Posted: 27 Oct. 2016 10 min. read

Leadership and Courage

Who intervenes against homophobia?

What does it take to intervene against homophobic behaviour? Recent research argues that courageous and altruistic individuals are more likely to actively intervene against homophobia. Can these attributes be cultivated in an organisation? If so, how?

The relationship between acts of homophobia and victims is well defined, but what of the relationship between homophobia and bystanders? What is it that causes people to silently reinforce or encourage homophobic behaviour?  What does it take to stand up and actively intervene? Courage?

Is it just about “courage” or is there more?

A study of American high school students conducted by Professor Paul Poteat (Boston College) and Dr Olivier Vecho (Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre la Défense) has explored the relationship between personality attributes and the likelihood of intervention in homophobic behaviour.

The research argues that if an individual is courageous, altruistic and sensitive to issues of fairness they will be more likely to challenge homophobia, rather than playing the role of a passive bystander.


The study aimed to explore the context in which homophobic behaviour occurs, and the roles of various individuals in order to develop effective programs to promote intervention and reduce homophobia.

The study defined homophobia as a form of ‘bias-based behaviour’ that can include bullying, physical harassment, exclusion, rumour spreading, or homophobic nicknames. The study focused on the role of bystanders, and the factors that may increase their likelihood to become active interveners.


The study surveyed 722 students at an American high school, ranging from 14-19 years of age. The survey assessed an individual’s leadership, courage, altruism, and their ‘justice sensitivity’ (how concerned they were when others were treated unfairly).

The survey also collected information from participants based on their gender, grade level, race, sexual orientation, the number of homosexual friends they had, and how frequently they witnessed homophobic behaviour. Finally, if a student had observed homophobic behaviour, they were asked about how they reacted.

The research tested the following hypotheses:

1. Individuals with attributes of courage, leadership, altruism and justice sensitivity are more likely to intervene against homophobia

2. Individuals with LGBTI friends are more aware of the damage of homophobia, and are more likely to intervene against homophobia

3. Females and younger students are more likely to act as defenders against homophobic behaviour than males



The research found all the above hypotheses to be true. However, there were stronger links between the specific attributes of courage and altruism and their likelihood to intervene against homophobia.

In particular there were four findings: (1) Frequency of observation; (2) Frequency of intervention; (3) Demographic attributes of intervenors; and (4) Personal attributes of intervenors.

Key findings:

1. Frequency of observation: 8% of students had observed homophobic behaviour in the past 30 days, with sexual minority youth observing it the most

2. Frequency of intervention:

Of those who had observed homophobia in the past 30 days, 77.7% had engaged in at least one defending behaviour.

The more instances of homophobic behaviour that were witnessed, the more likely an individual was to defend the victim.

3. Demographic attributes of intervenors:

Girls had engaged in more defending behaviours than boys

Those in the sexual minority engaged in more defending behaviours then their heterosexual counterparts.

4. Personal attributes of intervenors: Of those who had observed homophobic behaviour in the past 30 days:

Courage, altruism, justice sensitivity and the number of LGBT friends an individual has will have the strongest influence on the likelihood of intervention against homophobia

Key finding #4 identified that those who demonstrated altruistic qualities are more attuned to how homophobic behaviour affects others and will feel a stronger desire to help victims of this form of discrimination. While altruism allowed the individual to understand the needs of victims of homophobia, the research found that it was courage that allowed individuals to challenge entrenched social norms that condone homophobic behaviour.


The research suggests that employing social-emotional learning programs may encourage active intervention against homophobic behaviour. Such programs should focus on achieving two key outcomes, (1) cultivation of personal attributes such as courage and altruism; and, (2) development of skills and techniques to challenge homophobic behaviour.

The study recognises that further research on the most effective types of defending behaviours, and the circumstances where different tactics will be most effective is required. This would contribute to the development of social-emotional learning programs described above, in particular in relation to key outcome #2 above.

There are some limitations of applications of the study given that respondents were exclusively high school students. Therefore, research focusing on homophobic behaviour and the role of active interveners in the workplace, specifically, would support the development of organisational social-emotional learning programs.

For more information, contact Kimberley Van Raay (

To read the full article, see V. Paul P., Olivier V. (2014) “Who intervenes against homophobic behaviour? Attributes that distinguish active bystanders” Journal of School Psychology, Vol 54, (2016), pp.17-28.

Meet our author

Kimberley Van Raay

Kimberley Van Raay

Senior Consultant, Internal Services

Kimberley is a Consultant in Deloitte's Human Capital Consulting practice. She combines her passion for people with her practical industry experience to help her clients with their business and people needs. Kimberley’s background and areas of experience have been in the Public Sector redesigning a range of talent management processes, and the telecommunications industry focusing on communications and change management.