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Heterosexism is the belief that heterosexuality is the only normal sexual orientation and those falling outside this norm are abnormal or flawed. Homophobia, a fear of homosexuality that entails negative feelings and attitudes about LGBT people, often accompanies heterosexism.
Heterosexism and homophobia tend to reinforce each other and are present in most cultures, meaning that LGBT individuals often experience discrimination.
Many people grow up exposed to more or less the same beliefs about sexuality but hold quite different attitudes in their adult lives. Personal experiences and feelings combine with social images and models to produce points of view and inform beliefs in ways that cannot be predicted accurately.
For young people, homophobia is linked with the development of gender roles. For boys, traditionally appropriate sex roles as worker, breadwinner, head of household and decision-maker have implied certain personality characteristics and interests. They have been expected to be competitive, sporting, strong and sexually successful. For girls, the traditional sex role has revolved around child-bearing, rearing and nurturing of the family. This was accompanied by an expectation that women would be softer, more readily emotional, expressive and dependable. Of course, these stereotypes are problematic for many girls and boys. Increasingly, especially for girls, they are proving more of a constraint on the individual. However, the models of different, complementary roles for men and women are a very powerful force in the development of gender in adolescence.
Boys and girls who consistently fail to conform to these stereotypes can be subjected to prejudices, discrimination and even violence in which they are accused of being the opposite sex or of being homosexual. Boys who show their feelings or who are too intimate with other boys are often called ‘girls’ or ‘sissy’ by their peers. Girls who are deemed to be too ‘boyish’ or who hold feminist views run the risk of being called ‘dykes’ or ‘lesbians.’ The threat of failing to conform to gender role stereotypes can propel young people into homophobia. Boys may try to prove their maleness by indicating that they are only sexually interested in girls and reject all emotional and potential sexual contact with other boys. Homophobia may be more severe among boys than girls because the stereotypical gender role expectations for boys are much more rigid than for girls. Boys have few legitimate avenues for the expression of softer emotions to other males, which means that any expression can be interpreted as latent homosexual interest. In contrast, close friendships between girls, which involve embracing, touching and sharing thoughts, and feelings are more legitimate and less likely to be taken as an indication of homosexual inclination.