Dedicated to the memory of my incomparable friend, Warren Johansson (1934-1994).
The following pages address a host of myths and fabrications that have served over the centuries to rationalize prejudice and discrimination targeting GLBT people. This topic is disturbing and repellent, but it must be confronted head-on.
Viewed in context, the picture is not that bad--at least not as much as it was. Some years ago, when I first began to ponder these issues, a heartening conclusion had already surfaced. Much progress had been made in retiring the most absurd and unviable myths. Some seemed to have faded gradually and die (or so it seemed) of old age. Others, such as the idea that homosexuals suffer from impaired functioning, have retreated in the face of social-science findings that clearly indicate otherwise.
There are also some myths that are essentially innocuous, such as the notion that the word gay derives from “good as you” and swag comes from “secretly we are gay.” The worst that can be said of them is that they are false etymologies.
Regrettably, the notions discussed below are not as harmless,
With the current improvement in the intellectual climate, at least in advanced industrial countries, one might have expected that such archaic thought-patterns would all wither and disappear. Regrettably, that has not happened--at least not with any consistency across the board.
Not infrequently, the myths show a zombie-like tendency to revive, even when we had assumed, reasonably enough, that they had disappeared for good. A case in point concerns natural disasters, where various Christian ministers - and some Jewish rabbis as well - blame hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and other such upsets on our society’s growing tolerance for homosexuality. They base their observations on current events. And yet they really don't, for in fact, this theme goes back almost 1500 years, to the Byzantine emperor Justinian.
So there is good reason to examine these hurtful motifs as carefully as we can, tracing their historical evolution and analyzing their flaws in evidence and reasoning.
The history of homophobia - to use the current, though somewhat problematic term - is not monolithic. Insidiously, the complex examined here comprises more than forty separate threads. The threads have very disparate origins, stemming from religion, philosophy, medicine, psychology, and folklore.
Yet they mostly flourish, if that is the appropriate term, in Western culture, starting in ancient Israel and ancient Greece and migrating to medieval and modern Europe, including its overseas offshoots.
Much of the rest of the world has happily escaped this blight. An anti-homosexual text from Zoroastrianism may be an exception. Moreover, anti-homosexual attitudes have been noted among the Manchus, as well as the Aztecs and the Incas. Yet these peoples, exceptional in this realm, do not seem to have been widely influential.
Recently, an argument has appeared that challenges this general principle of the Western locus of anti-homosexual attitudes. That is the claim of some contemporary Third World politicians and theorists that their lands were free of the taint of such vices until they were forced on them by corrupt colonizers from Europe. Even this notion is, however, of Western origin.
So we are left with the conclusion that this not-so-proud heritage is essentially a property of the West, and not the Rest. Why should this be so? I can only offer two tentative suggestions. The first points to monotheism. The three religions that have typically harbored aversion to same-sex love--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--all share this belief in one God. Monotheism usually counts as an advance over the polytheistic belief systems it supplanted. Recent research, however, has shown that monotheism generally began with an attitude of fierce intolerance directed towards those who did no share their theology. Much emphasis was placed on the various commandments and behavioral rules enjoined by the faith.
In their prime, monotheisms have not been noted for their capacity to embrace a policy of live and let live. Instead, they adhered to Augustine of Hippo’s precept of “compelle intrare”--compel them [the heretics and the nonbelievers] to enter the fold. As outsiders, homosexuals were destined to fall afoul of these repressive measures. Outwardly at least, they had to conform to the prevailing norms, in sexual conduct as well as in belief.
In addition to monotheism, there is another conditioning factor - at first sight one that is less likely. That is democracy. A leading feature of the democratic ideal as it has matured is the imperative of equality, the idea that the claims of citizenship are universal, so that no special groups should remain apart. The corollary, at least according to one egalitarian version, is this. Since the majority are heterosexual, then everyone should be. This ideal of socio-sexual uniformity fostered repression of same-sex behavior in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China - even though those societies could nowadays scarcely be characterized as democratic.
