Thursday 16 May 2013

IDAHO Day 2013

Today is IDAHO day - International Day Against Homophobia 17 May. 

Last year on this day, I wrote an extensive piece on my thoughts about homophobia: its relationship to patriarchy, sexism and misogyny and a personal anecdote to explain that we none of us are immune from its hateful clutches (you can still read the post on the BGBC Blog)

This year I want to write about two other points about homophobia.

The first is the oft-thrown allegation that it should not be called homophobia because a phobia is a fear and dislike of gays is not a fear. 

The uneducated red-neck homophobe says, "I ain't afraid of no faggot,"  while the educated middle class homophobe says, "I am absolutely not bigoted but I do not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle and it is most certainly not because I am afraid of gays." At the conclusion of last year's IDAHO post, the following comment was made (sic) - "Phobia means fear and not everyone is afraid of Gays. They may be ignorant but they don't fear. And to use the word education doesn't solve anything. People have the right to opinioniate what they feel. If a person doesn't like baseball does that mean they have a phobia of baseball? It all comes down to respect".

Now notice the attraction to the semantics of the word phobia meaning fear. There seems to be an implied sense to these sorts of statements that the idea of fear is something to be ashamed of. Or to put it another way, any real man ought not be afraid of anything, that fear should not be part of his emotional repertoire. Fear would be a shameful thing in this context. Which is just plain silly because of course, all humans are capable of fear and to suggest that men don't fear just because they are men is just patriarchal nonsensical stereotype. Yet you do come across this notion quite a lot and indeed I spoke at length about patriarchy and its effects on both men and women in the former Blogpost on this topic.

But to the crux of the commenter's statement. The gist runs thus: everyone is allowed to have their own opinions and just because you don't like something eg., baseball or gay people, that does not mean you are afraid - of baseball, gay people. So it's not a phobia. Now leaving aside that he gives moral equivalence and value to baseball to the same degree as he does to gay people, is he right? Just because I don't like gay people doesn't mean I am afraid of them or have a fear of them. That's right isn't it?

Well, there is more than one way to have fear and there are also degrees of fear. Those such as our commenters draw a picture of fear as a person frightened or cowering with fear or terror. But that is not the type of fear we are talking about when we use the word phobia in homophobia. No, it is more subtle than that.

Australian anti-homophobia television commercial
The fear that is produced is the fear that I might be seen to be gay too. It is the fear that I as a straight man might be lumped together with those gay people over there by a society that does not accept or understand gay people and I might be thought of or judged to be gay too. 

Some simple everyday examples. I don't wear a jumper which has yellow in it because it is too bright and might look a bit girly (real men only wear varying shades of grey, brown and black). People might think I'm gay. I don't sit with my gay mate in the cinema (as happened to my partner once) because I wouldn't want people to think that we're together as a couple. If I'm walking with another guy down the street, I walk at least one metre away from him lest anybody think we're walking a bit close for two straight guys and they think that we're gay. I would love a glass of white wine to go with my fish but I order a beer because there are other men here too and they might think a white wine is a bit girly. I don't get my hair cut too short even though I love it short especially in summer because people might think I'm lesbian. I don't go on the bike ride fund raiser for breast cancer with my lesbian friend, because people might think we're together. There's no fear here, is there?

All these examples and thousands of other little everyday things stop us from being who we want to be, talking to the people we want to talk to, being with the people we want to be with, acting the way we want to act - all because we fear being tagged as gay. When I am straight, one of the most challenging thoughts I can have is that people might think I am gay. Watch how quickly, people correct the misinterpretation or even the possibility. I often wince when people use the word 'partner' about someone they're in a business association with and then quickly add, "business partner" lest anyone think they're gay.

This is fear pure and simple. The straight world fears being thought of as gay. I think we gay guys see it more often (but I could be wrong) and more easily. Male homophobia, even perpetrated by friends or family, is pretty hard to miss.

IDAHO Day is a great reminder to add the necessary corrective to the traditional view - that there is nothing wrong with being gay and that to be thought gay is not a fearful thing. I like some of the straight stars of screen and the sporting field who are comfortable and confident in their sexuality and who know they are admired by gay people as being a 'bit of alright.' They exemplify the kind of thought I speak of here: that they can be with gay people, that they can even be admired by gay people as good looking and they are perfectly okay with it. After a dinner party once, I was leaving the house and the hosts, a lovely straight couple, both gave me a kiss on the cheek and a hug. The guy was as surprised as I was and we just smiled at each other. No fear. No silly retraction. Just a lovely bond between the three of us.

The phobia in homophobia is real because the fear is real. The stain on the lives of gay people is real because of it.

The second point I want to make about homophobia is this. It can manifest in two ways. 

