The word homophobia means an irrational fear of, aversion to or discrimination against homosexuals or lesbians. The term was coined by psychologist George Weinberg in the late 1960s and discussed in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual. The word challenged prevalent thinking about homosexuality, placing the pathology on the person who considered homosexuality problematic. Indeed, until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association deemed same-sex orientation a disorder. Thereafter, attitudes shifted to a degree within the mental health and medical professions.
Weinberg, a heterosexual psychologist, trained at Columbia University, where he was taught that homosexuality is pathological. His personal experience with gay friends led him to believe otherwise. He described the prevalent attitude as a type of prejudice. The antagonism toward gays, he maintained, led to a disdain of the group, which exposed them to mistreatment. Weinberg and others viewed prejudice against gays as a social problem that needed re-examination.
The acceptance of the term into the vernacular signifies the widespread acceptance of the need to minimize hostility against gays. By identifying the problem, Weinberg made strides in the progress of gay rights.
Even though the word homophobia literally means fear of man, it is accepted to mean fear of male and female gays. Also, phobia technically means an irrational fear of a particular object. Instead, homophobia refers to the emotion of anger more than to fear. Homophobia is not a mental illness; it is a phenomenon of antigay hostility.
Conservative opponents to the civil rights goals of the gay community gained strength in the late 1970s. Confrontations in Florida and California, followed by political battles between pro and antigay groups, paved the way for the Christian Right to develop a powerful antigay focus. U.S. religious groups and political conservatives identified strongly with antigay ideas. Critics point out that those groups replaced their antagonism toward communists with antigay sentiment. They contend that anticommunism and homophobia are parallel ideologies as both affirm the carrier's vision of self as good and virtuous in contrast to the maligned group.
Conservatives shun the homophobic appellation. They object that the word deems them fearful of those who want to normalize homosexual behavior, which they actually object to on a moral or religious basis. The Christian Right and other antigay activists say that they are not homophobic; rather they are exercising their right to express their religious beliefs.
According to gay activists, homosexuality is stigmatized in the United States. The response to gays is often disapproval or disgust. Gays react by limiting the extent to which they reveal their sexual minority status to others. The consequence of the sexual stigma is a power differential between hetero- and homosexuals. In a power hierarchy, homosexuals are devalued.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned laws in other countries that make gay sexual relations criminal. The United Nations Human Rights Council ruled that laws against gay activity violate the right to privacy that is guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even the Roman Catholic Church, which views homosexuality as sinful, issued a 2008 statement calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality.
In Europe, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe recommended measures to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. In the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in 2011. She reaffirmed the United States' support for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities, calling for an end to discrimination and mistreatment of LGBT persons. She highlighted the universal human rights aspect of the campaign for equality and justice for gays.
Several prevailing religions condemn homosexuality. Islam forbids homosexual acts, and they are a crime under Sharia law, which is practiced in Moslem countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Under the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, homosexuality was punished by the death penalty. Some religious groups, however, are proponents of same-sex marriages. Queer religions have arisen, their theology serving as a counterargument to the homophobic attitudes of other major religions.
The LGBT community uses political activism and gay-pride parades to fight homophobia. It has lobbied for legislation to oppose homophobia, such as in hate crimes and discrimination. The International Day Against Homophobia is celebrated on May 17 in more than 40 countries.