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.”
It has taken the APA 25 years to address homophobia in a public forum, and it has yet to label this hate an illness, if only because, as Cathcart quips, “you can’t call half the U.S. Senate pathological.” Leon Hoffman, who chairs the APA’s committee on public information, puts it more gingerly: “The nonanalytic attitude toward homosexuality has prevented analysts from studying this question.”
Until now. Psychoanalysts are finally begining to focus on homophobia, adding their perspective to the work social scientists have already done. The result is a new theory that regards homophpbia as a key component of male dominance. As the critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes in her landmark study Epistemology of the Closet, “male homosexual panic [is] the normal condition of male heterosexual entitlement.”
Gratifying as it might be to see this syndrome diagnosed as a pathology, many students of homophobia would disagree. Antigay bias is “not a phobia in the clinical sense,” researcher Gregory M. Herek insists. For one thing, it’s too functional; for another, it doesn’t necessarily spring from a secret desire. True, there is some clinical evidence that homophobes are more likely to be aroused by gay pornography than are other men, but according to Hoffman, that could be the result of an erection caused by anxiety. Yes, some guys go hard from fear.
The idea that all phobes are closet cases has an appealing symmetry, but it doesn’t begin to describe the web of impulses and beliefs that supports homophobia. NYU Medical Center’s Donald Moss offers a more inclusive definition: “Homophobia will refer to the entire spectrum of conscious and unconscious fantasy-feeling-idea-sentiment” through which people are driven to avoid “all things sensed as homosexual.” In the new scholarship, homophobia isn’t just a symptom; it’s a system.
As Herek notes, people who come easily to the word faggot share other traits. For instance, they are older than the general population, more religious, and more traditional in their thinking about sexual roles. If this sounds like Trent Lott, so be it, but the most important variable is not membership in the Republican party or even the Christian right; it’s gender itself.
Straight men “manifest higher levels of prejudice” against gays than do straight women, Herek writes. That’s obvious, but Herek’s conclusion is not. He maintains that homophobia serves to affirm male identity through a rejection of what is deemed either unmanly or negating the importance of males. This explains why effeminate men and butch women are the most common victims of antigay violence. They threaten the terms of masculinity.
By this standard, homophobia is nothing more than a tool to shape a social category by defining its boundaries. (It’s worth noting that the homo/hetero dichotomy dates from only a century ago, when doctors invented both terms, thereby recasting as a duality what had previously been regarded as a wide variety of sexual attitudes and appetites.) Categories have their uses, especially when it comes to establishing hierarchy, and just as racism assigns value to whiteness, homophobia favors heterosexuality. Yet its major function is not to reward men for desiring women. As Sedgwick notes, male power over the “exchange of goods, persons, and meaning” depends on male bonding, and that solidarity is enforced by the threat of what she calls “homophobic blackmail.” In other words, the fear of being perceived as gay holds guys together.
This is why boys in a playground police each other for signs of “sissiness,” why adolescents conjure up elaborate codes in which wearing a certain color on a certain day labels the unwitting offender as a homo, and why the disingenuous Seinfeld punch line “not that there’s anything wrong with being gay” is so funny. The obsession with homosexual signs— and the people who embody them— is the key to an order that ranks men by their invulnerability to same-sex desire.
It follows that a guy who is insecure about his place in the pack will panic when propositioned by another guy, and that the fiercest phobes are the most desperate for admission to the bund. But few men outgrow this febrile quest. “We’re always proving our manhood in front of other men,” says Stony Brook sociologist Michael Kimmel, the author of Manhood in America: A Cultural History. “Homophobia is the fear that someone might get the wrong idea.”
In his lectures, Kimmel uses a routine to make this point: “I ask guys to tell me how they know a man is gay. The way they walk, the way they always dress so nicely, what they do for a living. The women mention the same things, but they also say, ‘I get suspicious if a guy is listening too much in a bar, or he isn’t coming on to me.’ All these stereotypes become a negative rule book that keeps men enacting traditional ideas about masculinity; it keeps them hitting on women and dressing like shit, and it keeps women wearing uncomfortable shoes and showing no technical competence. You can see how homophobia maintains the most rigid gender roles.”
The irony is that this heterosexual code of conduct has nothing to do with loving women. But it has everything to do with fear of femininity.
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.
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 http://home.dti.net/pursley/rage/
Research: Michael Zilberman