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Homophobia is a widely understood term to refer to anti-homosexual attitudes and practices, but comparison of such terms as homophobia, heterosexism, and heteronormativity reveals how these terms rely on different ideas of what homosexual means and where opposition to same-sex relations originates. Homophobia typically denotes an irrational fear or a set of mistaken ideas held by prejudiced individuals; its alleviation therefore likely comes through therapy or education. Its use tends to focus attention on individuals, to locate its origins in childhood socialization, and to conceive of it as a prejudice directed against homosexual persons. Heterosexism offers a more sociological notion that shifts analysis to the ways in which government, workplace, religion, family, and media are organized to exclude or disadvantage same-sex relations. Finally, heteronormativity arises from analysis of how distinctions like heterosexual—homosexual are reproduced. For queer theory, the issue is not one of appealing for tolerance or acceptance for a quasi-ethnic community of lesbians and gay men, but of shaking up the entire heterosexual—homosexual binary that fuels the distinction in the first place.
There are several leading theories that lend credence to each of these conceptions. Gayle Rubin’s influential essay on The traffic in women” built on Claude Levi-Strauss’s work on how heterosexuality is recreated each generation through a system of fraternal interest groups that exercise control over women’s reproductive power in families. Because homosexuality among men transgresses this fundamental social game plan,” it comes to be identified with the betrayal of masculinity and the inability to assert male domination over women. Lesbianism, as Monique Wittig (1992) argues in The Straight Mind, amounts to a revolt of the trade goods” in the ”traffic in women.” Adrienne Rich (1980) also characterizes lesbianism as an assertion of women’s self-determination and a direct challenge to patriarchy. Anti-lesbianism for Rich is a variant of misogyny, a means of enforcing compulsory heterosexuality,” and a system of keeping women subservient to male domination. Still, it must be noted that anti-homosexuality is not the inevitable consequence of kinship organization. In many societies around the world, same-sex bonding is accepted and valued.
Gender panic theory focuses particularly on homophobia as an effect of gender. Masculinity, this theory contends, is an achieved and insecure status. Defensiveness against losing male privilege generates homophobia. Psychological research shows how homophobia appears to be particularly strong among gender conservatives and adolescent males who feel insecure in their access to masculine status. The queer theory of Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick extends gender panic theory, contending that heterosexual masculinity builds itself on the simultaneous exploitation and denial of homosexuality. Since heterosexual masculinity can never constitute itself as secure and unassailable, and homosexuality is a default subject location against which heterosexuality defines itself, then homosexual possibilities can never be fully repressed and remain necessary for the masculine self. While gender panic theory offers a strong explanation for homophobia in western and other patriarchal societies, it does not work for societies where same-sex bonding is itself regarded as masculine, and makes up a part of the socialization process to masculinize youths.
Sociohistorical theories are particularly interested in the social factors that fuel, or diminish, homophobia. These theories investigate why campaigns of persecution against homosexual relations break out in certain places and times and among particular social constituencies. Homophobia in western societies is associated with the symbolic value of disenfranchised and upstart” social groups. In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and North America, the adherents of anti-homosexual worldviews have typically come from a range of social groups disturbed or threatened by modernity — usually traditional elites fearful of change and declining social classes resentful of groups on the rise. Status defense theories note that people fearful of declining living standards are especially susceptible to a politics of resentment, and have a tendency to strike out against those they see as ”undeserving.” Anti-gay persecution has often run parallel to campaigns of persecution directed against other disenfranchised groups. Despite important gains in human rights legislation protecting the equality rights of LGBT people in many countries, homophobic attitudes and practices remain widespread.
- Rich, (1980) Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs 10 (4): 741—61.
- Rubin, G. (1975) The traffic in women. In: Reiter, R. (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women. Monthly Review Press, New York, pp. 157—210.
- Wittig, M. (1992) The Straight Mind. Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York.
- Adam, B. D. (1998) Theorizing homophobia. Sexualities 1 (4): 387—404.
- Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble. Routledge, New York. Herek, G. (1998) Stigma and Sexual Orientation. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
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