Sunday, May 17, 2009

What Is Homophobia?

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, as proclaimed by the 2006 International Conference on LGBT Community Human Rights.

What is “homophobia”? Well, definitions differ, hence some confusion. I once had a student who wrote a well-intentioned but unironic essay on securing the rights of “homophobes,” since homophobes are born that way and, though homophobia is condemned in the bible, these people have a right to live their lives freely, even though the majority disapproves of them. An amusing idea, but I think the writer thought homophobia was homosexuality.

Dr. George Weinberg coined the word in his 1972 Society and the Healthy Homosexual, defining it simply as the “dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals—and, in the case of homosexuals themselves, self-loathing.”

A colleague of Weinberg’s, Kenneth Smith, conducted one of the first studies of homophobia, creating a kind of inverse “Kinsey scale,” initially determined by student responses to nine yes-or-no items, randomized among a number of other questions on opinions:

1. Homosexuals should be locked up to protect society.
2. It would be upsetting for me to find out I was alone with a homosexual.
3. Homosexuals should be allowed to hold government positions.
4. I would not want to be a member of an organization which had any homosexuals in its membership.
5. I find the thought of homosexual acts disgusting.
6. If laws against homosexuality were eliminated, the proportion of homosexuals in the population would probably remain the same.
7. A homosexual could be a good President of the United States.
8. I would be afraid for a child of mine to have a teacher who was homosexual.
9. If a homosexual sat next to me on a bus I would get nervous.

Most of us can guess which items require a yes and which a no to qualify someone as a homophobe by this scale.

It’s also interesting to note that present-day opponents of gay rights, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Pope Benedict, James Dobson, Rick Santorum, and Antonin Scalia, may not qualify as homophobes at all by this test (I don’t know, since I haven’t seen their responses—though, in public statements, they oppose same-sex marriage or compare homosexuality to bestiality). In fact, some who oppose gay marriage—like Barack Obama and Rick Warren—have gone to some lengths to distance themselves from charges of homophobia.

Respondents on the high end of Smith’s scale (i.e. very homophobic) were also the most likely to answer yes to apparently unrelated questions like

1. “My country right or wrong” is a very admirable attitude.
2. It is only natural to find the thought of mental illness disturbing.
3. Sexual fidelity is vital to a love relationship.
4. Although I don’t always like to admit it, I would like friends to see me with a big house and fine car after I graduate.

These correspondences suggest, then, what is fairly widely accepted now—that homophobes are chauvinistic, obsessed with norms and normality, monogamous, and bourgeois.

They are also more likely to be racists and sexists. But I’m only guessing. Interestingly, though, Weinberg and Smith situate homophobia as a kind of mental illness (thus comparable to homosexuality, according to the APA until 1973) and explore no correspondences to racism and sexism, analogies that are, among the left today (and possibly the far right), practically truisms.

Among the psychological symptoms of homophobia that Weinberg lists are demand for control, indisposition to permit freedom of choice and behavior, rigid sex-role expectations, insecurity about one’s own masculinity (or femininity), and aggressiveness.

Of course, in 37 years, the English language has changed, and the word “homophobia” has taken on additional traits—politicized traits as opposed to psychological ones. For instance, Wikipedia includes “discrimination” against homosexuality and those perceived as homosexual as a form of homophobia, putting it on par with racism. The Center for Media Literacy defines it as “fear of homosexuality as expressed by demeaning images in media texts”—an idea explored in the book and film The Celluloid Closet and upheld by GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—modeled on the Jewish Anti-Defamation League).

How do I define homophobia?

Much as I’m intrigued by the psychological dimensions of fear and hate, I tend to view it through a narrow lens of ethical values and political liberty.

As I use the term, loosely, homophobia is the intent to restrict matters of conduct and self-representation as regards homosexuality only.

I tend not to call people homophobes unless they deny certain behaviors to gays and lesbians that they permit for straight women and men, or assume the prevalence of certain behaviors in gays and lesbians which they ignore among straight people. Celibacy, for instance, is not homophobic unless only homosexuals are expected to be celibate—which is, in fact, the stance of some Protestant denominations. A mean or ridiculous portrayal of a homosexual character on TV is not homophobic unless only homosexuals are portrayed as villainous or silly.

Strictly speaking, then, perhaps I, like others, misuse the term, because I’m talking about hate and prejudice, most specifically as expressed through verbal or physical violence and curtailment of rights, not just uncontrollable psychological fear (phobia).

Bashers are not necessarily afraid of the people they insult or assault or of homosexual acts (though some studies suggest that most anti-gay violence is committed by repressed, self-loathing homosexuals). And I don’t think the killers of Matthew Shepard are any more mentally unbalanced than those who would target Muslims, Jews, or immigrants. Sure, fear may play a role in the insult or attack, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause.

On this point, I’m inclined to agree with Andrew Sullivan. As he expressed it in his blog on Friday, “They can keep their kids away, they can tell them I'm wicked, that I will go to hell, that my love is an illusion, that my life a sham. But give me equality under the law. No more; no less. And may your God go with you.”

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