• Stephen M. Larson

Fighting Homophobia - part 8

The remainder of Dr. Jeffery Chernin's "Q Health" column, "Pride '06: Fighting Homophobia in Your Midst" from the June, 2006, edition of the Prairie Flame is basically a summation and encouragement to his readers. So rather than address any specific points he raises, I'm going to devote my final two installments to some general thoughts raised by his column.

The first thing is this whole concept of "homophobia". Before we even look at the word itself, it has to be admitted that it is an angry, confrontational, judgmental term, intended to express contempt. I think this is likely intentional, resulting from the irritation, frustration, and downright fear and pain experienced by gays and lesbians over the years and in a myriad of situations. I believe it to have been coined as a backlash term, intended more as a means of retaliation than as a means of communication. As such, I don't particularly like it. But since we seem to be stuck with it, let's take a look at it.

Wikipedia defines "Phobia", from the Greek "Phobos" ("fear"), as a strong, persistent fear of situations, objects, activities or persons, the main symptom of which is the excessive, unreasonable desire to avoid the feared subject. Although this description of the clinical disorder known as "phobia" can occasionally be applied to reactions of some individuals toward homosexuality or homosexuals, the sense in which "phobia" is used most often in talking about homophobia is a non-clinical sense, described by Wikipedia as "... a negative attitude towards certain categories of people or other things, used in an analogy with the medical usage of the term. Usually these kinds of 'phobias' are described as fear, dislike, disapproval, prejudice, hatred, discrimination or hostility towards the object of the 'phobia'."

The problem with this usage of "phobia" is that it lumps together all of those attitudes in all their disparate intensities and meanings, at the same time diluting the clinical sense of the term. Surely no one would consider "disapproval" to be synonymous with "hatred", or "dislike" with "fear". And surely "disapproval" is quite different than an "excessive, unreasonable desire to avoid the feared subject". Because one disapproves of students running in school hallways, does that mean one has a hatred of this practice or of the runners? Because one dislikes broccoli, does that mean one fears it? Of course not! Yet the sloppy use of "phobia" in "homophobia" encourages the person using the word as well as those hearing it to completely disregard any distinction whatsoever. I would love to see the term "homophobia" dropped altogether, or at least limited to situations that truly warrant it -- such as those who are truly afraid of touching a homosexual for fear of their homosexuality "rubbing off", or those who want to kill gays or lesbians or quarantine them in interment camps or on walled islands. However, that's not likely to happen.

It's a fact of human nature that people want power -- some want it over themselves, some over their circumstances, some over those who threaten them, and some over other individuals and groups in general. Some want it to affect their surroundings for noble reasons, some for selfish reasons, and some just for the sake of power itself. It's a rare individual who has successfully mastered the desire for power. And words are one of the most effective and subtle means of achieving power. This is why the use of the term "homophobia" will never die. As long as that word has the power to shame and intimidate, it will be used.

If someone feels they are being unfairly labeled a "homophobe", one of the first things to do is ask the labeler to define "homophobe". Point out that a true homophobe has a strong fear of homosexuals or homosexuality, and will go out of his or her way to avoid them and it, or to actively remove them or it, often violently. Ask if that person considers mere disapproval to be in the same category as a pathological fear resulting in violence. Acknowledge the feelings of frustration and anger being felt by the person using the term; it's the word that's in dispute here, not the emotions behind it. Then ask politely not to be labeled "homophobic". This approach may or may not work, but at least it's a step toward a more even-tempered communication.

The thing that must be remembered when trying to express one's disapproval of or disagreement with the practice of homosexuality, is that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgendered persons have been exposed to some of the most atrocious attitudes and treatment in our society, from mockery and discrimination all the way up to and including murder. Things that the average person would not consider saying or doing to a person of another race or religion are still said and done, almost without thinking, to homosexuals. As a very natural result, many homosexuals become automatically defensive at the first hint of disagreement or disapproval. The "flight or fight" reaction kicks in. If a Christian or other person who doesn't agree with homosexuality expects to retain any hope of communication, that person must learn how to express disagreement or disapproval without condemnation.

More along these lines in my final entry.

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