The problem that has no name

I’m okay with gay people – they can choose whatever lifestyle they want to live.

God loves all of us, regardless of our sins.

It doesn’t bother me if someone’s gay – they just don’t need to be so obvious about it.

Homophobia is damaging – there’s no question about it. My last two posts addressed the consequences of overtly homophobic acts, such as anti-gay bullying in schools and violent hate crimes perpetrated against LGBTQ people. These are obvious forms of prejudice. You can put your finger on it. You can see it for what it is. These forms of prejudice are unequivocal. And yet, even though these forms of homophobia are incredibly harmful (even potentially fatal), they inflict only a particular type of wound. It’s the more covert forms of homophobia that are more like the silent cancer, killing your soul without you even knowing the disease was there in the first place.

What does covert homophobia look like? One of my students told me that she was riding the light rail train in our city and reading her textbook from our Psychology of Sexual Orientation class (a book which prominently displays the words “lesbian” and “gay” and “bisexual” and “trans”), and a couple of people sitting near her changed seats after she took her book out of her bag. Another student told me of an incident where a friend wanted to know what classes he was taking this semester, and after he mentioned the Psychology of Sexual Orientation class, there was a momentary uncomfortable silence before his friend abruptly changed the subject. Sometimes covert homophobia leaks out in the form of an embedded assumption – for example, when a person says that they’re fine with the “lifestyle” that gay people “choose” for themselves, they are using very loaded words that are often associated with broader heterosexist and homophobic attitudes. The most challenging part of these forms of homophobia is that they are intangible. Even more challenging is the fact that these behaviors or statements are made by people who consider themselves to be good-hearted, well-meaning, and accepting. If my student had gone up to any of the people who had changed their seats and accused them of being homophobic, they would probably have gotten defensive with her. If I were to correct the person who used the words “lifestyle” and “choose” or “choice” in the same sentence and clarified that being lesbian or gay is not a lifestyle or a choice, I run the risk of being accused of being too sensitive. So now we’ve got a double whammy on our hands – a homophobic belief or attitude is leaking out, and you can see it, but your hands are tied. You don’t feel like you can take it up with the person who is engaging in the behavior. If you do take it up with them, they are likely to deny or rationalize their behavior. And then you begin to doubt yourself – which is where the silent cancer of covert homophobia begins to spread through the soul.

A colleague of mine, Kristin Anderson, Ph.D., who is a professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, has recently published a book titled Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice ( In her book, she addresses six commonly held cultural attitudes towards historically oppressed groups (including LGBTQs) that appear harmless on the surface, but that actually encourage prejudice and discrimination. I think this is the direction that our current cultural dialogue about prejudice and discrimination needs to go. The first call to action here is to name “the problem that has no name.”

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Filed under covert homophobia, homophobia, overt homophobia, Uncategorized

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