More information about homophobic harassment and your rights

A colleague at work keeps asking me why I “became gay”, to the point where it is uncomfortable and insulting. For example, he asked if I thought I could be gay because my parents separated, or because of a bad experience in my childhood. I don’t think he intends to be insulting or to make me uncomfortable, I think he is genuinely curious. Should I tell him how his behaviour is affecting me?

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What is homophobia?
Homophobia is an attitude or belief system that is prejudiced against people based on their actual or perceived homosexual or bisexual orientation/activity, or transgender or intersex status. Homophobia was first coined in the 1960s as a psychological term. In this instance it referred to a “phobia” – an intense, irrational fear-reaction toward the presence of homosexual people or toward the homosexual identity and activity in general. Since the 1970s however the term homophobia has been used to refer to individual and social prejudice towards people who do not conform to heterosexual identity and behaviour or who do not conform to normative ideas as to what it is to be a man or a woman. In turn, homophobia is an attitude or belief system that takes seriously the perception that homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identity are in severe “opposition” to, or are a “threat” to heterosexuality and to notions as what it is to be a “real” man or “real” woman. This perception of “opposition/threat” is at the end of the day a prejudiced, negative response to the simple fact that some of us live different lives. This website uses the term ‘homophobia’ as an over-arching term for three forms of sexual prejudice; prejudice toward same-sex attracted people (homophobia), prejudice towards same and opposite sex attracted people (biphobia), and prejudice toward transgendered people (transphobia).

What is harassment?
Harassment is behaviour that threatens or torments a person or group. This may come in the form of verbal abuse, physical and verbal intimidation, humiliation, exclusion, insult, threat, violence and physical harm. Harassment can be persistent or a one off incident. It can also be intentional or unintentional. Regardless of whether it is a one off incident or “unintentional”, harassment is harassment and is punishable by the law.

What is homophobic harassment?
Homophobic harassment is conduct that humiliates, intimidates, insults, excludes, silences, or harms an individual or group on the basis of their actual or perceived homosexual orientation. In the case of this website ‘homophobic harassment’ also refers to conduct that humiliates, intimidates, insults, excludes, silences, or harms an individual or group on the basis of their actual or perceived bisexual orientation, activity, or identity (biphobic harassment). As well as conduct that humiliates, intimidates, insults, excludes, silences, or harms an individual or group on the basis of their actual or perceived transgender identity (transphobic harassment).

What is biphobic harassment?
Biphobic harassment is conduct that humiliates, intimidates, insults, excludes, silences, or harms an individual or group on the basis of their actual or perceived bisexual orientation, activity, or identity.

What is transphobic harassment?
Transphobic harassment is conduct that humiliates, intimidates, insults, excludes, silences, or harms an individual or group on the basis of their actual or perceived gender identity.

Why is homophobia wrong?
Homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identity are all legitimate forms of identification and human experience. Under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, everyone has the right to freedom, respect, equality and dignity based on their inherent humanity. Being homosexual, bisexual, or transgender does not make one less human in any way or form. Everyone, gay, straight, bi, trans, has a human right to be seen, heard and happy members of our society. Homophobia is wrong because it denies these people these basic human rights.

What are the effects of homophobic harassment?
Homophobic harassment has many negative effects upon individuals, groups, and society at large. For individuals it can cause mild to severe depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and insecurity. It can lead to rejection by family and friends, and exclusion from workplaces, venues, or social groups. Homophobia makes it difficult for people to accept and express their sexual identity (‘coming out’) and is also seen as the leading cause for the higher rate of suicide for GLBTIQ people than for heterosexual people.

Homophobia damages relationships between GLBTIQ people and the wider social community. By marking GLBTIQ people as inferior, homophobia may unwittingly put pressure on straight people to demonstrate aggression or rejection toward GLBTIQ people. It may limit the avenues available to GLBTIQ to develop their skills and to contribute to important decision-making. It may also have negative effects on relationships between heterosexual people; for example, where showing (non-sexual) affection or support for someone of the same sex may be misread as being “gay”.

Homophobia alienates people. It exacerbates the differences between ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ at the expense of the many similarities. It asks that the GLBTIQ community be silent, and suppresses important, alternative perspectives regarding gender identity and sexuality, and life in general from being heard, let alone understood. It alienates, dehumanizes, and most of all, makes it difficult for us to appreciate true human diversity and to acknowledge the complexity of human experience.

What is a homosexual person?
A homosexual person is some who is attracted to people of the same sex as themselves. In this case, a homosexual man is attracted to other men, and a homosexual woman is attracted to other women. This attraction can be either romantic or sexual or both…

It is possible to differentiate between homosexual action and homosexual identity. In other words, just because a man may have sex with another man does not mean that he will necessarily identify as homosexual, or as gay. He may rather identify as straight…

In this case homosexuality for some people may simply be their attraction to members of the same sex, rather than a form of sexual identity. Yet this is not the only way to view homosexuality. The expression of an individual’s, or a group’s, sexual orientation can appear in society in many forms.

