Generally, homophobia refers to prejudice, stereotyping, and/or discrimination based on sexual orientation – particularly directed by heterosexuals toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals (hereafter referred to as LGB). Prejudice refers to the specific emotional reaction to a person because of one’s sexual orientation. Stereotypes refer to the beliefs about others due to classifying them according to their sexual orientation, and stereotyping refers to the process of applying stereotypes of a certain sexual orientation group to an individual member of that group. Discrimination refers to differential behavior toward an individual as a function of their sexual orientation.
Homophobia is a term often used to describe prejudice and discrimination directed toward nonheterosexual individuals. As the name implies, the concept homophobia denotes a fear-based response toward those who are attracted to and/or engage in sexual behavior with members of the same sex. While still used colloquially, researchers more often employ the term sexual prejudice to refer more generally to prejudices directed toward members of a particular sexual orientation group, especially toward lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals (LGB). Researchers only recently considered prejudices against LGB individuals as part of the prejudice and intergroup relations research, which historically focused primarily on interracial and interethnic prejudices. As such, research on sexual prejudice derives from only a few theoretical perspectives (e.g., focusing largely on gender role violations and threats to sexual identity), and just recently have researchers begun applying an evolutionary perspective to understand the range of sexual prejudices. This entry provides a summary of the existing research on sexual prejudice in light of an evolutionary analysis.
Using Evolutionary Psychology to Understand (Sexual) Prejudice
How can evolutionary psychology explain stereotypes about, prejudices toward, and discrimination based on sexual orientation? Human cognition, emotion, and behavior evolved to effectively manage recurring threats and opportunities to survival and reproduction, including those posed by other people (i.e., affordances). Throughout evolutionary history, humans faced a consistent set of challenges to survival and reproduction, including successfully mating and raising children, avoiding disease and danger, and successfully navigating the social terrain provided by group living (Kenrick et al. 2010). Successful cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to these challenges and opportunities increased the likelihood of an individual’s survival and reproduction, which, through differential reproduction over time, led to evolved psychological mechanisms for addressing these recurring challenges and opportunities.
Evolutionary approaches to inter- and intra-group relations argue that (1) humans evolved as social, group-living animals, (2) effective group functioning requires psychological processes facilitating group functioning, and (3) evolution shaped mechanisms to manage threats and opportunities of group living (Cottrell and Neuberg 2005). This affordance management perspective contends that inter- and intra-group prejudices stem from perceived threats attributed to outgroups and perceived threats to ingroup functioning (e.g., threats to health, physical safety, sexual autonomy, socialization). Stereotypes, as socially transmitted information about others, convey threat and opportunity-relevant information. Likewise, specific affective emotional responses to perceived stereotypes characterize the prejudices underlying inter- and intra-group dynamics. These perceptions and emotional reactions facilitate specific behaviors designed to respond effectively to the perceived threats and opportunities attributed to specific ingroup and outgroup members, thus characterizing discrimination based on social group identity.
This functionally driven, affordance-based perspective on intergroup dynamics and prejudice allows researchers to predict specific emotional and behavioral tendencies based on the threats associated with stereotypes of different groups. For example, threats to physical and sexual autonomy elicit fear, avoidance, and escape. Threats to health elicit physical disgust, avoidance of the contaminant, and if contaminated, expulsion of the contaminant via cleansing or aggression. Moral transgressions elicit moral disgust, aggression, and suppression or expulsion of the moral violator. Obstacles to desired outcomes elicit anger and aggression to remove the obstacle. Mating, parenting, and social affiliation opportunities (i.e., positive affordances) elicit positive emotions (e.g., lust, love, compassion) and approach behaviors to facilitate successful mating, parenting, and affiliating. This entry combines the affordance management approach to prejudice with the fundamental motives theory to demonstrate how perceptions of threats to fundamental human motivations elicit affective prejudices and behavioral responses to respond to the perceived threats.
