Op Ed

Anti-Gay Prejudice: Where Does It Come From?

Once in a while, I succeed in talking someone out of their opposition to gay rights, and in doing this, I try to figure out why the person harbors prejudice in the first place. Because bigotry hurts so many people so deeply, it’s tempting to say, “Because they’re jerks, that’s why.” That’s not specific or accurate, though, and if you’re trying to change someone’s mind, “you’re a jerk” isn’t the most persuasive opening statement. Here are some reasons why I think anti-gay prejudice has been so persistent.


I know when you read the title, you probably thought, “Religion. Duh.” It’s a big one, although religion doesn’t always breed bigotry. I was raised a Christian and was a terribly devout child, but never once in my life believed being gay was a sin. Still, lots of people grow up learning that it is, and questioning beliefs can scare people: once you start, where will you stop?

Conservative Christians say of gay-loving Christians like me, “You can’t pick and choose what you believe in the Bible.” The obvious counter-argument, of course, is that every Christian does. For instance, most of us don’t mind if a woman shows up to church bareheaded, or makes an announcement about a bake sale, even though Paul prohibited these things. If someone quotes Leviticus to you, you can ask her which animals she sacrifices after having her period: turtles or pigeons?

I could just tell conservative Christians, of course, that their religious beliefs are irrelevant when it comes to civil rights. However, a lot of people vote according to their faith, and legal advances don’t prevent people from ostracizing their gay children or raising bullies. I think Christians can be particularly effective straight allies. They can remind people that Jesus had nothing to say on the topic of homosexuality, but he went on and on about loving others and not judging.

Being kind of or very gay, and ashamed of it.

We all know about this one. I always think it’s odd that so many people think homosexuality is so transmittable: that teachers might infect their students, for instance. But if someone is occasionally or always attracted to people of his same gender, and believes it would be wrong to act on it, naturally he is going to see openly gay people as a threat and a temptation.

Being really, really straight?

Although I’m basically heterosexual, on the Kinsey scale, I’d be a 1 or 2 rather than a zero. Maybe it’s easier for me not to be prejudiced than it is for a super-heterosexual person who can’t imagine being personally interested in someone of the same gender. This is still a matter of maturity, though: you don’t have to think something sounds fun in order to recognize that it’s fine for other people to do it.

Men feeling vulnerable.

Men are more likely than women to be prejudiced against gay people (Herek, 2003). I think a straight man can be frightened of the idea of a man hitting on him. What if the other guy is bigger and stronger, and he doesn’t take no for an answer? Women are used to this threat, and men often aren’t.

Studies show that men are a little more likely than women to have the childhood experience of being derided as gay–called “fag,” etc.–even if they are heterosexual. I wonder if grown men are be more likely than women to retreat into anti-gay attitudes in order to avoid social stigmatization. Bullying, like much of religion, perpetuates the prejudice.

A boy who is sexually abused by a man may grow up to hold the false notion that gay people are more likely to molest children. His feelings about homosexuality may be tangled up in guilt, pain, and shame.

I think in the end, most prejudice comes down to this last thing:

Fear of people who are different.

It seems like a lot of people who think being gay is wrong don’t know all that many gay people–or at least, they don’t know that they know them. In the U.S., younger people grew up with at least some positive depictions of gay people in TV and the movies, and were more likely to encounter gays and lesbians who were “out,” which may be why you see that big generational divide when it comes to this prejudice. (Pointing this out can really help change people’s minds, too: nobody wants to think her grandchildren will be ashamed of her views.)

The main thing I would say to straight allies is to always make the effort to change a prejudiced person’s mind. Don’t assume he or she is beyond hope. You might be surprised. Even if this person seems to disregard what you have to say, you may plant the seed of an idea that will eventually take root. It’s worth a try.

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

12 replies on “Anti-Gay Prejudice: Where Does It Come From?”

I’ve always considered LGBT intolerance to be an offshoot of wider sexism and misogyny. Really, I don’t see much of a distinction between the heteronormativity/sexism that says “girls must be pink and frilly” and that which says “girls must not fuck other girls”. And what is the intolerance people have towards gay men if it isn’t “don’t be feminine – we view gayness as feminine – don’t be gay.”

I’m a gay guy who pretty much passes all the time, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “Well, not you. You’re normal”. And that’s it, isn’t it? While I still like rugby and act “masculine” (whatever the fuck that is) I’m fine, I’m not a threat, I’m keeping to being ‘a man’, and they can overlook the fact I want to fuck men.

I mean, really, I don’t think it’s about the actual sex. I don’t think anyone cares much about what we do – it’s about the fact that we threaten how men and women are supposed to act, or at least we’re seen as doing that.

Christ, it’s even seeping into the “masc”-obsessed gay community. Assimilate, prove it’s “natural” (as if it matters), and we’re not a threat any more. I don’t give a flying fuck if I was born this way, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. I could’ve woken up one morning and gone “I’m feeling that homosexuality thing today” and it would still be PERFECTLY FINE. But the fact that the debate is centred on that really sort of…brings home to me how much it’s not about loving the same sex. It’s about what we see of gender. Until we do a lot to end gender discrimination (and in some way remove our ideas of femininity and masculinity) we won’t be able to end LGBT discrimination.

Growing up in the south (specifically Savannah) , the culture there tends to both fetishize a certain type of “gay” behavior (this is a loose generalization of the word as I really don’t think there is “gay” behavior) and demonize another. So people will fawn all over certain types of acceptable outness, which is to say, the strong and silent type of gay or drag queen.  Meanwhile, being a lesbian is possibly one of the worst things you can ever be. I have yet to understand why this is, other than perhaps their are parts of southern culture which even while representing the “good ole boy” mentality, are really about a certain way of carrying yourself  and accepting parts of feminine behavior as the norm. Meanwhile, the idea of being “stereotypically” lesbian is something that is demonized because its throwing off all the expectations of southern women, i.e. even the trashiest women care about their femininity.

But I agree, I think that it tends to come from one of two places 1. being an old fart and probably having a handbag full of other shitty assumptions (racism! sexism! classism!) and hopefully those folks will eventually die or 2. having an insecurity about your own sexuality to which you have always relied on as straight, perhaps not examining your own desires, whatever they may be. I honestly can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase ” i wish i was a gay man because then i could do whatever i wanted” said in seriousness by both men and women., which leads me to ask, um, what about being gay is a magical super power in sexual preference or behavior for you?



This was a really interesting read. In my experience of being around anti-gay prejudice, it seems to be a combination of vulnerability and fear. The points on “trauma” as it were, are, I think, significant factors for some people and I don’t think they’re necessarily unreasonable. It is though a case where it’s perhaps a more challenging case for changing the resulting view. The analogy that has come to mind before now, is with racism. In that  – for example – a white person who has been mugged by a person of colour may then in turn develop racist perspectives. Goodness, I hope that makes sense, but alas, I fear it may not.

Nasty words alarm!


Yes, why isn’t “Don’t be such a dyke”, nowhere near “You’re a fag!”? Because men have to be manly man men while a woman doing that is just ..non-existent? For cheap thrills?

Anyway, I’m very lucky to not have people around me with anti-gay prejudice (some are a bit anti-straight prejudiced which is just as silly), but I will keep this in the back of my mind when I try to keep my calm around pro-lifers.

I think it’s the shame/fear of what’s inside of all of us.  Really.  Even people who are super, super straight have some part of them that could imagine kissing somebody of the same sex, and it’s just too much once you’ve been taught that it’s shameful.  I honestly think that’s where almost all of it comes from – shame.  All of your points are definitely great – I think they just happen to fall under the shame one.  Those other points are excuses.

Great article!

In my experience, the argument I hear most often is that being gay isn’t natural.  I suppose this is an extension of the both the religious and afraid of difference arguments.  But I hear a lot of crap about how biologically two men and two women don’t “fit” together.  Or how gay people weren’t born talking “like that” and by doing so, they’re shoving their gayness in everyone’s faces.  And just other sentiments that basically indicate that being gay is more or less a bad choice.  It’s… infuriating, but these comments are pretty easy to shut down.

I think that, for a lot of religious people, it’s also the idea of ANY sex being bad, except when done to procreate. I remember being young and having a lot of essentially ‘stereotypical bible belt’ relatives and their friends condemn masturbation as well as sex, especially sex among non-marrieds. Somehow their logic always seems to leap to ‘gays do NOTHING but have sex’ and therefore they are all horrible sinners who might spread horrible sex-positive messages even if not about gay sex. Obviously to them (and no one else with a grasp of reality), the only thing gays cared about was sex, and about tempting all of the chaste young virgins (ahem) into being horrible, promiscuous fornicators. And ANYONE who had sex was simply horrible to them. They had no self control! They had no shame! So when you go in already thinking sex = horrible, and a person who has sex = horrible, there’s not much room to go up when someone doesn’t (want to) feel that way.

I think you’re on to something here.  I think when someone comes out as gay, they are by necessity putting their sexuality front and centre.  Because of heteronormative assumptions, it is easy for most people most of the time not to think about the people around them as being sexual. Once the topic of one’s sexuality is on the table, it immediately can make people uncomfortable — no matter what one’s sexuality is.  When an identity is linked so inextricably to sexual activity, and there are prevailing notions of what sexual acts people with different sexualities engage in, one’s mind may go to thinking about sex acts rather than attraction, relationships, people as whole people etc.

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