Homophobia: a Definition Essay
Even well-educated people seem not to know what the word “homophobia” actually means outside the political arena where the word is said to be nothing but an empty political charge. I’m sure that the charge of homophobia is sometimes made purely as a political tactic. But that fact should not make us blind to the other fact–that real homophobia also exists, and sometimes the use of the word is denotatively correct. However, recognizing that the word is sometimes validly used in a technically accurate way requires that the hearer know the technical meaning of the word. So here’s my attempt to explain the technical meaning of the word.
The word “homophobia” was coined by a New York psychotherapist, George Weinberg, in 1972, based on his observation of a pattern of irrational behavior in patients he worked with. He noted in these patients a pattern of irrational fear, revulsion and distrust of homosexuals that was sometimes translated into hostility and even rage towards them. These feelings were irrational in the sense that they were not grounded in reality and were very resistant to change based on factual information that contradicted the false beliefs with which they justified their feelings. Irrationality
Like phobias, these feelings are obsessive and irrational–that is, they are feelings that (1) are not based on real-world experiences or actual dangerousness of that which is feared or hated, (2) are resistant to change when the “reasons” for the feelings are demonstrated to be false, and (3) may involve an intensity of feelings that are disproportionate to any perceived problem about homosexuality. For instance, despite their strong feelings, homophobes did not develop their phobia from bad experiences they had with actual homosexuals. In fact, most homophobes report that they don’t know any homosexuals.
Their prejudices are, in other words, not based on real-world experience. That’s one part of the irrationality of homophobia. The other part of homophobia’s irrationality is its resistance to change. For instance, Weinberg sometimes gave his patients statistical evidence that contradicted some of their false stereotypes about homosexuals. At the time, they would acknowledge that they must be in error, but then at their next sessions they would repeat the same false stereotype as if it were true again. Homophobia is irrational in the sense that it is not grounded in actual life experiences with real homosexuals.
Indeed, those who have homosexual acquaintances and family members are not as likely to be homophobic as are persons who believe that they have no homosexual acquaintances. This lack of real experiences with actual homosexuals is why homophobia generally embodies misconceptions and false stereotypes about homosexuals. Stereotypes have changed over the years, but some have been remarkably enduring. For instance, a survey by Kinsey of 3,000 Americans (1973) found that: 56% believed homosexuals were afraid of the opposite sex. 69% believe homosexuals act like the opposite sex. 71% thought homosexuals molest children.
Many associated homosexuals with certain occupations or felt that some occupations were inappropriate for them. For instance, 86 percent of Kinsey’s sample felt that homosexuals could be florists, but 76 percent felt they should not be school teachers. Common myths that one still hears today include the false belief that there is no homosexuality in other species (while, in fact, it has been noted in species as diverse as gulls, dolphins, cows, primates), that homosexuals can’t reproduce (whereas about 20% of male Baby Boom homosexuals have been heterosexually married and parented children).
More important than the content of homophobic myths is the fact that they are actively defended in spite of logical reasons for abandoning them. When false homophobic beliefs about homosexuals are countered with evidence of their incorrectness, homophobes may ignore that evidence by simply changing the topic to another myth that supports their homophobia. Homophobic assertions become more and more abstract, and therefore more difficult to disprove–e. g. , the assertion that homosexuals are “disgusting” or “sick” has no clear referent within homosexuals, since such terms really describe subjective states of homophobes.
This resistance to contrary evidence makes homophobes are difficult to educate. For instance, the same individuals who have acknowledged the factual inaccuracy of homophobic beliefs will later reassert the original false beliefs and express surprise at their incorrectness when the same counter evidence is provided–as if they had never heard that evidence before. Weinberg noted that the same people seem surprised time and time again on hearing evidence that their stereotypes are not grounded in reality.
The pattern of defending homophobia is to substitute one misgiving for another as each is challenged without confronting the basic irrationality of the underlying fears. The extremity of the emotional load is out of proportion to any real problem. This can be seen most clearly in stronger forms of homophobia that involve disgust, loathing, intolerance, and even hate crimes. Homophobia is, in other words, not really a matter of logic, but of feelings that run deeper than mere intellectual opposition to homosexuality.