What then of ancient Greece, where pederasty flourished? In fact the ancient Greeks were not egalitarian, since they tended to deny full rights to women, resident foreigners, and of course to slaves. With regard to homosexuality the Greeks were not always consistent. They tended to accept the behavior only in its intergenerational form (pederasty), commonly expressing disapproval of relations between two adult men. Moreover, in The Laws, Plato’s second blueprint of the ideal society (after The Republic), the philosopher originated the notion that homosexual behavior was wrong because it was unnatural.
Thus the conditioning factors- the soil in which the evil flowers of homophobia grew - reflect ideals that are, broadly speaking, those of uniformity. Monotheists demand allegiance to one God, and all the ordinances that that monarch of the universe is presumed to have enacted. All too often, egalitarians expect everyone to be the same, in rights, in income, and in sexuality.
How can we best approach the complex story of the repression of a major sexual minority? Meme theory may help. A meme may be characterized as "an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." A meme serves as a vehicle for conveying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Advocates of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
A common misperception is that there is a biological mechanism for the transmission of memes. Yet there is not: they are a purely cultural phenomenon. The term was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a tool for exploring evolutionary principles in tracing the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in Dawkins’ book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches.
Since Dawkins’ time, the meme approach has been found useful in all sorts of studies, from racial prejudice and religious beliefs to urban legends and “viral” motifs on the Internet.
The overall approach is termed mimetics. Memes are not static, but operate through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, all of them influencing a meme's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. In this view memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts. Some commentators have likened memes to contagion, as exemplified by fads, hysteria, copycat crimes, and copycat suicides.
Still in the course of development, meme theory has encountered some criticisms. At this point it may best be regarded as a hermeneutic tool rather than a fully formed scientific theory. At all events, in this study the concept usefully serves to characterize the great variety of anti-homosexual beliefs and attitudes, disentangling them from the monocausal illusion that there is one single, unified phenomenon termed “homophobia.”
Just as these homonegative memes are diverse, so too are those who subscribe to them. The most important contingent is made up of the “traditional-values” people. Most of them are religious, consisting chiefly of evangelical Christians, the hierarchy of the Catholic church, Orthodox Jews, and some Muslims. Others in this composite group, while detached from religion, may nonetheless maintain that the social fabric demands that traditional values be upheld.
Psychiatrists were once a major factor. Yet since the 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the list of disorders, this negativity has much diminished among them. In the past, though, psychiatrists were major contributors to the medicalization of same-sex behavior, originating a number of the memes. These fabrications still circulate, even after their abandonment by the groups that originated them.
Totalitarians, both fascists and Communists, readily embraced the motif of decadence--homosexuality as a mark of social disintegration. Fortunately, these political extremists have lost much of their power. Nonetheless, the skinheads in Western Europe, and neofascist parties in general, represent a worrisome set of survivals.
Finally, the ranks of the perpetrators include, regrettably, some gay people themselves. Some poor souls are browbeaten into internalizing the homophobic motifs. Common in other minority groups as well, this practice is sometimes termed self-inferiorization. Some gay and lesbian people cherish notions that enhance a sense of victimhood, such as the misconception that the word faggot derives from medieval burnings of sodomites. We have made great progress in combating the slur that same-sex behavior is “abnormal.” Oddly enough, some queer theorists do not find this erasure to their liking. Decrying “homonormativity,” they assert that the desire to assimilate has the effect of stigmatizing those whose sexualities do not conform to standards of normalcy.
In scrutinizing the anti-homosexual motifs that are here under the microscope, the older ideas of stereotypes and of prejudice are sometimes useful. Yet these terms fails to capture the protean malleability of the homonegative motifs, which have proven all-too-resilient in their capacity to adapt to changing cultural settings as they undergo variation, mutation, and reshaping in competition with related ideas.
Most of the memes discussed in this text concern gay men. Historically, these notions were, by and large, not thought to apply to lesbians. There are some lesbian-only stereotypes, e.g. the notion that there are no true lesbians, because those who adopt this lifestyle are simply women who are too homely or socially awkward to attract a man. Sometimes “good Samaritan” jocks will seek to “prove” this assertion by seducing lesbians. Ignoring protests, the would-be seducers claim that their victims welcome their gross attentions. In the last analysis, however, dislike of lesbians needs to be studied in the context of attitudes that demean all women - regrettably, a very large subject. That task will not be attempted in these pages.
