A guest post on what homophobic microagressions look like and how to fight them
CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of different types of homophobic acts and their impact.
Homophobia isn't just a word - it's a set of biases, fears, and prejudices aimed at folks who identify as LGBT+. And in our Australian context, the face of homophobia has been changing for a while now.
While outright acts of violence and isolation might still come to mind when you think of homophobia, the legal landscape has largely shifted. We've got something new on our hands: 'microaggressive homophobia.' Now, don't get us wrong, the old-fashioned forms of homophobia haven't disappeared entirely, but they have taken a back seat. And this new form — well, it's a bit of a tricky beast. The problem is, not many young people have the support or know-how to tackle these subtle yet harmful actions head-on.
That’s why this month, our guest writer Coco Greenberg (she/they) is delving deep into homophobia as it stands today - the microaggressions faced by young queer individuals in Australia. Let’s take a look as Coco takes us through the intricacies of how this new form of homophobia came about, and shares how it has affected her personally as a young person living in Naarm (Melbourne).
Homophobia and Microaggressions: Navigating Changes in the Homophobia Faced by LGBT+ Youth in Australia
The presentation of homophobia has changed dramatically within an Australian social context. When you think of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, plus) community, violence, refusal of services and overt social isolation might be what comes to mind. However, changing laws and attitudes have seen a shift to what we consider ‘microaggressive homophobia’.
And because it’s not what we picture when it comes to homophobia, a general lack of education and understanding around this new wave of discrimination means young people have little to no support or guidance on how to identify and combat these harmful acts.
What are microaggressions and what do they look like? An explanation of the homophobia faced by today’s youth
Microaggressions are subtle, everyday forms of discrimination or prejudice that are often unintentional but can have a significant impact on marginalised groups.These are like those tiny pebbles that find their way into your shoe and cause discomfort. They're the small, everyday actions or remarks that might not be intentional, but they pack a punch for those who are already marginalised. When it comes to homophobia, microaggressions are the subtle jabs, comments, or behaviors that keep those stereotypes alive and well, chipping away at the experiences and identities of LGBTQ+ individuals.
One of my first experiences of microaggressions was before I had even begun exploring my own personal identity as a queer individual. The casually thrown around ‘that’s so GAY’ followed by laughter from my classmates brings back memories from days as early as primary school.
Even at this young age, it didn’t sit well with me. I remember an uneasy pit in my stomach, but was unable to identify why, unlike my fellow students, I wasn’t able to simply laugh along.
This sort of derogatory language only became worse upon entering highschool, with the F slur becoming a word I heard on a daily basis around the playground, often knowingly overlooked by members of staff.
The first person I came out to was a girl I sat with in a creative writing class during year 10. To this day, I remember her distinct response to my statement:
“I think I might like girls”.
“Really? You don’t seem like the type”.
This assumption of heterosexuality is one of the most invalidating and common forms of microaggresive homophobia I face to this day. The feeling of having someone deny your sexual orientation or gender identity can only be described as being made to feel invisible.
Stereotyping and generalizations are also forms of microaggressions in relation to homophobia. Making assumptions about someone's behavior, interests, or appearance based on their sexual orientation reinforces harmful stereotypes and limits the individual's ability to express their authentic self. For example, assuming that all gay men are effeminate or that all lesbians are masculine perpetuates rigid gender roles and expectations.
It is important to recognise that microaggressions are not isolated incidents but rather a part of a larger system of homophobia. They may seem small or insignificant individually, but when experienced repeatedly, they can have a cumulative and detrimental effect on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ+ individuals.
Before the law was on our side: The ‘Traditional’ presentation of Homophobia
Historically, homophobia was more overt and socially acceptable. LGBTQ+ individuals faced open discrimination, violence, and legal persecution. Society held deeply ingrained prejudices against non-heteronormative identities, resulting in systemic oppression and the denial of basic human rights. Homophobia was often rooted in religious beliefs, societal norms, and a lack of understanding or acceptance of diverse sexual orientations.
Only a short 48 years ago ‘homosexual acts’, even between consenting adults, were still considered a criminal act across most states in Australia. It wasn’t until 1994 that law was passed federally to legalise homosexuality. The impact this had on societal beliefs and understanding of LGBTQ+ identities was enormous.
The criminalisation of LGBTQ+ activities sent a clear message to all non-queer citizens - we do not accept you. Your behavior and lifestyle is wrong and immoral. It created a widespread unspoken rule that to personally persecute - whether through violence, social isolation or refusal of services - was not only ok but encouraged. ‘These people’ were unwanted members of Australian society.
It wasn’t until 1994 that the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act officially legalised homosexuality across Australia (overriding any state laws). Further protections didn’t come until 2013 with an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act .
How have attitudes to homophobia shifted for today’s LGBT+ youth?