Consider the example of homophobic feelings expressed by a sixteen-year-old girl I spoke with. On a date in Salt Lake City, she and the boy who had asked her out decided to take a ride on one of the horse-drawn carriages downtown, thinking it would be romantic. As a carriage drew up to the station, she noticed that the couple in it were two men, one with is arm around the other. “It was disgusting! ” she exclaimed. When I asked her to tell me what about this experience was disgusting to her, she answered, “Because it’s revolting! and when I inquired what revolted her about the couple, she replied “Because it’s disgusting! ”
Our conversation came full circle without her having been able to explain the basis of here feelings. The irrationality of homophobia manifests itself in the ability of homophobes to entertain mutually contradictory positions about it. For instance, the same person who argues that homosexuality is terribly disgusting to “normal people” may also compare homosexuality to a contagious disease that readily spreads from one person to another or ask “What if everyone became homosexual? ”
Homophobia as a Social Norm Homophobia is most easily talked about using extreme examples. Strong examples impress people and are remembered. However, most homophobia is “invisible” or hardly noticed because most homophobia is mild rather than extreme. Weinberg himself noted that homophobia is not necessarily extremely intense. It ranges from mild forms (such as avoidance of homosexuals or the demand that they remain socially anonymous to acute forms (such as the morbid desire to have homosexuals disappear, active inflaming of others against homosexuals, and direct physical attacks against them).
For the word to apply, the homophobe need not be filled with active hatred and fanatical bigotry or a desire to actively do harm to homosexuals. Although such cases exist, homophobia may also involve milder levels of emotion–distrust, passive dislike, with no more antipathy than the assertion that homosexuals should remain socially anonymous. The operative part of the definition of homophobia is the word irrational, not the words that designate the specific negative emotions or their intensity.
The fact that homophobia may be mild and the level of emotionality be within limits that do not mark the person as an obvious “bigot” has been lost on people when it comes to day-to-day use of the word “on the street”. But, as it is defined, ordinary, nice folk can be homophobic to. Even if their negative feelings are mild and politely expressed, those feelings are “homophobic” if they are irrationally in their origin and in their being held to despite evidence that demonstrates their irrationality.
This point was driven home to me a few years ago on this list when a list member (who is no longer here and whom I respect as an ordinarily rational person) wrote that he had a friend whose son had rather strong antipathies towards the topic of homosexuality and towards homosexuals, feelings that were not based on his having known any homosexuals who had demonstrated that they deserved his contempt. Although this acquaintance also acknowledged that the young man’s feelings were irrational, based on false stereotypes, he–the list member–insisted, nevertheless, that he didn’t think the boy was “homophobic”.
That is, although the boy’s behavior and attitudes fit the definition perfectly, the list member resisted the application of the word. Consider this somewhat stronger example, a denial of homophobia by another acquaintance of mine: “I am not truly a homophobe which linguistic- ally implies a fear of homosexuality and homosexuals. But homosexuals have always made my skin crawl with an involuntary loathing, and so does the topic. I am glad that I am possessed of this loathing, this visceral disgust. . . .”
“But the biggest reason I don’t want to . . . discuss homosexuals and homosexuality s the deep feeling of love and compassion I feel for homosexuals. ” Here, the contradiction between the expressed feelings and the denial of being homophobic is easier to see because of the intensity of the feelings, but the refusal to apply the term to behavior that fits the definition is not different in kind from that of my acquaintance in the first example who acknowledged that his friend’s son had irrational feelings about homosexuality, the defining criteria for the meaning of the word “homophobia”, yet still refused to accept that the young man was “homophobic”.
