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What to Know About Heterosexism and Homophobia

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 17, 2022

Chances are you’ve heard of the word homophobia. It’s the senseless hate and fear of LGBTQ people, who face prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and violence because of it.

Some experts say heterosexism is another name for homophobia. Others say this term means that you assume that all people are or ought to be heterosexual. This ignores or dismisses the experiences and needs of LGBTQ people and gives advantages to heterosexual people.

Homophobia can lead to major health consequences for people in the diverse LGBTQ community. It can take a severe toll on things like mental health and the quality of health care you get. It has negative effects on heterosexual people, too.

How Does Homophobia Affect Mental Health?

It can fuel discrimination that’s been linked to high rates of psychiatric conditions, substance abuse, and suicide.

Because of risk factors that include homophobia, the LGBTQ community has more cases of mental health conditions (like anxiety and depression), substance use disorders, and suicide compared to heterosexual and cisgender people.

The mental health toll of stigma and discrimination can be especially damaging to young LGBTQ people. This group is more likely than straight people the same age to get bullied or victimized. If you have a child who identifies as LGBTQ and you think or know they’re getting bullied, work with their school or the parents of the bully to put a stop to it as soon as possible.

Stigma and mistreatment can raise the odds of a young person thinking about or attempting suicide. A survey of almost 34,000 LGBTQ people 13 to 24 years old in the U.S. found that almost half (45%) had seriously thought about suicide in the past year. Those who lived in a community that accepted LGBTQ people had lower rates of suicide attempts than those who didn’t. The survey also found that rates of reported suicide attempts were lower when a young person felt they had lots of family support or went to an LGBTQ-affirming school.

If you or a loved one needs LGBTQ-competent mental health care, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has tips on how to find professional help.

How Can Homophobia and Stigma Affect Physical Health?

It’s possible for negative beliefs and stereotypes to cloud the judgment of some health care providers. Some providers also don’t fully understand or appreciate differences in sexual orientation and gender identity among LGBTQ people. That can make LGBTQ people more likely to get lower quality, insensitive, or abusive care.

It’s important to see a doctor who understands your specific health needs and respects who you are. But many in the LGBTQ community deal with health care providers who harass or discriminate against them. There’s also a shortage of health care providers who are knowledgeable about health issues that affect many in this group.

Homophobia can affect more than an LGBTQ person’s health care. In severe cases it can also spur violence. One study found that LGBT people were almost four times as likely to be victims of violent crime as heterosexual and cisgender people. The study didn’t explain why this was, but the researchers said prejudice at home, work, school, and other places was a possible cause.

What’s more, other experts say that gay and lesbian people who are in abusive relationships with domestic violence may be more likely to stay silent about it out of fear of discrimination.

What Are Some Other Consequences of Homophobia?

Homophobia and heterosexualism can also pressure young people to became heterosexually active to fit in. This may raise the chances of teen pregnancies and STDs. It can also pressure them into getting married, leading to stress and sometimes trauma for them, their spouse, and any children they have.

LGBTQ people live with the worst consequences of homophobia, but it can affect heterosexual people, too. It can:

  • Cause them to hesitate to form close relationships with each other for fear of being thought of as LGBTQ.
  • Lock people into stereotypical gender-based roles -- the “macho” man and the “feminine” woman -- that lead to stilted behavior and limit how they express themselves.
  • Put pressure on people to mistreat others.
  • Strain relationships with family members and others.
  • Lead to lack of education, awareness, and sensitivity toward LGBTQ lives and experiences, which fuels stigma and myths.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

SAMHSA: “LGBTQ+ Behavioral Health Equity Center of Excellence.”

Healthypeople.gov: “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health.”

The Trevor Project: “2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health Care.”

Antidefamation League: “What is Heterosexism and What Can I Do About It?”

Mayo Clinic: “LGBTQ health.”

UCSF: “General Definitions.”

CDC: “Gay and Bisexual Men’s Health: Stigma and Discrimination.”

Science Advances: “Victimization rates and traits of sexual and gender minorities in the United States: Results from the National Crime Victimization Survey, 2017.”

Case Western Reserve: “Heterosexism & Homophobia.”

Vancouver Island University: “How Homophobia hurts us all.”

Learning for Justice: “Ten Ways Homophobia Affects 'Straight' People.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness: “LGBTQI.”

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