Saturday, October 09, 2010


With the recent spat of suicides and bullying incidents that have been focused on or associated with gay or gay-identified individuals, I've had the opportunity to engage in a tremendous amount of discussion about homophobia.  And, not surprisingly, there are different perspectives and understanding of what homophobia is, what is looks like, how pervasive it is, and what the effects of homophobia are.  Certainly a discussion that covers all of these bases well would constitute volumes and is well beyond my scope.  However, I would like to briefly describe my perspective and understanding.

Informing my understanding of homophobia is Dr. Beverly Tatum's definition of racism in her seminal work "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?"  Tatum (1997) first distinguishes between racism and prejudice.  For Tatum, racism is "a system of advantage based on race" (p. 7).  It goes beyond personal prejudices, "personal ideology" in Tatum's words; rather it is "a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals" (p. 7).  Even when individual people in the dominant group (white or heterosexual) aren't in positions of power or actively act against the interests of black or gay people, they still benefit from the systematic advantages for their group.

Tatum cites Peggy McIntosh's well-known article "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (p. 8) wherein McIntosh details the advantages to being white in every day life.  At minimum, such advantages include the ability to be around people like you at almost any time, to speak with authority and not be questioned by people sharing that identity, being certain that unfavorable institutional practices or decisions by people in authority aren't made because of my identity, no need to question if any negative interactions were because of that identity, and so on. Oppression does not have to be overt and/or hostile - it does not have to be prejudicially based - to effect its force.

Tatum makes note that this definition is "antithetical to traditional notions of an American meritocracy" (p. 9).  While we may not like to bust the myth that all men are created equal, "notions of power or privilege" must be addressed (p. 9).  Tatum also interrogates the interests of those who resist such a definition of racism (and by implication all "isms") :   by not understanding "whose interests are served by a 'prejudice only' definition of racism,...the system of advantage is perpetuatued" (p. 9). She later distinguishes between passive and active racism: failure to interrupt a racist joke would be an example of passive racism while telling such a joke would be an active form (p. 13). 

Although not the sum of her arguments, I will finish highlighting Tatum's definition with her caveat: "It is important to acknowledge that while all Whites benefit from racism, they do not all benefit equally.  Other factors, such as socio-economic status, gender, age, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, mental and physical ability, also play a role in our access to social influence and power" (p. 12).

So, using Tatum's definition, I define heterosexism as systematic advantage based on sexuality or sexual orientation.  Homophobia, for me, is the fear or hatred of non-heterosexual people or the philosophy that such people are morally corrupt or psychologically abberant.  Homophobia, in my mind, informs heterosexism in almost every instance and is the larger problem.

There are people who may be heterosexist without being, or meaning to be, homophobic.  Non-homophobic heterosexism may show itself in such ways:
  • Asking if you have a significant other (this is both nosey and heterosexist)
  • Assuming your significant other is the opposite sex of you
  • Social events that presume only opposite sex couples will attend
  • Marketing that targets couples and only show opposite sex couples
  • The ability to find a community or group of straight people anywhere at almost any time
  • The ability to see representations in any form of media of (well adjusted) heterosexual people (in stable, healthy relationship or sexual active in a socially acceptable way, or...)
  • Ability to enter a locker room and not have others presume you're interested in their bodies
  • The ability to easily find, read, hear or otherwise access the history and contributions of heterosexuals
  • Forms with forced choices such as  "married, single, divorced" that don't recognize the validity or existence of different forms of same-sex relationships might be non-homophobic
  • Some individuals who say "that's so gay" (although the phrase is rooted in homophobia, some may say it in ignorance of the implication)
And so on...

Listing non-homophobic heterosexist manifestations is actually pretty difficult, because so few of them exist. Even the last two examples must come with the caveat that it is difficult, if not impossible to tell, if they are products of homophobia or simply a heterosexist society.  I will briefly mention that a specific brand of homophobia impacts straight-identified men as well: sissyphobia.  This is a more direct expression of the misogyny that underlines homophobia.  A fear, hatred, or dislike of men who have effeminate characteristics or personalities betrays the hatred of women that is the basis for homophobia.  I heard a rabbi once say that "homophobia is a room in the greater house of misogyny" and I firmly believe this.

I've been inclined in my discussions to use blatant examples of the pervasiveness of homophobia, but homophobia manifests itself in the smallest of interactions and assumptions, just as heterosexism does.  Still the homophobic, active oppression of gays and lesbians is a major force in society today.