Part of the insidiousness of homophobia is that, in its mildest forms, it is simply a widespread irrational resistence to even recognizing homophobia when one sees it in others. In the case I just recounted, my acquaintance acknowledge that all of the defining traits were present in his friend’s son, but still resisted using the word. Another acquaintance of min was more blatant in his resistance to any validity of the word–refusing to acknowledge that the word was appropriate even in extreme cases such as convicted murderers who had confessed that their only motive had been to “beat up a queer”.
More often blindness to homophobia may simply be a refusal to recognize it except in blatant cases. This resistance to recognize the more common milder forms of homophobia is so pervasive in American society as to be accurately called a “normal” part of our culture. The Etiology of Homophobia: Gender Role Socialization So where does homophobia come from and how can it become so pervasive that it represents a typical blind spot for ordinary members of society?
In my opinion, our societies child rearing customs–not psychopathology–are the source of our customary homophobia. Specifically, our system of gender socialization makes it likely that boys will be insecure about their “masculinity” and fear that they are not `real` men. This is true whether the boy is straight or gay. The problem of homophobia arises from this insecurity, because our society’s concepts of being “masculine” are intimately linked to the idea that the antithesis of a `real’ man is a `homosexual man’.
The idea is taught, especially through peer socialization, to young boys long before adolescence, when individual boys who do not perform aggressively enough or dominant enough to meet peer standards of being an acceptable boy are taunted as “sissies” (i. e. , too girl-like to be `real’ boys). This term is later merged with words like “queer”, “fairy”, and “fag”, in similar anxiety-laden situations as a masculine “out-group” identifier. Notice, that I am saying that the real referent of homophobia is not homosexuals, but fear of not being accepted as a normal member of one’s gender category by one’s peers.
This is why people who have never knowingly met a homosexual can be homophobic–an important part of the “irrationality” of homophobia. The source of the feelings is not, in fact, real-world characteristics of homosexuals, but personal anxiety about not being a “real boy”, not being “masculine”, not being a “real man” in the eyes of one’s peers. When the earlier words such as “sissy” are later equated with “fags”, “queers”, or the like, children transform their understanding of those feelings of personal inadequacy into feelings of disgust for “homosexuals”.
This is easy enough to do–even easier if one doesn’t have any homosexual friends, since dislike for (supposedly) evil Others is psychologically more tolerable than feeling personally inadequate–especially when the potential inadequacy strikes as close to the root of personal identity as does “unmanliness”. Homophobia develops when “(Everybody thinks) I’m a sissy” is sublimated into “We hate sissies/homosexuals”. In homophobic thinking, one affirms one’s own masculinity. This is why false stereotypes about the “effeminacy” of homosexual males is such a pervasive an element of homophobic thinking.
And this is why the false stereotypes about homosexuals are so resistant to change–because they permit the believer in those stereotypes to feel better about themselves as men and members of their heterosexual reference group. Homophobic language not only also links the term “homosexual” (and all of its pejorative equivalents) with a variety of ideas that communicate nonmasculinity (e. g. , “Homosexuals tend to prefer feminine occupations such as hairdresser, florist, and interior decorator. ), but it also links the concept of “homosexual” with all those childhood feelings and anxieties that express our worries about not being “masculine” enough to be accepted by our male peer group. The process begins long before children have developed a real understanding of sexuality or the real reference group of gay people. So the use of terms that denote gay males as pejorative challenges to a boy’s acceptability to his peers, all of the emotional loadings of those pejoratives carry over as stigma against real gay persons.
All of the feelings are magnified during the period of adolescence when sexuality begins to become something of real relevance and when secondary-sexual characteristics begin to develop. Adolescent biological changes do, IMO, aggravate he social anxieties and escalate the effects of homophobia. Both heterosexually and homosexually oriented boys are socialized into these irrational feelings about “queers” before they have established their own self-perceived sexual identities. Heterosexually-oriented boys express these feelings by being hostile toward (real or suspected) gays.
Homosexually-oriented boys do the same thing initially, but when they begin to recognize that they differ from their peers in being sexually/romantically interested in boys rather than girls, it suddenly dawns on them that “I’m one of THEM (shudder)”. Your gay friends who told you of their own homophobia towards themselves are not unusual at all. They are the rule, not the exception. Gay boys are forced to confront and deal with their own homophobia, because they can’t avoid it.