For some the term “homosexual” now seems old-fashioned. Yet it is not inappropriate for the material, which reached critical mass in an era different from out own. One must keep this difference in mind, all the while acknowledging the hardiness of the motifs that have survived into the present era.
In the sections that follow sometimes I use the word gay in addition to homosexual; at other times, when a more inclusive perspective is required, GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans).
There remains this nagging question, At this late date, why bring out this dusty old bric-à-brac? Surely, in the early twenty-first century our enhanced understanding has thoroughly demolished this outdated rubbish and everything that pertains to it. The answer is that we have advanced, but as yet not far enough.
An ambiguous role has been played by Queer Theory, a plant that thrives in academia. Hobbled by its addiction to jargon and paradox, Queer Theory has not been successful in breaking out of recondite circles. The general public is unaware of it, and will probably remain so.
Three books that address the problem of homonegativity deserve mention. The first is Homophobia: A History by Byrne R. S. Fone (New York, 2000). Despite the title, this work turns out to be a narrative of the mainstream of gay history in the Western tradition from ancient times to the present. Instances of homophobia occur only in passing, representing no more than a series of many speed-bumps along the way. While this book serves to place the motifs in time, it does little to clarify their inner motivation.
Another volume is the Dictionnaire de l’homophobie, edited by Louis-Georges Tin (Paris, 2003; there is also an English-language version). This alphabetically arranged work provides some useful articles on individual countries and regions. However, the coverage of the motifs (memes) is patchy and incomplete.
In February 2013 the American philosopher John Corvino brought out a new book, What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? (Oxford University Press), tackling some of the major anti-homosexual arguments. Written in an easy conversational style and wearing its learning lightly, this book addresses some of the problems ordinary people have raised with him over a period of twenty years in which Professor Corvino has been lecturing and debating. The volume is brief, 153 pages, and the author takes up a good deal of his space recounting personal anecdotes, some quite relevant, others less so. Ultimately, the focus is narrow, being concerned primarily with the morality of homosexuality. As will be clear from the following discussion, many of the anti-homosexual memes are not directed primarily at issues of morality. They are a much more diverse lot, encompassing religious, sociological, psychological, and biological themes, among others. Still, John Corvino’s book serves as a useful introduction to the issues.
TWO PROBLEMATIC TERMS: HOMOPHOBIA AND HETEROSEXISM
With the rise of the gay political movement in the late 1960s, the condemnation of homosexuality as immoral, criminal, and sick came under increasing scrutiny. When the American Psychiatric Association abandoned homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis in 1973, the question of why some heterosexuals harbor strongly negative attitudes toward homosexuals began to receive serious scholarly consideration.
The immediate precursor of the term “homophobia” was ''homoerotophobia,'' introduced by Wainwright Churchill in his 1967 book Homosexual Behavior Among Males in 1967. Several years later two psychologists realized that the expression would be more effective if it were shortened. The first known usage of “homophobia” was by Kenneth Smith in an article in Psychological Reports (no.29) for 1971. George Weinberg, who claims to have coined the word before Smith’s usage, has tirelessly promoted it, as in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual. Weinberg used the term homophobia to characterize heterosexuals' dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals as well as homosexuals' self loathing.
The American Heritage Dictionary (1992 edition) defines homophobia as "aversion to gay or homosexual people or their lifestyle or culture" and "behavior or an act based on this aversion." Other definitions identify homophobia as an irrational fear of same-sex behavior.
The introduction of the term served to turn the tables on critics of homosexuality, who routinely castigated it as a mental illness. As homophobes, though, they might be the ones suffering from a mental disorder. By drawing popular and scientific attention to the virulence of irrational antigay hostility, the creation of this term marked a watershed. Nevertheless, it bears significant limitations.
As Gregory M. Herek, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, has observed, the term homophobia is problematic for several reasons.
First, empirical research has not demonstrated that heterosexuals' antigay attitudes may reasonably be considered a phobia in the clinical sense. In fact, the available data suggest that many heterosexuals who express hostility toward gay men and lesbians do not manifest the physiological reactions to homosexuality that are associated with other phobias.
Secondly, the use of the term homophobia implies that antigay prejudice is an individual, clinical entity more than it is a social phenomenon fostered by long-standing ideologies and patterns of intergroup relations.
