important progress in strengthening the rights of gay and queer people. In Ireland for example, albeit the strict Catholic background of the country, a referendum in 2015 resulted in a vote in favour of marriage for all. Nevertheless, in some other member states of the European Union, decisions have been taken that have worsened the situation for LGBTI people.

For example, on June 15, 2021,the Hungarian Parliament passed a law restricting information about homosexuality and transsexuality. The depiction of same-sex behaviour in advertising was banned. Information on these topics must no longer be accessible to persons under the age of 18.This also affects children's and educational books. In addition, such books may no longer be sold within 200 metres of schools or churches. This decision was justified to allegedly protect minors. Although there were large protests against the law in Hungary and it was severely criticised by the European Union, the parliament voted in favour of its adoption.

In September 2021, Lithuanian authorities tried to use every legal means at their disposal in order to prevent the Kaunas Pride Parade from happening. Although they ultimately failed in court, the parade was confronted by counter-demonstrators, some of whom threw eggs and insulted participants. Lithuanian President Giatanas Nausėda publicly opposed the use of educational materials related to LGBTI issues.

In October 2021, the Italian Senate rejected a draft law against homophobia. This law would have made discriminatory acts and calls for violence against homosexuals, lesbians, trans- and bisexuals and people with disabilities punishable. The most severe cases were meant to result in prison sentences. Especially the right-wing populist parties Lega and Fratelli d'Italia opposed to the initiative. Critics of the law saw a danger to the freedom of expression and argued that the law would have enabled "propaganda for homosexuality" in schools. Even the Vatican had lodged a formal protest against the draft.

But not only political decisions or laws make life difficult for homosexual people in Europe. They also experience homophobia in everyday life. Ina 2019 survey on LGBTI equality by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, far more than half of all respondents (61%) in the EU, Northern Macedonia and Serbia said they usually or always avoid holding their same-sex partner's hand in public; 40% said they had been harassed or bullied because of their sexual orientation.

Homophobia in Germany: How bad is it?

Until 1994, Section 175 of the German Penal Code prohibited sexual acts between two men and made these a criminal offence. In 2002, the Bundestag repealed all sentences that were issued on basis of this paragraph until 1945 and rehabilitated the victims. It was not until July 22nd, 2017 that all sentences issued after the end of National Socialism were also repealed.

In recent years, some progress has been made in Germany when it comes to the rights of homosexual and queer people. On June 30th 2017, the German Bundestag passed a law that introduced the right to marry for same-sex couples. Since the end of 2018, people who feel they belong to neither the male nor the female gender have had the option of registering as "diverse" in the civil register (Personenstandsregister).

Nevertheless, homosexual people in Germany are also frequently confronted with homophobia.

In December 2021, the German Conference of Interior Ministers, which brings together the 16 interior ministers and senators of the federal states, addressedhate crime against LGBTI people in Germany for the first time. In 2021, 870 cases of hate crime were registered under the heading of "sexual orientation", 164 of these were violent crimes. It must be assumed that the number of unreported cases is significantly higher. Partly this is caused by the fact that victims do not always go to the police (e.g. out of fear, if they are not yet outed) or because the statistics do not count them as hate crimes, but rather as general crimes.

What can be done against homophobia?

Since the causes of homophobia are quite diverse, there should be a diverse range of responses.

One way to counter homophobia is to provide better education around the subject. People are often hostile towards everything they do not know, which is why education can help to break down prejudices. Low-threshold contact programmes could be a possibility.

Furthermore, it might help to break down strict gender roles. This can be achieved, for example, if certain role clichés are no longer introduced into education at an early age, so girls don't only wear pink and boys are also allowed to play with dolls. If social identifiers are more loosely defined, men are less likely to feel threatened in their masculinity because a certain action is seen as particularly "female". As a result, this will reduce the need to restore one's own masculinity by overcompensating or belittling others, such as gay men.

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