Politics & Media
Oct 29, 2010, 06:41AM

Rampant Homophobia

In the wake of recent gay teen suicides, the results of a Pew Forum poll are troubling.

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Sion Fullana

Growing up as a child in the 1960s, I was very proud of the country in which I lived. I swallowed whole the patriotic fervor passed down by my parents and teachers and felt that America was the land of the free and the home of the brave. I believed then that America was a place of equal opportunity, tolerance and respect for other creeds, beliefs, opinions and ways of life.

Today, as an adult, while I am still proud of my country, I can also see the bumps and bruises underneath the idealistic veneer. My childhood idealism has ebbed and I recognize that despite the many strides this country has taken toward civil rights and the acceptance of others’ dissimilarities, there still exists a degree of intolerance towards those who are different. Unfortunately, as September’s suicides of four teens who were taunted verbally and on the Internet for their different sexual orientations demonstrate, this intolerance can have tragic consequences. Why it still exists today toward those with different sexualities is not clear.

As shown by Hollywood and in the media, on the surface gay and lesbian lifestyles appear to have gained acceptance. Ellen DeGeneres has come out of the closet to become a nationally known talk show host and model for Cover Girl cosmetics. Comedian Rosie O’Donnell talks candidly in public about raising her children in a same sex relationship. Openly gay Congressman Barney Frank has served in the House of Representatives for many years, re-elected repeatedly by his constituents. And Will and Grace, an Emmy award winning television comedy about the relationship between a heterosexual female and her gay male best friend, was on the airwaves for eight years.

But appearances can be deceiving. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is instructive on public perception of homosexuals. According to the Pew Forum report, approximately 50 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of gays and lesbians. Breaking these figures down further, 43 percent of all women and 54 percent of all college graduates tend to view homosexuals more favorably, while 57 percent of all men and 59 percent of those with only a high school education view homosexuality in a negative light. In rural areas, 56 percent of the population view gays and lesbians unfavorably versus 40 percent of those living in cities. Predictably, 63 percent of conservatives view homosexuals unfavorably, while only 32 percent of liberals do. Notably, among young men between the ages of 18-24, 52 percent have an unfavorable opinion of gay men.

Believing homosexuality is not a biological imperative but a choice can partly explain why many Americans are intolerant of gays and lesbians. According to Nigel Barber, PhD, evidence is accumulating that homosexual orientation is genetically inherited. In fact, studies of family histories of gay men demonstrate that homosexuality is a sex-linked trait, passed on by mothers to their male children through the X-chromosome. People who accept that homosexuality is due to biology and not to choice are often more tolerant and understanding of divergent sexual orientations.

Despite the mounting evidence that homosexuality is genetic, however, many people still assert it is a chosen lifestyle. Conservative religious groups, Muslims, Catholics, Christian and Jews view choosing a homosexual lifestyle as a sin and a crime against nature. According to these individuals, the homosexuals, as stated in the Bible and other religious writings, are unacceptable to God, and those who choose this lifestyle are condemned to eternal hell. For religious people homosexuality is a choice that can be changed through the proper motivation or therapy.

Some negative attitudes exist because many people, particularly those who have little contact with them, view homosexuals in stereotypical ways. People use stereotypes to bring order and predictability to a world they don’t understand. Intolerant individuals often characterize homosexuals in a negative stereotypic way, or as mentally ill, promiscuous, lonely, insecure and likely child molesters. Classifying homosexuals with these harmful stereotypes is a way of addressing a different lifestyle many find incomprehensible.  
A feeling of personal threat can also dictate how some regard anyone who is different. Contact with gays and lesbians threaten to bring perceived socially or morally unacceptable sexual urges to the surface, causing the individual to feel conflicted and defensive. This internal conflict over sexual identity and gender can be externalized by projecting it onto gays and lesbians in order to reject the objectionable sexual urges. In this way, negative attitudes toward an alternative lifestyle are engendered in those insecure in their own sexuality.

Whatever the reason, in a country that prides itself on a history of tolerance toward race and religion, there still is a great deal of prejudice toward non-heterosexuals. Whether this prejudice motivated the cruel taunts that the four teens who committed suicide were subjected to might never be known. But given the individuals involved, it cannot be discounted that at their young age insecurity about sexuality and gender identity may well have played a part. And unless a way is found to change intolerance towards different sexualities to acceptance, not just by teens but also by society as a whole, such sad waste of young lives will continue.

  • People in general fear the unknown. As for the U.S. being tolerant of differences, Ha, Ha. Let's see what a poll of Muslims, gays, progressives, ex-cons, Jews, Middle-Eastern immigrants, and Mexicans has to say on that. And for those of you who will respond with, but we are more tolerant than other countries, let's compare the poll to similar groups in England and Canada reveal.

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  • Well, sure, Canada. But the U.K. is a hotbed of intolerance right now, mostly directed at Muslims. And so are France and Germany.

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  • France is only tolerant when an army is at its door in which case they just give up; and Germany is usually the army at France's door. Therefore, I couldn't agree more with you on those two. England is a little more tricky. They have had a surge in anti-muslim rhetoric but I'm not sure it has exceeded the level in say Murfreesboro Tn. where they argued that Islam is not a religion at all. As for the other groups, ie. socialists, gays, Jews, and Mexicans, I think there is a legitimate argument to be made that the U.K. is more tolerant than middle America. Either way, I stand by my post.

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  • this is a really informative post, and a lot of scholarly research in lesbian + gay studies have addressed some of these issues, especially the idea that to protest a sexyality is in fact to be taunted by it.

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