The Hate That Makes Men Straight

Psychoanalysts probe the roots of homophobia

Perhaps the most perplexing figure in the Freudian pantheon is "the phallic mother." This is the primal parent as she is perceived by the infant not yet cognizant of gender. Regressing to a state of union with this figure is the ultimate desire. But for men, it is also the ultimate threat, since fusing with her means losing one's masculinity. What's more, it means incorporating the mother's desire for the father. The struggle against this unconscious fantasy is the root of homophobia.

This Oedipal model certainly helps explain the traditional association of homosexuals and that perilous condition known in some bars and Freudian circles as "failed masculinity." To be a gay man is to identify with mom, case closed. But what about those African cultures where homosex is a rite of passage, or those Greek city-states where it was the glue for an army of lovers? And what about lesbians? Does the specter of the primal parent in a strap-on explain why Barnard College recently found it necessary to brag that its graduates are more likely to marry and have children than are coed-college grads?

"Certainly the fear of lesbians is the fear of butch women," says Arlene Stein, the author of Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation. "But there's also the fear that women can be independent sexual actors, which is different from the issue with gay men. That doesn't mean the term homophobia can't apply to lesbians, but it has a different shape and tenor than when it's directed against men." Whatever the distinction, it isn't evident in the psychoanalytic literature on homophobia, which barely mentions lesbians even though about a third of the victims of antigay violence are women.

Patrick Arrasmith

Clearly the Oedipal model is only a clue to homophobia, not the whole story. "For many men, masculinity is defined as that which is not female," says Nancy Chodorow, whose psychoanalytic training is tempered by a grounding in sociology. "But that's about separating from mother; it's not about the phallic mother. I think what's equally tenuous in male identity is how you identify with dad without loving him. In fact, the Oedipal boy does love his father; all identification is based in love. So what you get in homophobia is that you love dad but you're not supposed to love him."

This contradiction is compounded by the web of associations between male dominance and desire for women. Gay men, with their potential to be sexually passive, "threaten masculinity, which is supposed to be active," Chodorow notes. "And if we define gender by sexual orientation, which we do, then gender's at stake as well. To the extent that a man's heterosexuality is defensive and threatened, he's more likely to be homophobic. To the extent that his heterosexuality feels more secure, he can contain and live with his homoerotic desires. And if you want to talk about hate, then it's what happens when you are confronted with contradictions in yourself that you can't tolerate. You project the bad out, and then you want to destroy it."

Yet despite its grip, none of these scholars is willing to call homophobia innate. "What's innate is fear of the other," says Arlene Stein. Her sociologist's perspective tells her that even something as "natural" as sexuality is shaped by race, class, and gender. So, whatever its primal causes, why can't homophobia be changed?

What would have to happen for that to occur? No doubt it would be helpful if boys could fall in love with their fathers as easily as girls do. But that's just for starters. "Heterosexuality would have to change," says Suzanne Pharr, the author of Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. "It would have to give way to a more fluid sexuality, so that people might be engaged at different times with the same gender, or the other gender, or gender wouldn't be an issue for them at all."

This is not the latest incarnation of bisexual chic. A better term might be Eve Sedgwick's allosexuality, an arrangement of many erotic patterns in no particular hierarchy. In this scenario, sexuality would be seen as a kind of working compromise assembled from alternative impulses. If that seems like fun, welcome to the queer new world. If it seems scary, then you can imagine how difficult homophobia is to eradicate.

"Before we can imagine what heterosexuality would look like without homophobia, pschoanalysis has to figure out what normal, nondefensive masculinity is," says Chodorow. "The fact is that ordinary masculinity depends not just on heterosexuality but on male-dominant heterosexuality. So the question is, what would happen if that changed? To the extent that straight men can fold in passivity, receptivity, and vulnerability, I think both homophobia and male dominance would lessen."

Short of this transformation, perhaps the best weapon against homophobia is to acknowledge it. Straight or gay, we all fear the queer within— that can't be helped. But in understanding this primal rage, at least we can control it, and maybe even fight the power it creates.

Activists will gather at Criminal Court, 100 Centre Street, on Thursday at 8:30 a.m. to support the 136 protesters who were arrested during the October 19 "public funeral" for Matthew Shepard. For information, call 332-9844 or visit

Research: Michael Zilberman

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