Their irrational feelings of loathing towards “THEM” and their own developing sexual identities are in terrible conflict that they can’t just ignore, since both relate centrally to their own sense of self. Some gay teens never come to terms with their own sexuality and the feelings of self-loathing and/or the insecurity at knowing they are stigmatized and hated by others wins out, and they kill themselves. Others make it through the process of self-examination by rejecting their homophobia and the irrational self-loathing it can induce and accepting themselves as “gay and okay”.
This, I think, is why out-of-the-closet gays actually perform better on standard measures of mental health than do heterosexual males, who can go through life playing the expected masculine roles socially among their peers without ever having to self-consciously reconcile those social roles with their sexuality to form a unified social/sexual identity. Homophobia as a Social Phenomenon The psychological phenomenon of homophobia does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is part of a package of social and political values that gives legitimation to the psychological prejudice of homophobia.
For instance, McDonald (1973, 1974) found that lack of support for equality between the sexes correlates very highly with homophobia. Schur (1973) and Dunbar et. al. (1973) found that those most prejudiced against homosexuals strongly supported traditional gender roles and were authoritarian and conservative in their social attitudes (e. g. , opposition to civil rights for women, blacks, and other minorities). Thus, homophobia is part of a constellation of social and political attitudes that include gender attitudes of interest to feminists.
Consider the question, “Who perpetuates homophobia? ” The answer requires that one remember that homophobia does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, homophobia is part of a political syndrome: The same voices that are raised against homosexuality are the voices heard speaking out against women’s privacy rights and abortion rights, and in support of religious fundamentalism, “family values” politics, and heterosexist military. What do these positions have in common? They are all informed by a value system regarding gender roles.
According to Gregory Lehne, from childhood on American males are told not to be like women, so that the accusation of not being a -man is a very potent one–one that is often translated into being a homosexual. Homophobia is the threat implicit in accusations such as “What are you, a fag? ” Such explicit an implicit accusations, beginning in childhood, creates a fear of being (or being perceived as) a homosexual that plays a major part in maintaining the contrasting gender roles of our culture. Heterosexism: the Social Face of Homophobia
Lehne asserts that this socializing role of homophobia might better be called homosexism–sexism between members of the same sex. It is similar to sexism, but refers to maintenance of sex roles by individuals of the same sex, so it lacks the power differential inherent in sexism between males and females. Note also that homosexism can be found in homosexuals and others who are not personally afraid of homosexuality. Homophobia is used as a technique of social control by homosexist individuals to enforce the norms of male gender-role behavior.
That is why individuals whose lives are generally unaffected by homosexuality are homophobic-i. e. , homophobia defends a system of male social dominance over females. The real threat behind homophobia is not homosexuality but change in the system of male supremacism vis-a-vis women. Note that challenges to social dominance by minorities can be countered by false assertions (usually sexual) about the minorities: e. g. , if Blacks are given equality, black men will rape white women; if women are given equality, they will emasculate men.
But when the threat to male supremacist roles is from other men, such generalizations about all men will not work. So the challenge is responded to with homophobia: First, homosexual men are stigmatized and then this stigma is used as a threat against men who do not support masculine roles that dominate women. Thus, the norm of homophobia is used by men to control other men in their male roles–by characterizing nondominant roles as sissy, womanly, or “homosexual”.
Since the functional target of homophobia is not specifically homosexuals, but the entire body of males, it must demand that real homosexuals remain invisible–since valid knowledge about real homosexuals would undermine the functional benefits of homophobia to men in general. (This creates the irony that a great deal of behavior in masculinist institutions such as the military involves pseudo-homosexual behavior, such as the lampooning of homosexuals and homosexual stereotypes: e. g. , hazing in the Navy. ) Charlotte Bunch has reasoned that homophobia functions in a similar way among women.