Overview of Stereotypes of, Prejudices Toward, and Discrimination Against LGB
This entry summarizes and interprets the existing sexual prejudice research through the lens of an evolutionary, threat-based framework. Specifically, it examines how the perception of threats to fundamental human motives (e.g., disease threats, parenting and childrearing threats, values threats, status threats, and mating autonomy threats) engage emotional and behavioral reactions to effectively manage these threats.
Disease threats. Relative to a variety of other social groups (e.g., European Americans, African Americans), gay men are perceived as more likely to pose threats to physical health (Cottrell and Neuberg 2005). This perception of threats to health predicts increased disgust and negativity toward gay men (relative to other social groups; Cottrell and Neuberg 2005), and individual differences in general disgust predict greater negative attitudes toward gay men (and lesbians, albeit using a measure confounding attitudes toward gay men with attitudes toward lesbians; Terrizzi et al. 2009). In addition, activating concern for disease increases sexual prejudices and contamination-avoidant behaviors specific to gay men. Specifically, activating disease concern by exposing people to a disgusting odor (relative to no odor) decreased warmth toward gay men but not lesbians, heterosexuals, or other social groups unassociated with disease (Inbar et al. 2012). Further, imagining an interaction with a gay man (vs. heterosexual man) increased heterosexuals’ desire for physical cleansing, measured by greater activation of words associated with physical cleanliness, greater liking of cleansing products, and greater likelihood of selecting a sanitary wipe over a pencil as compensation (de Zavala et al. 2014).
Parenting and childrearing threats. Heterosexuals believe that gay men and lesbians (relative to heterosexuals) are more likely to influence children’s gender and sexual orientation development by making them more likely to become nonheterosexual (Filip-Crawford 2015) and therefore decreasing one’s inclusive fitness by proxy. Parenting enhances these stereotype-based concerns about children’s safety. Comparing parents to nonparents in a random sample of adults, parents reported greater levels of sexual prejudice (using scales measuring a myriad of negative beliefs against “homosexuals”), even after controlling for sex, number of nonheterosexual friends, religiosity, education, and age (Gallup 1995). College students who simply imagined having children reported similar prejudices – heterosexual college students rated their distress to a scenario depicting their (imagined) 8- or 21-year old child spending the night at a friend’s house (the friend’s parent was gay and either the same or opposite-sex to the child); participants reported the greatest distress to the scenario involving a young child staying with a same-sex gay parent (Gallup 1995).
Experimentally activating parenting concerns increases sexual prejudices. Activating traditional family roles (i.e., viewing a photo of a traditional family vs. a photo of a garden) caused participants to judge a gay father more negatively across a series of traits than a heterosexual father (Vescio and Biernat 2003). Further, activating the importance of family values (i.e., writing about the importance of family/friends vs. the importance of one’s sense of humor) increased sexual prejudice toward gay men and lesbians (i.e., a measure assessing a myriad of beliefs about gay men and lesbians), as mediated by increased endorsement of traditional husband-wife family values (Lehmiller et al. 2010).
These prejudices map onto behaviors designed to keep LGB men and women away from children. Specifically, heterosexuals report increased discomfort with “homosexuals” participating in roles and occupations in which they interact closely with children and could potentially socialize them to be gender or sexual orientation nonnormative or have intimate contact with children – roles as teachers, school bus drivers, and doctors (especially pediatricians), but not auto mechanics, bank tellers, airline pilots, construction workers, lawyers, or sales clerks, relative to a control condition with the sexual orientation unspecified (Gallup 1995).
