The myth of homophobia
Peter Ray examines why there is such hostility to homosexuals
Had enough of homophobia? According to the gay press every reactionary from
Sun columnist Garry Bushell to the Pope seems to be suffering from
it. Recently the straight press too has caught on to the epidemic. The lesbian
and gay Christian movement's discovery that the Archbishop of Canterbury
had a bad case was widely reported. Even the Sunday Times permitted
one of its reporters to suggest that 'homophobic attitudes' may contribute
to gay men having to cruise in public parks.
Nobody has done more to uncover cases of homophobia in high places than
the gay pressure group OutRage. One of the group's four stated aims is to
'promote public awareness and debate about homophobic discrimination'. OutRage
recently organised publicity stunts pointing to homophobia in the military
and the police, and it has been on hand to condemn as homophobic everything
from the Jason 'straight as fuck' Donovan libel trial to the Operation Spanner
judicial crackdown on homosexual sado-masochism.
There can be no doubt that public hostility and discrimination against homosexuals
has reached epidemic proportions. Hundreds of gay men are arrested every
year for 'crimes' involving consenting sexual acts, 'crimes' for which consenting
heterosexuals could not be punished. Homosexuals are constantly attacked
by the press and politicians for living a lifestyle that is 'promiscuous',
'irresponsible' or just plain 'wicked'. Harassment, ridicule and violence
are an everyday hazard for many lesbians and gay men.
Fact of life
Anti-homosexual bigotry is a fact. However, the idea that this is the result
of something called homophobia is a myth.
Although liberal journalists and political activists use the term freely,
they rarely spell out exactly what homophobia is supposed to mean. The word
was coined by American psychologist George Weinberg in his 1973 book Society
and the Healthy Homosexual. Weinberg defined homophobia as a 'dread
of being in close quarters with homosexuals' which manifested itself as
a panic reaction in both heterosexuals and closeted gays.
It is easy to see why the idea of homophobia has caught on. To anyone who
has been on the receiving end of anti-gay abuse or violence, the perpetrator
often seems to be motivated by an irrational and morbid fear of gay sexuality,
with more than a hint of the panic reaction associated with more conventional
Better still, calling it homophobia makes ironical use of the same kind
of quasi-medical terminology that has been mobilised against homosexuals.
For most of this century discussion about homosexuality has been dominated
by the idea that it is a mental illness, and debate has raged as to whether
it is acquired or innate. In this patronising view the homosexual was to
be pitied rather than condemned, and 'cured' if at all possible.
The 'medicalisation' of homosexuality means that for a long time homosexuals
have been stigmatised as (and often believed themselves to be) sick, inadequate
and self-destructive individuals. The discovery of homophobia appears to
turn the tables: where once it was the lesbian or the gay man who was diseased,
now it is the 'homophobe'; where once psychiatrists assembled character
traits to come up with the 'homosexual type', now they can be gathered to
form the 'homophobic type'. The homosexual can triumphantly tell the bigot - 'You
are screwed up because you think I am!'.
If homophobia were simply used as an ironic description of the queer-basher's
personality it would be harmless enough. But homophobia is being used indiscriminately
to describe any manifestation of hostility to homosexuals, and not just
those associated with individual politicians, judges or pop stars
The Guardian recently reported Moscow gay activist Roman Kalinin
saying that 'Russian society is extremely homophobic'. In Britain, Gay
Times columnist Simon Watney has characterised both Europe and America
as homophobic societies. What can this mean? That everyone in Europe and
the US suffers from this same irrational dread?
Others argue that there are such things as 'homophobic laws'. So another
of the four aims of OutRage is to 'expose and challenge state homophobia'.
The idea here seems to be that homophobia in society is sustained and promoted
by the repressed and bigoted attitude of those in authority.
Some claim that the whole of society is homophobic, while some say it is
a problem of the elite. Either way, the inescapable conclusion is that there
must be something systematic at work in our society reproducing such fear
and loathing on a large scale. But if this is the case, why describe the
problem in medical terms, as homophobia, as if it were a psychiatric problem
Dread of spiders or enclosed spaces is discussed as arachnophobia or claustrophobia
precisely because there is no systematic social cause for these fears. There
is no reason to fear spiders or enclosed spaces in themselves, most
people don't. But hostility towards homosexuality is different. For some
sections of society it is not irrational; in fact it is a positive necessity.
The capitalist authorities have every reason to be hostile to the shameless
pursuit of homosexual desire. The establishment values the nuclear family
as a key bulwark of the social order, defining the social roles of men and
women, disciplining youth, and providing domestic care and attention (on
the cheap). The family is promoted by its supporters as the natural (and
therefore unchanging) order of adult human relations. The family is natural
because it is based on the natural instinct to procreate. Healthy sexual
desires are therefore heterosexual, and preferably monogamous.
Unfortunately for the establishment, modern urban society makes it possible
for some men and women to escape the requirement to live in a family, and
to organise their personal lives around the pleasure that their sexual desires
bring them, regardless of their capacity to procreate. The fact that many
try to do this has been both a challenge to the idea that the family is
natural, and an opportunity for the establishment to develop new strategies
for promoting the family as the norm.
The castigating of homosexuals as diseased or perverted, or at the very
least deviant, confirms family life as the natural, healthy and normal lifestyle.
Someone who is sufficiently sick, evil or irresponsible as to indulge their
homosexuality is clearly not to be treated as if they were normal, and since
the 1880s homosexual behaviour has been subject to severe legal penalties.
For a long time the social stigma and threat of a prison sentence proved
to be an effective deterrent to any public challenge to the superiority
of the authorities' preferred domestic arrangements.
The Tories made this logic explicit in the infamous Section 28 of the Local
Government Act 1988, which states that schools should not be allowed to
teach 'the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship'.
In other words, lesbian and gay lifestyles are not an acceptable alternative
to the nuclear family.
No doubt the Tory frontbench is afflicted by all sorts of sexual hang-ups,
and Garry Bushell does seem to have a personal axe to grind against gays.
But that is not why the authorities maintain legal discrimination against
homosexuals, not why the media rages against lesbians and gay men. The defence
of the family as a social institution requires the criminalisation of sex
that is not 'natural', not responsible, not compatible with family life.
The many laws which discriminate against homosexuals, and the whole political
and moral climate of prejudice, stem from this reality.
In these circumstances it is absurd to diagnose some psychiatric disorder
when confronted by bigotry. When somebody reacts with panic, scorn or violence
to finding themselves 'in close quarters with homosexuals' they are acting
as any responsible citizen might when confronted with a sub-class of person
whom the authorities regard as a threat to public health or welfare. This
behaviour is irrational only to the extent that society is irrational, sick
only because it is a morbid symptom of a decaying social order.
It is a telling irony that Weinberg should have published his ideas about
the new disease called homophobia in 1973, the same year that the American
Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of illnesses.
The really destructive aspect of explaining away the systematic oppression
of lesbians and gay men as homophobia is that it depoliticises the problem:
which is precisely what the 'medicalisation' of homosexuality achieved prior
to the 1970s. In both cases a problem of oppression rooted in the backward
structures of a divisive and exploitative society is reduced to a problem
of individuals' irrational fears and desires. And since such fears are not
susceptible to a political solution, those who believe in homophobia must
conclude that you cannot get rid of it.
Of course, for many homophobia is just a word, and who cares what word people
use to describe
anti-gay prejudice? But as a concept homophobia cannot explain what causes
the oppression of homosexuals, and can only confuse those who want to end
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992