What does homophobia have to do with fear?
This is one of the posts I had been working on before my brother died. Lately, when I sit down to write, what comes out is all about loss and addiction and death. I have things I want to say about all of those topics, and at some point I’ll share them, but for now we’ll stay out of those dark places.
I started writing the post below partly in response to this news story which has now fallen off everyone’s radar, but the topic is of course always relevant.
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“I’m not homophobic. I’m not afraid of gay poeple.”
Variations on the above are quite common to hear amongst people who’ve been accused of homophobia. The idea is that “-phobia” can only mean “fear”, so if you don’t actively feel the icy grip of terror in your heart when you look at this photo, you can’t be labelled a homophobe.
Another line of thinking goes as follows: “I don’t have any problem with gay people, and in fact I support their fight for equal rights – so obviously, I am not homophobic.”
I am going to explain why both of these assertions are flawed. Not because I want to go around shaming people into admitting that they’re bigots, but because I want to have a real discussion about what homophobia actually is so that we can hopefully move on from semantic distractions and start to talk about real solutions.
Let’s start with the phobia = fear thing. Simply put, this is inaccurate. Or at least, it’s incomplete. Sure, we use the stand-alone word “phobia” to talk about pathological fears like arachnophobia or consecotaleophobia. But “-phobia” as a suffix has other uses that don’t necessarily indicate fear. Hydrophobic molecules, for example, aren’t terrified of water. Liphophobic iPhones (say that ten times fast) aren’t horrified by fingerprint oil. In both of these cases, the meaning is clearly “aversion” rather than “fear”. (And while we’re on the subject, getting pedantic about Greek origins is pointless, because English uses countless words from countless languages without sticking strictly to their original meanings.)
But let’s pretend for a moment that there was no other word in the English language ending in “-phobia” that meant anything other than “fear”. It still wouldn’t matter. Words aren’t defined by their similarity to other words, by their past usage, or even by their dictionary entry. Words are defined by the way people use and understand them in the present time. When someone says the word “homophobia”, everybody knows what they mean. It means what it means because the people using it all know what it means. If that sounds like a self-evidently obvious statement, good. You’re right on track.
I could make up a new word right now, for kicks, that means “acting like a complete tool about gayness and gay people”, and as long as everyone else started using and understanding it, that is what it would mean. But I don’t need to do that. Because we already have a word with that meaning. The word is “homophobia”.
Okay. We’ve established that “-phobia” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “fear”. But here’s one more thing to think about: hatred of or aversion to homosexuality… is in fact rooted in fear. Maybe not the bone-chilling Nightmare-on-Elm-Street kind of fear, but that isn’t the only kind. Maybe it’s a fear that you will be hit on by someone stronger than you. Maybe it’s a fear that your body will experience an involuntary sexual response to a person of the same sex. Or maybe it’s a fear that others will perceive you as gay, and treat you badly – which leads me into the second half of this post, and the assertion that rainbow-flag-waving, super-supportive straight allies, by default, can’t possibly be homophobic.
Straight allies reading this: Hi there! I want you to know that I greatly and genuinely appreciate you. But please indulge me for a moment and play along.
Imagine a scenario. You are at a busy restaurant with your gay friend, who is discussing the great leaps forward that gay marriage has recently taken. You are nothing but positive and supportive. Your friend gets up to use the washroom. A stranger at the table next to you turns, smiles, and says loudly, “I just want you to know I think it’s great that people like you are finally starting to have the same rights as the rest of us.”
How do you respond? You know better than I do. But that flutter of anxiety you feel in your chest when the other restaurant patrons turn to look at you? That moment where you want to make it clear, as quickly as possible, that you personally aren’t actually gay?
That is homophobia.
Wait, stay with me here. This is not about blaming. You can’t help that you feel anxiety in this situation. In fact, I’d say it’s completely understandable that you do. Why? Because you know perfectly well what kinds of attitudes many people hold about homosexuality. You’ve suddenly become acutely conscious of any smirks, looks of scorn, whispers and snickering in the crowd around you. You’re aware that you might be followed out of the restaurant. There’s a possibility you could be attacked in a back alley. You could even be murdered. Anxiety is a perfectly natural response.
And here is the reason that I know with a fair amount of certainty that most all straight allies reading the above scenario would feel that flutter of anxiety: because I, a certified queer personTM, would feel it too. For us, it’s called “internalized homophobia”, and it can take years and years to overcome.
There are so many tiny, fleeting messages that many people don’t think much about – but that add to our collective subconscious impression that being gay is a bad thing you really don’t want to be if you can help it. Fumbling for a quick denial adds to this problem. So do expressions in the media like “gay scandal” and “gay rumours”, especially when one is “plagued” by them. And so does that ever-debated little quip, “no homo”, whose defenders claim shouldn’t cause offense because it’s “just a joke”. (If you agree, there’s a great post over at Linguistic Pulse that you should read.)
What to conclude from all of this? Basically, that pretty much everybody – everybody, straight or queer – is at least a little bit homophobic, and that yes, homophobia is at least a little bit rooted in some kind of fear. So let’s please stop arguing about the word, and focus on trying to create a world where being gay isn’t such a scary thing.