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What is homophobia?

Homophobia is a term used to describe negative attitudes that can lead to the rejection of or discrimination against LGBT people, that is lesbians (lesbophobia), gay males, bisexuals (biphobia), transsexuals and transgender people (transphobia) or anyone whose appearance or behaviour does not conform to stereotypes of masculinity or femininity. Assumptions may be made about someone’s sexuality based on their physical appearance or how they dress, meaning that even heterosexuals may be victims of homophobia.

Same-sex parents – increasingly common

According to the Régie des rentes du Québec, of the 866,029 families in Québec that received child assistance in 2010, 1,187 were same-sex parent families with a total of 1,843 children under the age of 18.5 There is also an unknown number of children in single-parent families in which the parent belongs to a sexual minority. Children in these families may have been adopted, conceived through artificial insemination or born out of a previous heterosexual relationship. Since a family’s makeup may be discussed not only at home but in daycare centres, schools and other institutions the children attend, it is important to ensure that any prejudice or ignorance encountered does not affect child-parent interactions.

Heterosexism – a form of prejudice

Homophobia is fuelled by beliefs and attitudes that heterosexuality is the “normal” and “natural” sexual orientation and that it is superior to other sexual orientations. Heterosexism is based on these beliefs and attitudes. It discourages sexual diversity.

Real examples of homophobia

A same-sex couple holding hands or kissing may receive disapproving looks or even abusive comments from others. Homophobia can occur anywhere in a person’s daily life: on the street, in the park, in a restaurant, on the metro or bus or in a shop. When same-sex couples are affectionate in public, some people react by being verbally hostile or even physically abusive.

In the media, commentators or show hosts may make jokes that can offend people from sexual minorities. Their comments, while not intended to be homophobic, can hurt nonetheless. It is best to watch what you say; not everything is funny.

Homophobia can also occur at home. It may be expressed through jokes or teasing, but it can also take the form of rejection or violence. Because teenagers from sexual minorities are at a stage in life where they are trying to understand their feelings and connect emotionally with other people from sexual minorities, jokes about “fags” or “fairies” can be especially harmful.

Bisexuality – highly misunderstood

Bisexuals are neither heterosexual nor homosexual. Their sexual orientation is often misunderstood—with some believing it is due to curiosity or an inability to accept their “real” sexual orientation. However, bisexuality is a legitimate form of human sexuality in both males and females.

Reacting to homophobia

If you witness homophobia, you need to speak up. First, refer the victim of homophobia to a relevant resource. This will help the person see that they are not alone and to better deal with the situation.

Standing up to homophobia may mean defusing the situation first. You can then explain to the person in question why their behaviour is inappropriate and how it may harm the people around them. Informing, educating and raising awareness are three trusted ways to combat all forms of prejudice.

The four main expressions of homophobia

Homophobic discrimination usually takes one of the following four forms:

Jokes are the most common form of discrimination. Jokes about homosexuality may seem innocuous, but they can be hurtful and offensive. By denigrating people from sexual minorities, they can exacerbate the problems an individual may have in accepting his or her own homosexuality. In addition, they tend to trivialize homophobic prejudices and stereotypes.

Teasing is a more direct form of discrimination and should not be underestimated, since it attacks an important aspect of the victim: his or her identity. Teasing conveys stereotypical representations that tend to make victims feel inferior or lacking in legitimacy. It undermines the self-esteem of people from sexual minorities.

Harassment is a specific form of discrimination with serious consequences. Because of its repetitive nature, it undermines the person’s self-acceptance and fulfillment within the community.

Lastly, physical aggression: In Québec, homophobic murder is extremely rare, but physical violence against people from sexual minorities still exists. People may be attacked because of their sexual orientation – for example, by their neighbours or as they leave a gay bar. Attacks such as these threaten the victim’s physical and psychological integrity, and can take the form of hate crimes.

If homophobia is to be eradicated, none of the above forms of homophobic discrimination should be tolerated.

Transsexual versus transgender – what’s the difference?

