Amateur Psychology


I have a question: Why do we call people who hate homosexuals "homophobes?"

The word, taken literally, implies "Irrationally afraid of homosexuals." The idea, I suppose, is that hatred of homosexuals stems from a deeply-rooted fear of homosexuality; perhaps the homophobe is afraid of being raped, or perhaps he's afraid that he is, himself, a homosexual. This seems a plausible explanation for some homophobes, but I'm not certain it describes all of them. Some people just plain hate homosexuals for no good reason, just like some people hate black people for no good reason. But we don't call people who hate black people negrophobes; we call them racists.

The term seems a bit patronizing, and implies a sort of amateur psychology. Without knowing anything about somebody other than their hatred of homosexuals, we've diagnosed them and explained the deeply-rooted cause of their problems. This is like declaring that everyone who's shy had trouble with bed-wetting as a child.

Having said that, of course, when we use the term homophobe who are we patronizing? People who hate homosexuals that don't hate them out of fear; they just hate them for being homosexual. Not necessarily a group that inspires much sympathy.

But that leads me to the other problem I have with the homophobe label: It doesn't imply any moral judgment, and instead has the character of a clinical diagnosis. When you call somebody a racist, you're not saying they have a psychological problem that can be cured with professional treatment. You're saying that they hold immoral beliefs and need to get over them. Now, I won't claim that there's no judgment implied in the word homophobe when used today, but it seems like the negative moral implications have been added as a social phenomenon, and aren't really inherent in the term itself.

So I'd argue that the term Homophobe is unfair to the genuine hater of homosexuals, insofar as it denies their agency by claiming that their views are merely the product of neurochemical imbalance or past traumas, and is simultaneously too fair to them, insofar as it implies that their views are a regrettable but inevitable product of forces beyond their control. What's needed is a term that recognizes and respects hatred of homosexuals as a conscious choice, while simultaneously condemning it as immoral. What that term might be, I can't say.


There's an interpretation of the phobia aspect that you missed, which, as I'm currently immersed in a large quantity of rather scary early 20th century sexology, I'm inclined to believe accounts for a significant fraction if not a majority of the people who could in some way be said to be afraid of homosexuals. There. Did you like that sentence?

The other reason to fear homosexuals is because they are a threat (real or perceived) to social institutions which the fearers have an interest in preserving. Consider DOMA -- the Defense of Marriage Act. Defense? The idea that homosexuality by its existence, and especially by any social legitimacy which it might be able to garner, spells the end of heterosexual monogamous marriage not just for the people who are queer but for everyone else as well, seems both reasonable and terrifying to a lot of people. And then there's the fear that everyone will be queer instead of settling down and having children (since obviously queer people never have children), and the population of the country/world/race/whatever will plummet to nothingness. At least, the latter was a particularly big deal in the first half of the century to people thinking about The Health And Strength Of Nations; I don't know if it still concerns people as much.

It occurs to me that an awful lot of people who are queer or identify or sympathize with the queer community would freely admit to being heterophobic. I'm heterophobic. The officially heterosexual population of my country has, by virtue of numbers and the sanction of the prevailing religion (numbers again), some ability to take away things of value to the queer community, and I'm fairly afraid of that potential. Perhaps it makes sense to attribute the same feeling to my opposite numbers: a certain nervous apprehension about what institutions the queer community (henceforward referred to as the QC) might scrape up the power to alter. The only real difference I can think of between the two sides of the phenomenon is that it would probably take a miracle in the current social and political climate for the QC to actually do any such thing.

I bet it may have started as an insult towards homosexual haters - by indicating that their hatred really stems from an irrational fear of being raped by someone of their own gender. The insult being that these haters are so stupid that they think every gay person is a sexually-depraved-rape-anything-that-moves individual.

Dianna: Hmm. I'm interested in that early 20th Century sexology literature. I'm passingly familiar with a lot of the anti-feminist writings of the period (a lot of arguments that giving women the vote will lead to empty cradels, or worse, to men having to take care of the babies, a possibility both absurd and frightening) but haven't encountered any of the anti-queer literature from the period.

(I had rather a large tangent here about shifting views on gay rights. I ended up moving it into a post of its own on the front page)

Sadly, I believe both the "everyone would be queer if you let them" and the "we need to start multiplying like rabbits to preserve our race/nation, and queers just gum up the works" arguments have made appearances in the current anti-gay marriage debates. This isn't surprising; a lot of the arguments used against women's equality in the 19th Century were later adapted to use against suffragists in the early 20th century, and then against women in the workplace after World War II, and then against Women's Liberation in the 60s and 70s, and then against sexual harrasment and other laws to make the workplace equal in the 80s and 90s. And these same arguments are being used today to explain why women are just naturally cut out for staying at home and raising babies, and all this freedom and feminism has just made them depressed. Wouldn't you be happier giving up all that messy freedom and going back to letting the men in your life tell you what to do?

Bad arguments never die; they just get re-phrased by a new generation of pundits.

Ted: I think that's quite plausible. I wonder when, exactly, the term homophobia was coined and came into popular usage. Is it from the 60s/70s? Earlier?