Values threats. Relative to other social groups (e.g., European Americans, welfare recipients, heterosexuals), LGB individuals are often perceived as more likely to hold nontraditional values that potentially undermine and violate traditional values based on parenting, romantic relationships, gender roles, and religion (e.g., Brambilla and Butz 2013; Cottrell and Neuberg 2005; Haddock et al. 1993; Henry and Reyna 2007; Pirlott and Neuberg 2014). For example, homosexual behavior directly defies many explicit religious teachings and values – all three of the Abrahamic religions (which represent a large proportion of the world’s religions) explicitly prohibit homosexuality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a meta-analysis of measures of religiosity and sexual prejudice revealed associations of religiosity and greater levels of sexual prejudice (Whitley 2009). Specifically, more frequent religious attendance, greater levels of religiosity, greater levels of fundamentalism (belief that one set of religious teachings exist which contain absolute truths which must be followed absolutely), greater levels of Christian orthodoxy (agreement with core beliefs of Christianity), and greater intrinsic religiosity (internalizing religious teachings) predicted greater prejudices toward gay men and lesbians (Whitley 2009). Extrinsic religiosity (using religion to achieve nonreligious goals; e.g., socializing) was unrelated to sexual prejudice, and quest religiosity (using religion as a search for existential meaning) predicated greater tolerance toward gay men and lesbians (Whitley 2009).
Such perceived threats to traditional values predict elevated prejudices toward LGB. Perceived threats to sexual morality predicted elevated negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians (Crawford et al. 2014). Perceived threats to ingroup values predicted disgust toward gay men (Cottrell and Neuberg 2005). Finally, manipulating normative gender role behavior affects sexual prejudice; for example, heterosexual men reported greater dislike for feminine male targets more than masculine targets (Blashill and Powlishta 2009).
Experimentally activating traditional values and threats to ingroup values elicits prejudices against LGB. For example, priming a general symbolic values threat (reading an editorial commenting on the worsening of values and traditions in participants’ home country) suppressed warmth toward gay men relative to nonsymbolic threat (editorial about climate change) and nonthreat conditions (Brambilla and Butz 2013). Subliminally activating Christianity (using Christian words relative to neutral words) increased coldness toward gay men relative to heterosexual men (Johnson et al. 2012). As previously mentioned, activating the importance of traditional family values increased sexual prejudice toward gay men and lesbians, driven by elevated endorsement of traditional husband-wife family values (Lehmiller et al. 2010). Finally, both the situational activation of and individual differences in endorsement of traditional family values (as discussed above) predicted harsher evaluation of a gay father relative to a straight father (Vescio and Biernat 2003).
Perceived threats to heterosexual values predict the endorsement of aggression and aggressive behavioral responses against LGB. For example, perceptions that gay men and lesbians violate traditional values related to relationships, sexual morality, religion, and family predicted opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption rights (Henry and Reyna 2007; Reyna et al. 2014). Priming a symbolic values threat suppressed support for gay rights relative to nonsymbolic threat and nonthreat conditions (as previously discussed; Brambilla and Butz 2013). In addition, a large body of research suggests that aggression against LGB may stem from perceived gender role violations, particularly violations performed by men (e.g., Gordon and Meyer 2007). Finally, research examining reasons why college students verbally or physically aggressed against a gay person identified a religious and moral values threat component – i.e., “because of my religious beliefs” and “because of my moral beliefs” (Franklin 2000).
LGB values are also perceived as “transmittable” – i.e., that pro-gay ideologies are contagious and that interacting with a gay man or lesbian increases a person’s support for gay rights (Filip-Crawford 2015). Further, the degree of “contagiousness” of gay behavior and pro-gay ideology also depends upon community structure, as a particular individual’s social influence is stronger in more tightly knit social communities. Perceptions of greater community connectedness predicted greater aggressive intentions toward gay men and lesbians (Filip-Crawford 2015). Filip-Crawford (2015) also manipulated social community connectedness by telling college students that the university social scene is either highly or loosely connected and asked students to write about a time consistent with this. Highly connected communities increased highly prejudiced participants’ intentions to aggress and increased actual behavioral aggression (noise blasts) against gay men and lesbians relative to weakly connected communities.