Transgender people are those whose gender identity does not match their biologically assigned sex. They live as members of the opposite sex but have not undergone sex reassignment surgery. For transsexuals, as for transgender people, their gender identity and biological sex do not match. However, unlike transgender people, transsexuals have “transitioned” physically into the opposite sex through hormone therapy and some form of sex reassignment surgery. Transgender people living as members of the opposite sex may also receive hormone therapy.

Everyday homophobia

Homophobia can be insidious. For example, the word “gay” is often used by children to refer to something ugly, undesirable or negative: “That’s so gay!” Children who use the term “gay” in this way probably do not mean to be homophobic, but their words can be taken as indirect criticism by children from sexual minorities. This can affect people’s self-esteem at a time in their lives when they are figuring out who they are and struggling with the many challenges of accepting their sexuality.

At work, physical and verbal abuse is rare. However, one-quarter of employees who are LGBT are subjected to derogatory jokes or comments. Remarks such as these can ostracize people from sexual minorities, whether they are directed at someone who is openly gay or at someone assumed not to be heterosexual, either because they do not talk about their private lives or because of how they express their gender.

Myths and prejudices: “Homosexuality is caused by an aversion to the opposite sex.”

Some people say that unsuccessful relationships are what drive women to lesbianism and that childhood sexual abuse leads men to be gay. The desire for someone of the same sex is what defines a person’s sexual orientation, not whether they were abused or unhappy in a previous relationship. For example, a woman who is a victim of rape does not become a lesbian.

“Children of homosexual parents become homosexuals.”

Most homosexuals have heterosexual parents. Research shows that children of same-sex couples are no more likely than children of heterosexual couples to be gay or to experience sexual identity issues.

“Lesbians are tomboys. Gay men are flamboyant and effeminate.”

Associating lesbians with manliness and associating gay men with flamboyance and femininity are unfair generalizations. An effeminate man may be heterosexual and a feminine woman may be lesbian. The expression of gender should not be confused with sexual orientation.

“Transsexuality is a mental illness.”

Although transsexualism (gender dysphoria) is still listed as a disorder in the manual used in psychiatric medicine, it is widely acknowledged that the gender identity of transsexuals is inconsistent with their assigned sex. This leads transsexuals to seek out sex reassignment surgery.

“Homosexuality is a Caucasian phenomenon.”

This myth is held by certain societies outside Québec and by some people within Québec who come from ethnic minorities. It implies that homosexuality exists only in Western culture. However, extensive research shows that homosexuality exists in most societies. It is the open acknowledgement of a gay identity, not homosexuality itself, that has its roots in contemporary Western society.

Homophobia and its effects – discrimination that is still too prevalent

Studies reveal these worrying statistics:

  • In comparison to heterosexuals, homosexuals are 2.5 times more likely and bisexuals 4 times more likely to be victims of violent crime. 1
  • In 2010, 16% of hate crimes reported in Canada were motivated by sexual orientation.2 In 2009, this rate was 13 %.3
  • In the workplace, one quarter of people who are LGBT conceal their sexual orientation from all or most of their colleagues. Less than one quarter are open about their orientation. In 40% of cases, people conceal their orientation when there are indications it will not be accepted, and in 33 of cases, they do so because a colleague is homophobic.
  • In secondary schools, 38.6% of students are victims of homophobia, through insults, teasing, exclusion, etc. Absenteeism among these students is twice that of other students. Children who are victims of homophobia have a weaker sense of belonging, and their academic goals are less well defined.4
  1. Diane L. Beauchamp, 2004, Sexual Orientation and Victimization, Ottawa, Statistics Canada.
  2. Dowden, Cara and Shannon Brennan, 2012, Police-reported hate crime, 2010, Ottawa, Statistics Canada.
  3. Dauvergne, Mia and Shannon Brennan, 2011, Police-reported hate crime in Canada, 2009, Ottawa, Statistics Canada.
  4. Chamberland, Line, Gilbert Émond, Danielle Julien and Joanne Otis, 2010, L’impact de l’homophobie et de la violence homophobe sur la persévérance et la réussite scolaires, research paper, Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal.
  5. Régie des rentes du Québec, 2011, “The figures on families,” Liaison RRQ Magazine, June 2, 2011.