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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 phobias.

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.

Turning tables

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 either.


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 of individuals?

Not irrational

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.

Family norms

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.

Morbid symptoms

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 it.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

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