Threats to status via stigma by association. Simply interacting with another person potentially causes others to characterize one as similar to their companion, despite salient differences, especially if the target’s companion belongs to a stigmatized group. This phenomenon is known as stigma by association – the process by which associating with members of a stigmatized group similarly stigmatizes “normal” individuals (Neuberg et al. 1994). Associating with LGB individuals can stigmatize heterosexuals as gay, therefore, affecting their social status and mating potential. For example, highly prejudiced heterosexual men assumed a man (with an unspecified sexual orientation) who voluntarily chose a gay roommate was as likely to be gay as a man specified as gay and more likely to be gay than a man with a heterosexual roommate (Sigelman et al. 1991).
Why might the labeling of a heterosexual as gay upset heterosexuals? Mislabeling heterosexuals as gay can reduce future mating opportunities if opposite-sex potential mates are no longer interested in mating with the stigmatized individual, and thus can have reproductive costs. In addition to mating costs, stigmatization as nonheterosexual can have the same social ostracism costs as those afforded to LGB individuals. For example, persons interacting with an LGB individual experience similar discrimination as LGB men and women: Heterosexual men display increased negativity toward another man seen interacting with a gay man – they feel less comfortable interacting with the stigmatized man, rate him as less social and civil, and even socially distance themselves from him by rating themselves as less similar – than when he was interacting with a heterosexual man (Neuberg et al. 1994).
Heterosexuals are often aware of the potential stigmatization from interacting with LGB men and women (Buck et al. 2013), and the anticipation of stigma by association threats from associating with LGB men and women predicts anxiety toward LGB individuals (Buck et al. 2013). This anticipation of stigmatization also predicts both physical and psychological avoidance of same-sex gay/lesbian individuals. For example, stigma by association concerns predicts an increased desire to avoid interacting with a same-sex gay/lesbian person (Plant et al. 2014) or roommate (Buck et al. 2013). Buck et al. (2013) induced threats of stigma by association by randomly assigning heterosexual participants to create an LGB-supportive poster and either sign their name (stigma by association condition) or not (control), which elicited public avoidance of LGB people as assessed by refusal to sign a petition for LGBT rights. Swim et al. (1999) examined women’s use of social distancing to avoid stigma by association. Women participated in a panel comprised of two male confederates and one female confederate; the female was either a lesbian or presumably heterosexual. Each panel member publicly reported their preferences to a series of questions, and whether the participant's response was different from the female confederate indicated public social distancing. Highly prejudiced women’s responses more frequently differed from the female confederate posing as lesbian than as heterosexual, suggesting they used social distance to avoid stigma by association.
Threats to mating autonomy. Perceived unwanted sexual interest from certain sexual orientation targets concerns many heterosexual individuals. For example, when asked to imagine a negative interaction with a gay man, the most prevalent scenario generated by heterosexual men involved unwanted sexual interest (42% of scenarios generated; McDonald et al. 2014). Furthermore, a primary concern reflected in heterosexual women’s stereotypes about lesbians is that lesbians seduce heterosexual women (Eliason et al. 1992).
Pirlott and Neuberg (2014) measured perceptions of unwanted sexual interest by asking heterosexual college students to rate their own sexual interests toward heterosexual, bisexual, and gay/lesbian male and female targets as well as their perception of each of these groups’ general sexual interest in heterosexual people of their same sex. They calculated sexual interest discrepancies by subtracting the perceivers’ own sexual interests in the target group from their perceptions of the target groups’ sexual interests in heterosexuals of their same sex, for each group. Heterosexual women perceived bisexual men, bisexual women, and lesbians to pose threats of unwanted sexual interest, yet not heterosexual men (mutual sexual interest targets) or gay men and heterosexual women (mutual disinterest targets). Heterosexual men perceived threats of unwanted sexual interest from gay and bisexual men but not from heterosexual men (mutual sexual disinterest targets) or from heterosexual and bisexual women (mutual sexual interest targets) or lesbians (unreciprocated sexual interest targets).