Finally, a phobia is usually experienced as dysfunctional and unpleasant. Yet antigay prejudice has, sad to say, commonly been highly functional for the heterosexuals who manifest it. Through their open hostility they consolidate their relations with others of like mind.
A related term is "heterosexism," first introduced in 1971. Heterosexism characterizes an amalgam of attitudes, bias, and discrimination that privilege opposite-sex sexuality and relationships. The term can include the presumption that everyone is heterosexual or, less drastically, the idea that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only norm and therefore superior. Although heterosexism is defined in the online editions of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as anti-gay discrimination and/or prejudice "by heterosexual people" and "by heterosexuals," people of any sexual orientation can hold such attitudes and bias. The first published use of the term was in 1971 by the New York-based bookseller and gay-rights activist Craig Rodwell.
The use of the term heterosexism suggests parallels between antigay sentiment and other forms of prejudice, such as racism, antisemitism, and sexism. In particular, it has been argued that the concept of heterosexism is similar to the concept of racism in that both ideas exalt privilege for society's dominant groups. For example, borrowing from the racial concept of white privilege, the concept of heterosexual privilege has been applied to single out benefits of (presumed) heterosexuality within society that heterosexuals take for granted. Yet the parallels between heterosexism, on the one hand, and racism, antisemitism, and sexism, on the other, must not be overstressed, for each of these forms of prejudice has its own history and distinctive valences.
Variants are “heterocentrism" and "heterosexualism."
Although the term heterosexism is often explained as a coinage modeled on sexism, the derivation points more to (1) heterosex(ual) + -ism than (2) hetero- + sexism. In fact, the portmanteau word heterosexualism often serves as an equivalent to sexism and racism.
Given this lack of semantic transparency, researchers, outreach workers, critical theorists and GLBT activists have adopted a whole array of terms, such as institutionalized homophobia, state(-sponsored) homophobia, sexual prejudice, anti-gay bigotry, straight privilege, compulsory heterosexuality. Note also homonormativity and (from gender theory and queer theory) heteronormativity.
This profusion of terms suggests a certain conceptual volatility, reflecting the fact that the vocables are often wielded more as rhetorical devices than a genuine tools of analysis.
Although usage of the words has not been uniform, homophobia has typically been employed to describe individual antigay attitudes and behaviors; while heterosexism points to societal-level ideologies and patterns of institutionalized oppression of non-heterosexual people.
Reflecting on the problems posed by this word cloud, Gregory M. Herek has proposed the term “sexual prejudice.” As he remarks, “Broadly conceived, sexual prejudice refers to all negative attitudes based on sexual orientation, whether the target is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. Given the current social organization of sexuality, however, such prejudice is almost always directed at people who engage in homosexual behavior or label themselves gay, lesbian, or bisexual . . . Conceptualizing heterosexuals' negative attitudes toward homosexuality and bisexuality as sexual prejudice – rather than homophobia – has several advantages [Herek continues]. First, sexual prejudice is a descriptive term. Unlike homophobia, it conveys no a priori assumptions about the origins, dynamics, and underlying motivations of antigay attitudes.
“Second, the term explicitly links the study of antigay hostility with the rich tradition of social psychological research on prejudice.
“Third, using the construct of sexual prejudice does not require value judgments that antigay attitudes are inherently irrational or evil.” (G. M. Herek,”The Psychology of Sexual Prejudice,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2000, no. 9, pp. 19-22).
This proposal deserves serious consideration. Yet such is the rhetorical punch of “homophobia” and “heterosexism,” that Herek’s substitute, despite its merits, seems unlikely to supplant them. In this work we will tend to prefer “homonegativity,” though sometimes another term will be appropriate.
Note. I first began to address these problems some twenty-five years ago, in concert with my learned friend, Warren Johansson, to whom this publication is dedicated. We worked so closely together that our ideas often merged. I have utilized some of these jointly-produced ideas here. Some passages in the following texts derive from earlier publications that are copyright by me, especially the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, New York: Garland, 1990. There is also some factual material stemming from non-copyright sources available on the Internet.
With a few exceptions, Internet links are not provided here because over time the sites are subject to modification or disappearance.