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Until the early 1970s, homosexuality, the sexual preference and attraction to persons of the same sex, was listed by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder. At roughly the same time, the term homophobia was coined by George Weinberg, an activist for the gay community, most noted for his book Society and the Healthy Homosexual. Though the term homophobia is sometimes debated as to whether it is most linguistically appropriate, most would define it as an irrational fear of homosexual behavior or of homosexuals.
It is a little difficult to discuss all the permutations of homophobia. It may be the quiet whisper or fear of those who pursue a different sexual path than heterosexuals. It can express concern that homosexuals (gays and lesbians) seek to convert others to this path. Alternately it may be expressed by children in bullying behavior, or endorsed by adults who head churches or offer jobs only to those who pursue a heterosexual life style. It is the fear of the other, the concern that homosexuality will somehow have a direct effect on heterosexuality, that the life, values or livelihood of heterosexuals is threatened by homosexual behavior. This fear can be so intense in certain parts of the world that homosexuality is punishable by death.
Some believe that homophobia is one of the last accepted discriminatory practices, even in fairly liberal countries like the United States. Arguments against instituting equal rights in the form of gay marriage often are those meant to induce fear. Opponents of such measures openly and without apology declare that gay marriage would somehow corrupt or denigrate heterosexual marriage.
Those who claim opposition to granting gay marriage may do so from a religious perspective, and argue that religious teachings specifically forbid the practice. However the counter argument there is that in many countries separation of church and state are supposed to exist. This would make an argument based on religion specious in the eyes of the law. Nevertheless, those opposed to granting such rights to lesbians and gays have been able to gather enough opposition in many states to continue to prevent giving this right to the homosexual community.
There are many reasons why homophobia may exist, and they are not always limited to religious views. Some theorize that homophobia in men may arise from particular concern about masculinity. In schools, any behavior viewed as potentially feminine by other boys, who may or may not be homosexual, can be subject to bullying and teasing. Dr. Sigmund Freud discussed the possibility of all adolescents undergoing a latent homosexual period, and given the amount of homophobia existing in the average place, any feelings of latent homosexuality might indeed be converted to aggression against those who are overtly homosexual. That this behavior of bullying may be tolerated by the adult community suggests a continued permission of some forms of homophobia, though there certainly has been movement in many schools and other youth environments to create zero tolerance policies abolishing discrimination against gender or sexual identity.
Some forms of open discrimination and hatred toward the gay, lesbian and transgender communities are perpetuated through commonly repeated myths about homosexual behavior. Some of these beliefs include the following:
A number of organizations work very hard to counter these myths and reduce general population homophobia. One such organization is PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Many people join PFLAG with great anxiety regarding a relative or friend who has announced he/she is gay, but they find support and information, which helps them gradually overcome homophobic feelings and continue to love and accept gay family members and friends.
As with any phobia, homophobia continues can cause immense damage. It can separate families, minimize the importance of a specific group of people, and prevent any form of world peace from occurring. It continues to make things extremely difficult, if not outright life threatening for those who are homosexual. In most Western countries, there is a concerted effort to reduce this fear, but in many predominantly fundamentalist and theocratic societies, gays and lesbians may pay with their lives for the fears of others.
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