Perceptions of unwanted sexual interest map onto prejudices toward certain sexual orientation targets. Pirlott and Neuberg (2014) found that heterosexual female participants expressed more negativity toward bisexual men, bisexual women, and lesbians (unwanted sexual interest targets) relative to heterosexuals and gay men (mutual sexual interest/disinterest targets). Heterosexual male participants also expressed more negativity toward gay and bisexual men (unwanted sexual interest targets) relative to heterosexuals, bisexual women, and lesbians (mutual sexual interest/disinterest targets), and perceptions of unwanted sexual interest mediated the relationship between sexual orientation groups and general negativity (Pirlott and Neuberg 2014). Further research demonstrates that heterosexuals avoid same-sex gay/lesbian individuals, particularly in potentially intimate situations. Imagining a same-sex gay/lesbian roommate increased likelihood of private avoidance of that roommate relative to a heterosexual roommate (Plant et al. 2014), which could serve to minimize threats of unwanted mating.
Stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination against LGB individuals are not evolved, per se. The human social psychology of cognition, emotion, and behavior, however, evolved in response to recurrent threats to and opportunities for survival and reproduction. Consistent recurrent threats to physical safety, sexual autonomy, health, ingroup functioning and group living, parenting, and mating, for example, exerted significant selection pressures on humans to evolve a threat management system (Schaller and Neuberg 2012) to detect and respond effectively to perceived threats and opportunities in the environment, including those posed by other people.
Accordingly, although the stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory behaviors against LGB individuals are not evolved, the perception of and affective and behavioral responses to the threats (and opportunities) attributed to LGB individuals are evolved. As discussed above, heterosexuals believe certain LGB men and women pose threats to health, child socialization, ingroup norms and values, status via stigma by association, and sexual autonomy via unwanted sexual interest. The stereotypes of LGB individuals convey perceived threat and opportunity affordances, which elicit specific affective and behavioral reactions to functionally respond to these affordances, as predicted by evolutionary theory. Perceived threats to health predict elevated disgust toward gay men and contamination-avoidant and cleansing behavior (Cottrell and Neuberg 2005; de Zavala et al. 2014). Perceived threats to child socialization predict elevated prejudices and sequestering children from LGB individuals (Filip-Crawford 2015; Gallup 1995; Henry and Reyna 2007; Lehmiller et al. 2010; Reyna et al. 2014; Vescio and Biernat 2003). Perceived threats to ingroup norms and values predict increased negative prejudices, disgust, and aggression against LGB individuals, as a way to prevent the social influence and block counter-normative behaviors of LGB individuals (Blashill and Powlishta 2009; Brambilla and Butz 2013; Cottrell and Neuberg 2005; Crawford et al. 2014; Franklin 2000; Filip-Crawford 2015; Gordon and Meyer 2007; Lehmiller et al. 2010; Vescio and Biernat 2003). Perceived threats undermining social status (e.g., appearing gender nonnormative or nonheterosexual) via stigma by association predict anxiety and public avoidance of LGB individuals to minimize potential stigmatization (Buck et al. 2013; Plant et al. 2014; Swim et al. 1999). Perceived threats to sexual autonomy predict elevated negativity and desires to avoid these individuals in potentially intimate situations to minimize the risk of unwanted sexual activity (Pirlott and Neuberg 2014; Plant et al. 2014).
In conclusion, although the research exploring prejudice toward nonheterosexuals (i.e., homophobia or sexual prejudice) is somewhat recent and less extensive that research on race- or ethnicity-based prejudices, this does not undermine the evolutionary underpinnings of the stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory behavioral responses toward LGB individuals. Stereotypes relevant to prejudices and discrimination reflect perceived threats to survival and reproduction. These perceived threats engage affective and behavioral responses designed to mitigate these threats. This functional set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses arise reliably from evolved mechanisms. Using an evolutionary approach to examine LGB prejudices and inter- and intra-group dynamics more broadly provides a powerful framework for truly understanding human behavior.
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