news
Published: 12 May 2014

Psychology: 40 years of fighting homophobia

A new paper reviewing four decades of psychological interventions to reduce homophobia suggests that progress has been made. However, much strong research in this field may go unpublished precisely because of lingering sexual prejudice and its consequences.

It is startling to consider that homosexuality was still considered a mental illness until around 40 years ago, when it was finally 'depathologised' by the American Psychiatric Association.

Nevertheless, in 1973 psychologists committed themselves as a profession to ending the societal homophobia that lesbians and gay men experience. So what can we say about the results of these efforts?

In a recent paper published by the Journal of Sex Research, Sebastian Bartoş, Israel Berger and Peter Hegarty (researchers in the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey) reviewed all studies of psychological interventions that had the reduction of homophobia as their aim. Their findings show that many practical strategies are effective, but also that there are problems still to be addressed.

"Psychologists have been creative in their experiments over the last 40 years, and most evidence shows that education and contact with gay people are effective strategies," said Sebastian. "However, many more promising interventions (such as the use of entertainment media or of emotional stimuli) are supported by only a few studies and still await future research."

"Psychologists have been creative in their experiments over the last 40 years, and most evidence shows that education and contact with gay people are effective strategies" - Sebastian Bartoş

The Surrey review also shows that intervention studies have been conducted largely among young American college students – hardly the sector of humanity that is most homophobic to begin with. This 'participation bias' means that research and intervention among other groups and in other countries remains more scarce, yet no less important.

In an editorial for the same journal, Jacques van Lankveld of the Open Universiteit in the Netherlands wrote: "Bartoş and colleagues’ review reveals that, on the topic of sexual prejudice reduction interventions, the studies that were published employed samples that are not representative of the entire population, let alone of different cultures, countries, and continents.

"This should stimulate us to carefully consider, both when planning new research and when reviewing published work, what the implications are of sample characteristics for the external validity of findings."

Some of the best-designed intervention studies – those including control groups, random assignment and pre-tests – went unpublished in academic journals

The review produced another surprising and revealing finding: Some of the best-designed intervention studies – those including control groups, random assignment and pre-tests – went unpublished in academic journals. Why would this be?

Many of these strong unpublished studies were conducted by PhD students. The researchers suggest that there may be a negative loop whereby homophobia itself (or the fear of it) might affect the publication of research on sexual prejudice, and that PhD students who conduct research in this area may receive less encouragement to publish their work.

The paper concludes that though psychologists have indeed intervened to reduce homophobia, psychology as an academic discipline needs an intervention of practical and financial support for programmatic research on global homophobia to build on the success of the first 40 years' work in this field.

Share what you've read?