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No fear factor in 'homophobia,' study claims
Researchers say anti-gay prejudice rooted in disgust, 'contamination' concerns

Bunmi Olatunji
Bunmi Olatunji, lead author of a University of Arkansas study on the word 'homophobia,' says the term is often used inaccurately when describing prejudice.


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Call it what you will, but hostility toward gay men and lesbians is not homophobia, University of Arkansas researchers concluded in a new study.

The word "homophobia," commonly used to describe anti-gay prejudice, is technically a misnomer, the researchers reported in early June. Homophobia is not actually a fear, and therefore it should not be "pathologized," or treated as a disease would be treated, said doctoral student Bunmi Olatunji, lead author of the study.

University of Arkansas researchers were able to demonstrate through statistical analysis that the concept usually described as "homophobia" originates from feelings of disgust, Olatunji said in a telephone interview Tuesday. A true phobia is derived from fear or anxiety, he said.

Olatunji said that anti-gay hostility is a prejudicial attitude more closely resembling racism than a phobia. The researchers offered no substitute for the word "homophobia," although Olatunji said some of the feedback he had received suggested "homonegativism" might be more accurate.

"I think a lot of people have been generally surprised" at the study's findings that the word homophobia, as commonly used, is "not conceptually accurate," Olatunji said. He said the study was not intended to quibble with the use of the term "homophobia," but to identify emotional components of the origin and nature of the condition.

"If you can identify the underlying emotions of certain attitudes and behaviors, you can better understand how those attitudes formed," Olatunji said. "That has implications for treatment, but it also enables you to consider a condition in the proper context."

Jeffrey Lohr, a University of Arkansas psychology professor, has spent the past several years attempting to identify emotional factors in variety of phobias. Olatunji and doctoral student Suzanne Meunier conducted the study on homophobia within that program of research. Olatunji presented the findings June 9 at an American Psychological Society convention in New Orleans.

The University of Arkansas study seems to show a "perfectly reasonable set of findings," but its conclusions are not really a new concept, said Gregory M. Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis.

Herek credits psychologist George Weinberg with inventing the word homophobia in the late 1960s. It had a double meaning. Weinberg used homophobia to label heterosexuals' dread of being in close quarters with gays. The word also was used to describe "homosexuals' self-loathing."

"The term is catchy, and it was very important at the time Weinberg coined it," said Herek, who is recognized as an authority on prejudice against lesbians and gay men. However, the word "has a number of problems with it," Herek said, particularly because there is no basis for the "phobia" suffix in a clinical sense.

Herek noted that a 1984 study by researchers Stephanie Shields and Robert Harriman, in which people viewed images of homosexual sex and their physiological responses were measured, did not find physical reactions consistent with phobias.

"The problem isn't people who are gay," Herek said. "The problem is people who are prejudiced against people who are gay." For that reason, Herek suggested "sexual prejudice" as a better term than "homophobia."

'Homophobia' here for now

Whatever the concern over its descriptiveness, the word "homophobia" is not likely to disappear from the lexicon of the gay rights movement anytime soon, activists said.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has no intention of dropping the word from its communications, said Connie Ress, a GLAAD regional media manager. Debating "this word versus that word as a label" does not address the real concerns of gay men and lesbians, she said.

"Getting wrapped up in the semantics is not the issue here," Ress said. "The fact is that people have injustices done to them every day. Because homophobia may not be a term by the book doesn't mean gay people aren't discriminated against and that we don't need laws to protect us."

David Smith, communications director and senior strategist for the Human Rights Campaign, described the Arkansas study as "very academic." He said HRC continues to use the word "homophobia" in describing anti-gay prejudice.

"It's still in our vocabulary," Smith said. "Granted, the word may not be technically descriptive, but the meaning of the word has evolved."

Even so, Smith said he accepts the study's assertion that "homophobia" connotes a societal prejudice against gays, and therefore would not be a phobia in the same way "arachnophobia" is a fear of spiders.