Homophobia manifest itself in some obvious ways; here are just a few:
  • National and global religious leaders frequently make speeches regarding the evils of homosexuality.
  • National and global religious leaders often talk about some perceived agenda homosexuals persue to destroy traditional societal institutions and roles.
  • National, locals (and sometimes global) politicians claim that homosexuals are unfit for certain jobs, especially those around children.
  • National and local politicians and national and local religious leaders and organizations advocate and advance anti-gay legislation, including opposing legislation that would protect homosexuals from being fired and denied housing or medical care because of their sexual orientation.
  • National and local politicians and national and local religious leaders and organizations oppose legislation that would allow same-sex couples hospital visitation rights or the ability for same-sex couples to make financial and health decisions for their significant others.
  • National and local politicians and national and local religious leaders and organizations oppose legislation that would allow same-sex couples who seek the legal rights, responsibilities and protections that a civil marriage provides to have access to the same rights and protections they enjoy.
  • National and local politicians and national and local religious leaders and organizations oppose legislation that would allow same-sex couples to adopt children, advancing the idea that a child in foster care or an orphanage is better off than with a loving gay or lesbian parents.
  • Religious and secular leaders of all levels promote the idea that homosexuals are (more likely to be) child molestors /pedophiles and/or seek to convert people, but especially children, to homosexuality.
  • Religious and secular leaders of all levels promote research that does not meet well-established scientific criteria or backing to advance lies and falsehoods about gays and lesbians.
  • Religious leaders of all levels promote that homosexuality is a sin that is worse than any other sin simply by the amount of attention they devote to it compared to all other sins.
  • National religious leaders have declared that homosexuals are responsible for 9/11, Katrina, and other disasters that have befallen the United States.
  • National and local politicians and national and local religious leaders and organizations have found legislation that would establish anti-bullying regulations because they believe such legislation would silence their abusive depicitions of homosexuals.
  • Gay and lesbian military service members are not allowed to express or share their feelings for their significant others or their sexual interests, unlike their heterosexual counterparts, who may do so with impunity.  Debate over repeal of DADT often centers around the implicit idea that gay service men (in particular) will be sexually predatory on or inappropriate with their heterosexual peers. 

I could go on, but the picture is clear and obvious to anybody who pays the least bit attention to these things.  But some of these are all too easily dismissed as being uttered by clearly fringe individuals or organizations and that they don't impact the day-to-day lives of gay and lesbian people.  But homophobia is more insidious and dangerous than obvious attacks on gays and lesbians. 

Homophobia is deadly because on a daily basis, it causes some people to:
  • Lie about their lives to continue to live and/or associate with their family and/or friends.
  • Be thrown out on the street without money because they come out to their family when young.
  • Be sent against their will to ex-gay ministries or psychotherapy to "cure" their sexuality.
  • Be ostracized from religious and other organizations they have been members of all their life.
  • Be unable to find other positive representations of other gays and lesbians.
  • Be unable to find people in their community who will be supportive of them.
  • Be rejected by some family members, even if other family members are supportive.
  • Be rejected by some friends, even if others are supportive.
  • Be told that they are "okay" but can't bring their significant other around children (because it would be too hard to explain).
  • Be told they are loved, but are still going to hell or are sick/perverted/etc.
  • Be fired or not hired for jobs they are qualified for because they are gay/lesbian or appear to be.
  • Be unable to find someone to date or otherwise establish a romantic and/or sexual relationship.
  • Be unable to find someone who can understand the issues being gay or lesbian causes for them.
  • Dress to fit in rather than how they would prefer to dress.
  • Not be trusted around children.
  • Enter into unfulfilling opposite-sex relationships in order to "fit in" or because that it what they've been taught is ideal.
  • Cheat on their opposite-sex spouse because their sexual and emotional needs can't be met.
  • Be called names by people who disapprove of their identity.
  • Be assumed to be the expert of and for all gay and lesbian people.
  • Wonder whether disclosing they are in a same-sex relationship will result in some negative repercussion.
  • Wonder if publicly holding hands, hugging, kissing or other appropriate display of affection with their same-sex other will result in violence or other negative repercussion.
  • Prevent some people from publicly displaying affection for fear of such repercussions.
  • Wonder how new neighbors will react if you disclose you are gay or lesbian.
  • Strategize and wonder about places (states and cities) where it is safe and supportive to live as a gay or lesbian.
  • Speculate and keep on guard for areas where one must move into, whether it is safe or supportive or not.
  • Plan their career around professions that are generally accepting of gays and lesbians.
  • Look only for companies that will not discriminate against their sexual orientation and/or offer benefits for same-sex couples.
  • Wonder if other people speak negatively about them when they are not around.
  • Wonder if other people judge their same-sex relationship differently than heterosexual relationships.
  • Wonder if decisions made against them by authorities were because of their sexual orientation.
  • Wonder if they were pulled over by a police officer because they have a pro-gay or gay- identifying sticker on their car. (Or fearing they will be, do not put one on their car.)
  • Wonder if a negative interaction with another person was because of their sexual orientation.
  • Worry that they will burn in hell forever.

Not all gay and lesbian people experience these things, but most of us do experience some of them, to varying degrees.  I have personally experienced many, if not most, of these.  And certainly the list is not comprehensive or halfway complete.

As Tatum mentions, our other areas of privilege mediated the degree to which homophobia and heterosexism impacts us.  An older, white, middle income, highly educated, Protestant male like me may experience any or all of those impacts, but have enough power and privilge through our other identities to deal with those, or most of those, issues.  A young, Hispanic, lower middle class woman who is lesbian may experience them much more profoundly and deeply because she does not have the support systems or financial or other resources to off-set their impact.  And so, she may be forced to live in a community where she must hide her true self and forego a romantic relationship in order to sustain herself and simply survive.

Regardless of one's other privileged identities, these things, big and small, to take a psychic toll. It can wash over some like a raging river or slowly wear on others, eroding them like a stream does a rock over time.  Being able to be in communion with those who understand and who are supportive and loving can help counteract a lot of this, but not all.  For those who do not have such connections or those who may be too young to know how to get out or lack the experience to counterbalance homophobia, it may be a sudden drowning experience.

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