I call them overt homophobia and covert homophobia.

cabbages and kings blog
Overt homophobia is the one we all avoid as gay people. It is the angry guy calling us faggot or poof with hatred in his eyes. It is getting sacked because you're gay. This is illegal in Australia now, but wasn't always. And there are still places around the world where such prejudice is permitted to thrive. Overt homophobia is in your face. It's out there and open. It's forceful and combative. It is belligerent. It is violent. It is scary. It is ugly. And it feels horrible, a gut wrenching emptiness in the pit of your stomach, if you're a victim of it. There is often a sense of incredulity after being victimised by overt homophobia, a sense of "I didn't deserve that. I was just being me".

Cate Faehrmann website
And then there's covert homophobia. This is more insidious. This is not in your face. This is where warmth and friendliness are withdrawn from you. This is where affection is clandestinely removed. This is where people are passive-aggressive because you are gay. This is where everyone else gets asked to the party but you don't. This is where families or friends freeze you out because they cannot handle your sexuality. One of the most subtle but powerful versions of this is where there is tacit agreement between members of a family or group that your gayness will not be talked about. There is a deafening silence around all things gay including your own sexual identity. Out people have been forced back into a closet where with some people, they are 'not allowed' to speak of their real lives. The pressure not to speak is never articulated but is there and is powerful nevertheless. So we speak about everything else, just not that part of our lives. There is no shouting. There is no argument. There is no obvious pin-point time of estrangement. No, it just happens around you and after a while, you begin to notice. Things don't feel the same. Things are not the same. I feel more isolated in my own group, in my own workplace, in my own family. Covert homophobia can easily be denied. "No, of course we didn't exclude you from the office party. How could you possibly think that?" It's harder to pin down. But it is just as real. When you finally do recognise it for what it is, it hurts just as much as the more obvious type.

If you are a gay person, you need to look after yourself and your mental health by not placing yourself in harm's way. You deserve better of course and some people, when challenged about their homophobia, will grow and abandon it. Others unfortunately will never get it. 

If you are a homophobic person, I challenge you to face your fear and stare it down. Go and talk to a gay person. Get to know someone gay. You will see that that person is essentially just like you in all the important ways that really count.

Image courtesy: ©2009 Jupiterimages
IDAHO Day is a day when we speak about homophobia, when we single out a certain kind of prejudice, the prejudice against gay people for just being gay. All prejudice is an assault. All prejudice is ugly. All prejudice grows in fear. All prejudice grows in ignorance. It others the hated group and turns them into monsters. But gay people are not monsters. We are like every other human being, with a dignity and value and worth that is integral to all human nature. We are capable of great good and great love. We understand the gift of family very well. And we understand that the most powerful force in the universe is love, the very opposite of hate. For those of us who are of faith, we believe that love is the essence and nature of the Divine. And that is why we believe that love conquers all. On this IDAHO Day as we ponder the nature and effects of homophobia, tell someone you love them. And be loving to those around you. Change your small part of the world by love.

Pax et Amor - Stuart


  1. You seem to accept then argue against the narrowest meaning of homophobia as "irrational fear" like arachnophobia or agoraphobia.
    ...phobia in this sense simply means "antithetical to".
    For example the fabric of my raincoat is labeled as being "hydrophobic". I do not think that my raincoat is afraid of water nor do I expect my raincoat to try to pick a fight with water! Rather the fabric by it's nature excludes and repels water. The homophobe by their nature excludes and repels LGBTI people.

    1. Thank you for your comment James. I think we might be confusing semantics and the particular focus of my thoughts here.

      In this post, I was trying to speak to the widely held belief, and I might say - accusation, that straight people who do not like gay people do not have a 'phobia' or fear of them. They just don't like them, is all. They are, to use your word, antithetical to them. I do not hold to this notion.

      While without doubt, homophobes demonstrate antithetical feelings and even aversion to gay people, my post was attempting to unpack the word homophobia to show that:

      1) there is more than one way to manifest fear (and it's not always terror)
      2) there is indeed an element of fear in homophobia
      3) to be strongly or violently repelled by gay people, unlike most straight people who do not demonstrate such an aversion, is in my mind always a manifestation of a deeper sociological and psychological issue. My book speaks to the research suggesting this on pp41, 61-62.

      From Point 2 above, my IDAHO Day 2012 post last May speaks to the origin and phenomenology of this fear. That post I think speaks to your final sentence, "the homophobe by their nature excludes and repels LGBTI people. My two posts here are to ask the question, "Why?" Great to have your input.

  2. God bless you, Stuart. That was an eloquent and elegant piece of writing.

    1. Many thanks Kate. Good of you to say so. Your words are much appreciated.

  3. Thoughtful post on a day that even my office colleagues picked up on before I did! Thank you for pushing us to think, and then to act with dignity and love.

  4. Thanks for your kind words David. They are very encouraging. We do need to keep on shining the light of love. As I said, it is the most powerful force in the universe.