Because the true roots of homophobia appear to be social and attitudinal, not psychopathological, the researchers said, any attempt to treat or reduce homophobia would have to be conducted through attitude reformation. Olatunji said that process could occur in a social context such as homes or schools rather than in a clinical setting.

Cure to homophobia isn't facing fears

Clinical psychologists often treat true phobias by forcing patients to confront their fears. Prolonged exposure to feared stimuli can weaken the fear response. But the researchers said such a procedure may not be effective in eliminating disgust and would be inappropriate if the object of disgust is another person.

"If contempt and disgust drive homophobia, then it seems more of a moral or social problem than a psychopathological one," said Lohr, the Arkansas professor, in the news release announcing the results of the study. "If we start to consider negative attitudes pathological -- implying that there's something medically wrong with prejudiced people, that they're somehow sick with their own attitudes -- that seems to me misguided."

The researchers also found close associations between homophobic tendencies and worries of contamination, Olatunji said. He said the contamination factor involves a perception among some people that homosexuality is "something that's not clean."

"I think a lot of people see it as some sort of disease," Olatunji said. "Some just see it as dirty. They don't want to get their hands dirty."

Some people, particularly those coming from a religious background, also worry that exposure to homosexuality would amount to "moral contamination," Olatunji said.

Researchers studied the contamination component because it "clarifies the type of disgust that people are feeling," Olatunji said. "Without information about contamination fears, you could assume that homophobic people were just disgusted by the abnormality of the homosexual lifestyle."

By using a research tool known as the Padua Inventory, which assesses contamination obsessions, the researchers found "a perception of contagion that feeds into homophobia."

The respondents were a random sample of psychology undergraduates at the university's Fayetteville campus during the 2001-2002 school year. Olatunji said he did not know how many of the student respondents might have been gay or lesbian.

For its methodology, the researchers asked the 138 participants to complete a series of questionnaires and surveys, including the Index of Attitudes toward Homosexuals (IAH), the Sexual Attitude Scale, the Disgust Emotion Scale and the Padua Inventory. Subjects who showed homophobic tendencies on the IAH also displayed conservative sexual attitudes, elevated levels of disgust and dread of contamination. However, the results showed a negative correlation between attitudes about homosexuals and measures of fear or anxiety.

Olatunji said the researchers did not yet know the extent to which the results could be replicated in a broader sample. "Obviously you don't want to make generalizations when you don't have a very inclusive population," Olatunji said. "That may be something we may be able to address in the future."

Not all activists accept the premise that fear is not a key element in homophobia.

"I think there is a particular fear and animus toward homosexuality," said Riki Wilchins, executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Council, a national organization that often focuses on transgender rights but also works more generally to end discrimination based on gender stereotypes. As such, said Wilchins, the word homophobia accurately describes that fear.

The same is true of "genderphobia," said Wilchins, a transgendered woman. Genderphobia refers to a "fear and loathing toward anyone, gay or straight, who transcends narrow, outdated stereotypes," she said.

Genderphobia and homophobia are related, Wilchins said, offering an example: "One of the primary fears is that men who love men are in some fundamental way being unmanly." Therefore, addressing gender stereotypes becomes an essential element in addressing homophobia, she said. Heterosexism, a word also used to describe anti-gay prejudice among heterosexuals, is rooted in the same concept.

William Leap, chair of the anthropology department at American University and coordinator of the university's annual Lavender Languages & Linguistics Conference, said the Arkansas study was not the first to address the usage of "homophobia."

"This is a fine intellectual argument," Leap said. "But for gay people, homophobia is a real phenomenon."

Debate over the use of the word homophobia is a distraction that "downplays the possibility of talking about solutions," Leap said. "One does not have to believe witchcraft is real in order to persecute," Leap said. "It doesn't take a linguist to tell you that."

News editor Keith Taylor can be reached at

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