It wasn’t just the changing laws that contributed to shifting attitudes. The arrival of virtual platforms and social media allowed for individuals who previously had been isolated and forced to keep their identity private to share their true selves without fear of in-life repercussions, the anonymity of an online profile providing a safety net of sorts.
The visibility of queer people online had a snowball effect - as more queer individuals ‘came out of the closet’ their fellow community members felt encouraged to do the same. I remember my own pre-coming out experience of sifting through supportive comments on queer Instagram influencers and celebrities such as Girl in Red and Cara Delevingne. This sort of representation shifted my fear of isolation from my heteronormative community by making me aware of the amazing community waiting for me.
In saying all of this, social media is also a perfect place for stereotypes and misinformation to flourish and spread. Once again, as amazing as it was seeing certain celebrities embrace their queerness, I found a gap in the representation as a fem presenting individual. You search up ‘lesbian’ in the mid-2010’s and a stream of butch women taking up traditionally masculine jobs and roles in society and relationships enter your Instagram feed. ‘You don’t seem like the type’ was exactly how I felt seeing these women, and it’s not difficult to understand where my friend had come to that conclusion based on this sort of representation.
Society had moved away from traditional homophobia, no longer was it acceptable to attack, fire or bully queer individuals (it is important to note that this does still happen, simply not to the same extent prior to the decriminalisation), but an enormous lack in education around what it means to be queer is still leading to a microaggressive, homophobic society.
How is this form of homophobia affecting young LGBT+ people
Young queer individuals have little to no guidance on how to navigate a microaggressive society. LGBTQ+ generations past warn us about traditional homophobia, which is still something to be cautious of. However, we aren't given any advice or guidance on how to handle ignorance and understand its impact during our vulnerable years of self-exploration and identity formation.
Microaggressions in a sense are a form of societal gaslighting - they aim to confuse minorities through having the same effect of isolating and instilling fear whilst making them believe they’re not experiencing discrimination.
The mental health impact this has on queer individuals who aren’t able to recognise this attack on their identity is saddening to see. 80% of homophobic bullying or ‘microaggressions’ are shown to occur during highschool and have been shown to result in queer individuals being 3x more susceptible depression.
Continuously, whilst representation has increased, the first depiction of LGBTQ+ identity that young people will encounter is still being shown through a heteronormative and cisgendered lens - in classrooms and in majoritively non LGBTQ+ social spaces such as the schoolyard. This biases these representations through stereotypes and negative connotations, often meaning young queer people either chose to hide their identity, or feel the need to try to fit heteronormative ideas of what it is to be queer. An example of this might be queer men adopting a more feminine appearance, or my own experience of the opposite - feeling as though I need to adopt more masculine traits to be accepted. This can lead to further issues around identity and further confusion.
I came out in 2018, and the relief of finally feeling like I understood myself was short lived as very soon after I felt I had to conform to societal norms around what a lesbian ‘should look like’. It wasn’t until my second year of university after which I had had the opportunity to properly integrate myself within the queer community and further dissect and discard these stereotypes that I started feeling at ease within my own identity and presentation again.
What We Need to Do to Better Prepare and Support Young Queer Individuals:
While homophobia may have changed forms, it hasn’t gone away. That’s why, now more than ever, we need to work to support LGBT+ youth. Here are some important things we can invest in if want to change the landscape for young people in the future:
Education and Awareness: Implement comprehensive LGBTQ+ inclusive education programs that promote understanding, acceptance, and empathy. This should include education for both young queer people and their communities to create a safe and supportive environment within schools and their wider social circles. This would counteract the initial usually negative and stereotypical; depiction young queer people often experience of their communities and would help dispel fear around queerness.
Supportive Communities: Foster inclusive and supportive communities within schools, families, and wider society. Encourage the formation of LGBTQ+ support groups, safe spaces, and allyship networks to provide emotional and social support for young queer individuals. Furthermore, educating family members around both the struggles their queer children may encounter as well as how to best support and recognise them will help queer children understand that they have a safe space prior to building connections within their own community.
Policy and Legal Reforms: Advocate for policy and legal reforms that protect LGBTQ+ rights, including anti-discrimination laws and inclusive healthcare policies. This will help create an environment where homophobia and microaggressions are not tolerated.
Mental Health Support: Ensure accessible and LGBTQ+ affirming mental health services for young queer individuals. Training mental health professionals to be knowledgeable and sensitive to the unique challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community, especially around microaggressions and the impact this form of societal gaslighting can have on LGBTQ+ youth is essential in fighting the effects of school yard microaggressive homophobia.
Media Representation: Promote positive and accurate representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in media and popular culture to challenge stereotypes and increase visibility. Ensuring that this representation is coming from the LGBTQ+ community directly to avoid typecasting and creating untrue narratives about what it is to be queer will help dispel those unnecessary additional years of questioning one's identity and further help educate the public on what it means to be queer at its core - to live outside of labels and stereotypes.
Coco Greenberg (she/they) is a gender studies major at The University of Melbourne.