Gay Discrimination and Stigma and How to Cope
Gay discrimination and gay stigma are still a problem in today’s workplace, school and even at home.
In the past, homosexuality was considered an illness and open hostility towards gay people was the norm; seeing much of this gay stigma disappear may lead some to believe that gay discrimination is a thing of the past, but unfortunately, this is not the case. Homophobia is still alive and well in North America and is perpetuated by some laws, politicians, religions and individual ideologies. Moreover, gay discrimination and stigma still harms people, particularly youth, who identify as gay. (more on gay bullying)
What is Gay Discrimination and Homophobia?
Gay discrimination is the act of treating people who identify as gay as lesser than those who identify in other ways (generally heterosexual). For example, if a player is not chosen for a sports team based on the fact that they are gay, that is a form of gay discrimination.
Similarly, homophobia is broadly defined as the hostility towards, or the fear of, gay people, but it can also refer to social ideologies that stigmatize homosexuality. Homophobia is seen in negative attitudes towards non-heterosexual community, relationships and identity.1 Homophobia often leads to gay discrimination.
Homophobia also manifests as:
- Homophobic jokes and remarks
- The usage of homosexual terms in a negative context (Such as, "oh, that party was so gay.")
- Malicious gossip
- Physical and emotional attacks
- Negative media representation
Homophobia can even be so strong as to make a parent denounce a child altogether and many teens are made homeless every year because of this gay stigma. In the United States, between 20-40% of young homeless people are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
What Causes Gay Discrimination and Homophobia?
While any one person may have homophobic thoughts for individual reasons, researchers have found similar traits among those with prejudiced views against gays. Those who are homophobic typically:2
- See the category of "gay" to be clearly defined (in other words, you are gay or you are not)
- Think all homosexuals are alike
- Think that important decisions can be made based on the information that one is homosexual
In contrast, those who do not exhibit gay stigma tend to believe:
- Homosexuality is biological
- Homosexuality cannot be changed
- Homosexuality is universally occurring
(More on why people are gay and whether they are gay by choice or because of genetics.)
HIV and AIDS Stigma
In some, there are strong feelings of HIV and AIDS stigma and in many cases this is closely linked to gay stigma. This began when homosexuals were tied to, and held responsible for, the spread of HIV and AIDS. Gay stigma was reinforced in the media with headlines like:
- Alert over "gay plague"
- "Gay plague" may lead to blood ban on homosexuals
Even though we now understand that HIV and AIDS are not a "gay plague" and homosexuals are in no way responsible for these illnesses, AIDS and HIV stigma as well as homophobia continue to be major barriers to ending the global AIDS epidemic as homosexuals still feel too much discrimination to access vital HIV prevention, treatment and care services.
How to Cope with Homophobia and Gay Stigma
Unfortunately, some people have a very hard time coping with homophobia and gay stigma and find themselves with feelings of shame, self-hatred and low self-esteem. It doesn't have to be this way though. There are productive ways of dealing with gay stigma:3
- Learn that gay stigma is wrong – confirm for yourself that homophobia and gay discrimination is wrong by learning more about it
- Find the right people – surround yourself by loved ones who support you and those that may be going through similar situations themselves
- Get professional help – it's okay to admit that you can't handle homophobia and gay stigma on your own. Find a gay therapist to feel less isolated.
- Share your experiences – find a safe space such as a gay support group where you can share your experiences with others
- Join an advocacy group – join a group that actively fights gay stigma and discrimination
The key is to remember that you are not alone and that there are people who will accept you for who you are – you just have to find them.
Last Updated: 18 August 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD