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What is Homophobia?

When Charles Butler and Steven Mullins were tried for capital murder in the 1999 slaying of Billy Jack Gaither of Sylacauga, who was openly gay, witnesses testified that one of the killers might have had sexual relations with Gaither before he was slain.

Both men were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole. Butler later claimed in an interview aired Feb. 15 on PBS that Gaither made advances toward him and he “snapped.”

When Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney were prosecuted last year for the October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student who died after he was beaten unconscious and tied to a fence, defense attorneys indicated they might assert a “gay panic” defense.

Their theory — rejected by the trial judge — was that Shepard made sexual advances toward one or both of the men and thus aroused in them a fear and loathing so severe that it amounted to a temporary insanity.

That fear and loathing is known as homophobia.

The dictionary definition of homophobia is simple: Fear of homosexuals or homosexuality.

In strict medical usage, phobia (from the Greek phobos, or fear) is more than an ordinary fear; it is a fear that is out of proportion to the actual risk, a morbid dread that can arouse a state of panic. True phobias, as psychologists define them, interfere with normal life to some extent or cause marked distress in those who suffer from them.

In common use, homophobia usually refers to dislike or aversion toward homosexuals rather than fear.

“Homo” in this and related words derives from the Greek homos meaning “the same,” not the Latin homo meaning “man” or “human.” Its opposite is the Greek heteros, “different.” A related word, “heterosexism,” describes a belief or a social system under which heterosexual relations are considered inherently superior to, and enjoy a protection not granted to, other types of sexual activity.

Sigmund Freud speculated that homophobia arose from a repressed or latent desire for same-sex relations, and a recent study indicates that Freud may have been on the right track.

Researchers at the University of Georgia compared 35 homophobic men to 29 non-homophobic men (as measured by a test called the “Index of Homophobia”). After their attitudes were assessed, the men were shown a variety of erotic videotapes and their physical response was measured with a device called a plethysmograph.

The result: Both groups were equally aroused by heterosexual and lesbian videos, but the homophobic men were far more likely to be aroused by the tapes depicting male homosexual activity.

Asked later which tapes they found arousing, both groups gave answers that tracked closely with the physical measurement, with one exception, the researchers said: The homophobic men significantly underestimated how much they were aroused by gay male videos.

Homophobia does not always rise to the level of murder, of course. For example, when researchers at the 1999 National HIV/AIDS Conference in Atlanta discussed homophobia as a major barrier to HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, the discussion centered not around murder but around men’s fear of hatred, discrimination or social ostracism if they are identified as gay. Researchers also identified internalized homophobia — hatred of one’s own homosexuality — as a barrier to prevention and treatment.

Southerners and Midwesterners are more likely than other Americans to be homophobic, according to research compiled by Gregory Herek, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis.

Herek’s research indicates that people are also more likely to disapprove of homosexuality if they are older, less educated, strongly religious, believe that homosexuality is a personal choice, support traditional gender roles and don’t personally know anyone gay.

The Southeast is virtually solid in criminalizing homosexual acts. Georgia doesn’t, but Georgia’s sodomy statute was overturned by a court order, against the express will of the state’s political leadership.

Sodomy is only one area in which Southern laws tend to diverge from those in the rest of the Union. Florida, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, is the only Deep South state where laws cover bias-motivated crimes based on sexual orientation. Alabama is one of three states that does not report any hate-based crimes to the FBI.

How Alabamians feel about homosexuality is open to question, but societal disapproval of homosexuality is enshrined in state law. Under the laws dealing with education, the Code of Alabama says that if students are taught about sexually transmitted diseases, they should also be taught “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

There are indications that such an attitude is increasingly out of step with the national mood. The Gallup Organization found last year that a slight majority of adults say that homosexuality is an acceptable alternative lifestyle and that exactly half of those polled favored legalizing homosexual relations between consenting adults.

The crime known in many states as sodomy is known in Alabama as sexual misconduct, a misdemeanor. The law bans acts of oral or anal sex between adults not married to one another. Sodomy, under Alabama law, is a felony and is defined as non-consentual oral or anal sex, either by forcible compulsion or with those who by reason of age or disability are unable to give consent.