She notes that lesbianism and feminism are both about women loving and supporting women and women revolting against male domination and patriarchal institutions that control women. She refers to the political theory that embodies and defines the connection between lesbianism and feminism as the key to understanding how to combat the oppression of women (and homosexuals, both male and female) as “lesbian feminist theory”. The connection between homophobia and the oppression of women is clear to lesbians, since they are synonymous in the lives of lesbians.
Note how the assertion of lesbian identity is an inherent challenge to the established system of heterosexual male dominance. So lesbian-feminist theory is a critique of male supremacy. Bunch points out that male supremacy is maintained by a mechanism that has come to be known as heterosexism, the often unspoken assumption that all members of society are heterosexual, an assumption that underlies many of the social customs and conventions that perpetuate male dominance over women.
According to heterosexist society, if a woman is not with a man, she is not fully a woman; whether celibate or lesbian, she is seen as “queer”. If she is independent and aggressive about her life, she is called a “dyke”, regardless of sexual preference. Such labels have been used to terrify women–to keep straight women in their place and to keep lesbians in the closet. Since the assertion of a homosexual or lesbian identity inherently challenges both heterosexism and male supremacy, doing so is met with strong opposition that rejects the acceptability of such self definitions.
At best, the liberal supporter of homosexism is willing to tolerate homosexuals and lesbians so long as they remain closeted and do not assert their identities publicly. Doing so is a challenge to the status quo and gays and lesbians who assert their right to a public nonheterosexual identity are said to be “flaunting their sexuality”. The maintenance of heterosexism and male supremacism requires that homosexuality remain a stigmatized, socially unacceptable category. Thus, anyone who is interested in or who defends the rights of homosexuals is assumed to be a homosexual.
For instance, homophobia is taken for granted in government, the military, religion, and academe. CASE IN POINT: Homosexuals are discharged from the U. S. military for merely declaring their sexual orientation even if they have not been charged for homosexual behavior. In contrast, heterosexual behavior is tolerated and braggadocio about heterosexual exploits while on weekend leave is standard fare in barracks culture with no repercussions. In fact the inclusion of heterosexual conquest as part of the symbolism of true warriorhood is part of the informal socialization of men into their military roles and accepted as “morale building.
An excellent illustration of this heterosexism are the traditional “Molly calls” that drill sergeants had their men sing to maintain the cadence of the march. Molly calls were replete with lewd lyrics about heterosexual sexual conquest. Similarly, the towns nearest military bases have long been hotbeds of heterosexual prostitution, and in foreign settings at war time it has been common for military policy to actually facilitate access with prostitutes, sometimes even routinely allowing them to come onto base to fraternize with the warriors.
It is therefore unsurprising to know that the Pentagon regards the very presence of (even chaste) homosexuals as a threat to “unit cohesion” and military morale. If gender role alternatives are viewed as adaptations to economic and political conditions rather than as “deviant” and idiosyncratic behavior that simply manifests sexual preferences sets the stage for the realization that gay and lesbian roles are best seen as valid gender identities in their own right and that rigid dichotomization of genders is a means of perpetuating the domination of females by males and patriarchal institutions.
Hate Crimes Although the argument I have presented is that the primary function of homophobia is the perpetuation of the subordination of women, this is not intended to in any way detract from the tremendous harm that homophobia causes to the lives of lesbians and gays. The toll that homophobia takes against homosexual citizens is tremendous.
Institutionally, homosexuals have been denied many legal rights ordinarily taken for granted by other citizens. For instance, committed gay and lesbian couples are denied the legal benefits of marriage, including but not limited to inheritance, grief leave from work at the death of a partner, continued occupancy of a residence by one partner when another dies, the benefits of spousal insurance coverage, and adoption.
Other related family law issues have often placed homosexuals at an arbitrary disadvantages in areas such as custody or visitation rights. Discriminatory hiring practices and on-the-job harassment. Homophobia also has horrendous personal effects, including verbal abuse and violence. For instance, surveys indicate that about 76-78% of gays and lesbians have experienced acts of violence and intimidation that they have not reported to legal authorities.