The Hate That Makes Men Straight

Psychoanalysts probe the roots of homophobia

If the murder of Matthew Shepard accomplishes nothing else, it will have focused attention on a bias so pervasive that it hardly seems like bias at all. This is homophobia, the last acceptable form of bigotry; the prejudice that enshrines itself in sermons and Senate speeches; the hate that does not hesitate to speak its name. Yet precisely because it is so embedded in the culture, homophobia doesn't register as anything more than an appropriate response, albeit one that sometimes gets out of hand. It takes a horrendous image— like the body of a waiflike young man strung up on a fence, his face so bloody from pistol-whipping that his flesh shows only through the streaks of his tears— to penetrate America's indifference to this systematic loathing.

On Friday, the American Psychoanalytic Association will host its first public forum on homophobia at the Waldorf Astoria. The roster of presenters ranges from Democratic bulldog Barney Frank to Harvard pastor Peter Gomes to Berkeley psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow. That night, Out magazine and the New School will sponsor a discussion featuring Arthur Dong, whose documentary License To Kill graphically demonstrates that gay-bashers are, at heart, regular guys. These two events are part of a growing recognition that something irrational but nevertheless central to the sexual order is involved in the hatred for gay people.

Murder is only the most extreme expression of this fury. According to a comprehensive recent study, nearly half of all lesbians and gay men have been threatened with violence, 33 percent have been chased or followed, 25 percent have had objects thrown at them, 13 percent have been spat upon, nine percent have been assaulted with a weapon, and 80 percent have been verbally harassed. The homophobic-crime rate may actually be rising as the religious right steps up its antigay organizing, and as homosexuals achieve greater visibility. Despite police denials, activists maintain that the incidence of antigay attacks in New York City has increased dramatically over the past year, especially in neighborhoods like Chelsea, the Village, and Park Slope, where bashers can count on finding queer prey.

These crimes follow a pattern so predictable that one can virtually read the structure of homophobia on its victims' bodies. All too typically, there is gruesome violence— "overkill," in the activists' words— as well as an unusual preference for weapons like clubs and knives, and rituals of sexual degradation or mutilation. Allen Schindler, the gay sailor murdered in a men's room by his shipmates, suffered severe lacerations of his penis. Matthew Shepard's groin was black and blue from repeated kicking. Brandon Teena, whose offense was passing so successfully as a man, was raped as well as murdered. This pattern attests to the psychic venom that underlies antigay violence, but ultimately, like other hate crimes, gay-bashing is a social act.

The perpetrators are usually young men, often operating in a pack, with such a profound sense of righteousness that they take little trouble to hide their crimes. As in a lynching, Shepard's body was strung up as if the killers intended it to be displayed (strange fruit, indeed). And just as the rationale for lynching is typically some sexual transgression on the victim's part, Shepard's accused killers gave police the classic justification for antigay violence: they said he had come on to them. This is the homophobic version of the rapist's cry: she asked for it. "It's the excuse that usually comes up in trials," says Carl Locke, director of client services at New York's Anti-Violence Project. "If straight women were allowed to plead 'He hit on me,' there would be no straight men left in the world."

Like lynching and rape, gay bashing is merely the most violent practice of a theory that also shows itself in ordinary male banter; in the laff-riot produced by the mere flick of a limp wrist; in the endless array of pejoratives for butch women and femmy men; and ultimately in the laws that sanction this hate, from sodomy statutes to prohibitions on gay soldiering and parenting to the insistence that it should be legal to fire homosexuals and deny them a home. "It's too easy to blame the kids who throw the punches, as if they are doing something aberrant," says Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense, which will be represented at the APA event. "But in fact, homophobia is background noise in our society, and our basic rights are still a matter of political debate."

There is no consensus about homophobia like the one that condemns racism and sexism in all its forms. Nearly 30 years after Stonewall, the combined effect of discrimination and denial still profoundly shapes the homosexual, sentencing most gay people to a civil version of Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony, in which punishment is meted out by a machine that slowly carves the nature of the crime into an offender's back. That machine is masculinity.

Ever since sigmund freud posited that all paranoia stems from the repression of homosexual desire, there has been a vague awareness that some pathology is behind the fear and loathing of gay people. But only in 1972 did a sociologist coin the term homophobia, giving this syndrome a name. Within a year (and only after being zapped repeatedly by gay activists), the APA dropped its diagnosis of homosexuality as an illness, finally catching up with Freud, who had written in a 1935 letter to a worried American mother that, though homosexuality was "assuredly no advantage," neither was it an illness or "anything to be ashamed of."

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