Considerable advances have occurred in the study of prejudice against sexual minorities (e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals) across multiple fields of psychology in recent years. With this growing attention, scholars have proposed more refined and nuanced conceptualizations of sexual prejudice, documented varied ways in which it is expressed, identified multiple underlying predictors, and pointed to emerging issues that require concerted interdisciplinary approaches to address. There is also a substantial literature base documenting discrimination against sexual minorities and its many physical, mental, and behavioral health consequences (Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2012; Meyer, 2003). For the purpose of this chapter, however, we focus on the construct of sexual prejudice itself and seek to provide an understanding of individual factors and social processes that contribute to its development and perpetuation.
Operationalizing Sexual Prejudice
Scholars have proposed and used varying terminology for the continually evolving concept of sexual prejudice as it is now understood; of these terms, “homophobia” (largely attributed to Weinberg, 1972) has been the most enduring and widely used in research and popular culture. Herek (2004) provided a rich review and critique of these terms, with an emphasis on homophobia, and considered the historical and societal context in which this term first originated and was later revised. In his critique, Herek noted important limitations to the term “homophobia,” including (a) it rarely refers to an intense, irrational fear of sexual minorities; (b) it is framed through the lens of psychopathology but is not meant as a diagnosis; (c) it has inadequately reflected the role of broader social norms and processes in shaping individuals’ attitudes; (d) more recently its operationalization has become diffuse as a consequence of being applied to a rather large range of ideas; and (e) it is often considered synonymous with prejudice toward gay men specifically rather than sexual minorities more expansively. Consequently, although many researchers use the term “homophobia” to capture a range of interrelated concepts (e.g., individuals’ negative attitudes toward non-heterosexuals, discriminatory social policies or institutions), it has steadily been replaced by terms such as “sexual stigma,” “heterosexism,” and “sexual prejudice,” which we describe next.
Sexual stigma may be defined as the collective belief among members of society that non-heterosexual identities, feelings, or behaviors are wrong and inferior to heterosexual identities, feelings, or behaviors (Herek, 2004).