On Homophobia

by Jason Stotts

I think the topic of homophobia is fascinating, because I think all too many people misunderstand what homophobia means.  Most dictionary and common-use definitions consider “homophobia” to be a fear of, or aversion to, homosexuals.  I, however, don’t think that’s quite right.

I think the term “homophobia” is great.  It is a combination of Greek homo- standing in for “homosexual” and  –phobia, which is Greek for fear.  Homosexuality is, of course, desire or attraction for a person of the same sex.  Actually, what homosexuality is, is a very interesting discussion in it’s own right.  Is it a kind of person or a disposition for action?  Is it primarily about a person’s attractions?  Is it about the kind of person they could imagine themselves being in a relationship with?  Is a person always right about their sexual orientation?  But, we’re going to leave those questions aside for now.

Returning to homophobia, I think the term is great because it denotes a fear of homosexuals.  What sets me apart from most people, though, is that I think of this quite differently.  I think that homophobia is a fear that the subject themself might be gay, not that they are afraid of gay people. Let me elaborate.  I think that when a person is feeling homophobic, and there is no doubt that this is often triggered by an external source or event, but the true object of the fear is not this external source. Rather, it is the fear that the person who has the fear is himself gay.  So, for example, let’s say John sees two guys holding hands, and perhaps kissing, and John feels homophobic, I think that the actual source of John’s fear and anger is a latent, perhaps repressed, thought that John, himself, might be gay.  Although John might be thinking “Look at those two faggots, I can’t believe they would do that in public!”  His vehemence is actually coming from the thought “I wonder…what would it be like to kiss a guy or fool around with one?”, recognizing that this thought is “inappropriate” for him, quickly repressing it in order to maintain his self-identity, and then reacting with anger and fear to the object that provoked the thought, since reacting to the thought itself would be psychologically untenable for him, since he couldn’t have possibly had that thought.  He’s straight, after all, he couldn’t possibly want to do things with men.

The point is that I think the object of the fear is not external to the person, contrary to their beliefs, but rather that the object of the fear in homophobia is a person’s own desires and fears about their desires.  In some ways I think this is similar to the reason that some people fear legalizing marijuana or other illicit drugs: the fact that it is illicit is the only reason that the person is not engaging in the activity and they know that they want to, so they need someone else to tell them it’s wrong and prevent them from doing it.  If it weren’t prohibited or illicit, then they might just go ahead and partake in the drugs or the homosexuality.  They lack the will to control themselves, so they feel like them must be controlled by others.

This is further compounded by the ideas that we “are” a certain sexual orientation, that this identity is a large part of our overall identity, and that our orientation is fixed, inflexible, and unchanging.  I am straight, or bi, or gay and I will always be that way because part of who I am is to be gay or straight or bi.  That’s how we conceive of ourselves in our culture and that’s just the way it is.  Yet, that’s not the way it’s always been and it’s not the way it’s been in all cultures.  As I alluded to earlier, some cultures thought of homosexuality and heterosexuality as categories of actions and not categories of people.  Thus, I am not gay when I fellate another man, but the fellation is homosexual.  The difference is in the object of the homosexuality: is it me as a person or is it the thing I’m doing.  It makes no small difference.  If I’m a homosexual, then homosexuality is part of who I am.  If simply some acts I do are homosexual, then I am not constrained by the category of homosexuality, it is simply a descriptor for some of the things I do.  There is a whole world of difference here.

If I am “a homosexual,” that category of identification will act to norm my behavior in some ways.  This effect might be pronounced, but it might also be a subtle psychological effect.  If I am straight and what it means to be straight is to never have an attraction for another man, then I can’t let myself have an attraction to another man, because that’s not part of what it is to be straight, and I am straight, therefore I don’t have an attraction to another man.  If I were to have an attraction to another man, I’d have to work to repress it, as it would violate my sense of identity: I’m not gay, so I can’t have gay thoughts.  Actually, it must not actually be me having a gay thought, since I’m straight, it must have been those gays putting gay thoughts in my head, since straight men can’t have attractions to other men. So I don’t have to worry about my own heterosexuality.  It’s not me that’s the problem: it’s those damn men kissing in public.

You see what happens here?  Our category of identity traps us into its mold and this mold helps to shape our thoughts and behaviors.  In this case, it is very much the person’s identification of himself as heterosexual and his belief about what heterosexuality is and isn’t that is causing his fear and anger.  If, for example, he were to have thought of heterosexuality and homosexuality as categories of actions and not of people, and thus didn’t rigidly designate his own sexuality and bound his thoughts and behavior by it, then he would not have been afraid of what the possible interest in other men meant and he wouldn’t have reacted with anger.

So, perhaps we should say that homophobia at the end of the day is a fear of being the same as something that you find repugnant. And the more you try to push it away in yourself, the more militant you will be about it in others.

This is all I have to say on this topic for now, but I encourage you to think about how you conceive of sexual orientation and how that impacts your self-identity and action.

2 Responses to “On Homophobia”

  1. ST

    I could agree with this. I wrote a paper recently about male homophobia in film and how men will often reassert their masculinity when mistaken as too “feminine” perhaps in respect to not wanting to be seen as homosexual and how this is a response to their homophobia. I don’t think homophobia is necessarily something you do actively. Like people can say things that are racist but not be “racist people.” There is a lot of social construction – stuff we need to break down. There is often not a safe place for men to express those curiosities in a way that doesn’t pull their entire identity into question.

  2. Best of 2013 at Erosophia

    […] 10. On Homophobia […]