Take heterosexuality for example. The expression of heterosexuality moves far beyond a man and a woman in a bedroom. For example, when a boy and girl ‘break up’ on television, heterosexuality is expressed. When a woman is asked by her friend about her husband, heterosexuality is expressed. It is much the same for homosexuality.

What is a bisexual person?
A bisexual person is someone who is attracted to people of the same sex as well as people of the opposite sex. Their attraction is not necessarily 50/50, and they may see their attraction to either one or both sex as being fluid or changeable over time. Many people, gay, straight, and otherwise, commonly misinterpret bisexuality as indecision, a phase, or a denial of one’s “actual” homosexuality or heterosexuality. Such interpretation undermines the experiences, feelings, relationships, and the identity of bisexual people. Fluidity in one’s sexual orientation is not indecision, it is simply fluidity, and that is a legitimate form of sexual expression and identification.

What is a transgender person?
A transgender person is someone who identifies with a gender that is not the one they were necessarily born with. For example, a transgender person born with the body of a male may identify as a woman, or a transgender person born with the body of a female may identify as a man. In this sense, their gender identity and their body do not necessarily match in regard to social expectations (see gender identity/ gender conformity). A transgender person therefore may or may not then start a process to change their appearance in order to match their body with the gender they identify with. This may take the form of wearing clothes normally assigned to the gender they identify with, or may take the form of changing the physical body through hormone replacement and surgery.

‘Being transgender’ therefore, may refer to a spectrum of experience and appearance. A person with a body that is clearly female may identify as a man – they are ‘transgender’. That same person may then change their body, behaviour, and dress to both indentify and look like a man – they are ‘transgender’. Some people who fall under the category of transgender may not wish to indentify as only a man or only a woman. They may feel that neither category fully articulates their identity or experience. This is a legitimate stance in regard to gender identity and experience. The perception that one can/should only be either a “man” or a “woman” is exactly that, a perception. Transgendered people are showing us the limitations to everyday gender expectations, and are paving the way for new forms of identification.

What is gender identity?
Gender identity is a term used to describe the ways we identify ourselves with our gender; namely, how we identify as being a “man” or “woman”. Gender is different to the term sex. The term sex relates to the anatomical status of being either a male or female, of having either a male or female body given to us at birth. The term gender on the other hand relates to the different set of expectations that are then placed onto male and female bodies. For example, if you are born into a male body (sex) then more often than not it is expected that you act like a man (gender). Gender, therefore, is the day-to-day action of being a man or being a woman. It is the ongoing role or performance that we are expected to play from birth – an infant boy is dressed in blue, a teenage girl puts on make up, a young man is not expected to cry easily, an old woman is expected to know how to nurse a child, and so on and so on. Due to the intensity and pervasiveness of social expectations that dictate ‘who should act like a man and who should act like a woman’ most people identify their gender in accordance to their sex. In other words, most people with female bodies identify as a woman and most people with male bodies identify as a man. Yet, this is not necessarily the case all the time. For more information see – Gender Conformity/ Transgender.

What is gender conformity?
Gender conformity refers to the different sets of expectations placed on men and women regarding behaviour, attitude, identity, social roles, and dress, and how the majority of people endeavour to meet theses expectations. For example, you are walking down the street and you notice a man wearing a skirt. There are hundreds of other men walking around, but you notice him because he is the only one wearing a skirt. You notice him because he is different; he is not wearing what all the other men are wearing. In all, you notice him because he is not conforming to a highly detailed set of expectations as to what it is to “dress like a man”, and thus, of what it is to “be a man”. The fact that he is may be the only man you have seen that day, that year, or perhaps even ever walk down the street wearing a skirt proves that by and large the vast majority of men conform to expectations of what it is to “dress like a man”, and thus, of what it is to “be a man”. This is just one example of gender conformity.

Do I have to approach the person who is harassing me or the person I know directly?
Whether or not you or the person you know approaches the person making the harassment is entirely up to is whether you or they feel comfortable and safe to do so. If you/they do not feel safe to do so, or if you/they think it will exacerbate the situation negatively then perhaps consider some of the other options outlined in the TAKE ACTION section of the website.

However, whilst it is to be expected that a certain level of discomfort will arise when considering doing this, if you do feel it would be an appropriate option to resolving the situation we encourage you to give it a go. Sometimes people do not realising that what they are doing is harassing and telling them how it is effecting your life can often be enough to stop the harassment. It is also possible when considering this option to bring a friend or someone you feel is good in these situations to approach the harasser with you. This is not to bully the harasser, rather to ensure that you feel as comfortable as possible and so that your friend may ensure you get your message across clearly should you feel it hard to do so on your own.