Some of the literature I've been reading which is not anti-gay sexology has also just struck me as relevant to the phobia issue. Karl Ulrichs, who was a very early German gay rights activist, wrote a number of treatises on the nature, rights, and appropriate treatment of gay men (his term for them was Urnings). He pointed out rather smugly that Urnings just popped up in the human population with no discernable cause and no father could ever be sure his sons wouldn't turn out to be Urnings. It starts to sound like deliberate provocation: be afraid, for we are everywhere and could be anywhere. I wonder a bit if he was having fun at his opponents' expense at that point -- a rhetorical sticking out of the tongue -- and had more of an impact on the QC's view of its detractors than he might have predicted.

Dianna: Another thought occurs to me. I think the point you make about fear rooted in a general fear of change in social institutions is a good one, but it leads to a question: why wasn't the term negrophobe, or some similar, applied to Southerners who opposed Civil Rights?

Prior to the Civil Rights movement, Southern politics was fundamentally based on suppressing the black vote to non-existence. Further, the society of the south was built on a racial caste system. To a great degree, poor whites were kept in line by a sense of racial superiority that was built into the institutions; I may not have much going for me, but even the richest black person can't use my waterfountain or my restroom. The worst-off white person had more rights and status than the best-off black person.

And the Civil Rights movement, of course, changed this. It was a movement from the outside that came in and destroyed institutions that enjoyed broad-based support among the whites of the South. And when the Civil Rights movement destroyed these institutions, those who opposed the southern system didn't say that the system's supports were just afraid of change. They didn't call them negrophobes. Instead, they attacked them head on: Your system is based on the immoral premise that some people are better and deserve more legal rights than others.

Again, this whole discussion is quibbling over semantics; the term homophobe used today carries a strong negative connotation, and I'm not suggesting that gay rights activists pull their punches when it comes to making moral judgments about their opposition. I just find it interesting that such a clinical term is used to describe haters of the queer community when more visceral terms are used to describe those who hate other groups.


In throwing around my LGBT Studies reader last night I noticed the title page of an article which calls itself, "The classic that invented the word Homophobia!" I haven't read it yet, but I'll make a point to take a closer look at it and let you know what I find.

You've got a good point about civil rights rhetoric. I might counter by saying that supporters of racial inequality are often called bigots, which co-opts a general term for a specific type of bigotry and therefore makes it less effective for other movements to use it. In general I'd say that a lot of terms which center around unfair discrimination (including discrimination itself) have gotten firmly associated with racial issues rather than other types of inequality.

There. How'd I do?

That's a good point, and explains why I've started seeing the term "Homobigot" used to describe people with anti-queer politics. Of course, the problem with that term, as I see it, is it's a bit ambiguous; the -phobe construction means "a person who is afraid of the prefix." But there's not really a linguistic -bigot construction to work off of, so "homobigot" could be interpreted to mean "one who is bigoted against homosexuals" or "A homosexual who is a bigot." Which is why I tend to avoid the term.

The confusion you're describing happened with "homosexual" and "heterosexual", actually. They're one-half Greek and one-half Latin -- how terribly vulgar a way to construct a word. When they first started being used, their meaning was fairly confused even among people who were totally clear on what the parts meant. In certain texts a heterosexual meant someone who desired the opposite sex; in others it meant someone who identified with the opposite sex. I think in some cases it was even used to describe hermaphrodites. It basically gained its eventual definition through consensus. Though, now that I think about it, I don't recall hearing that "homosexual" was ever quite that confused.

I've found myself coining some ridiculous words in trying to take short, comprehensive notes in LGBT Studies. "Heterodabble" was the most recent one I noticed myself using. I'm not sure if I'm more appalled that I'm mutilating the English language, or hopeful that they'll someday catch on and be used by very serious gender studies people.

Heh. Indeed.

Heterodabble? Engaging in a form of mixed... dabbling? Is dabble a term of art in LGBT Studies, or is it used in the sense of "to explore lightly, without intention to delve too deeply into the subject?"

I've now grown paranoid about defining words, lest I be subject to more drive-by word-nobbling. These are the wages of sin, and I deserve all that I'm getting for complaining about the changing meaning of a word. Having spent a semester engaged in various forms of semantic debate, and with the prospect of long years of such debates in the future, I now realize how intensely annoying the "This is what (Word X) means, and all who dispute me are rapists of the English language!" position is. I just spent the last weekend outlining a 15 page paper on the meaning of the word "Authorization"; My desire to engage in a debate over my use of the word "Ambivalent" 3 months ago is so small that electron microscope technology is still decades away from being able to detect it.

I hereby pledge never again to word-nobble, never to correct somebody for using a word imprecisely, never to insist that the only proper definition of a word is the one listed in the 1863 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (before the cowards sold out to the forces of linguistic post-modernism).

I reserve, however, the right to correct out-right malapropisms, as when someone substitutes a similar-sounding word for the one they mean. And grammar is still fair game.

I was taking notes on an article discussing primarily lesbian-identified women, and at one point it referred to those among the study group who occasionally have romantic or sexual contact with men but don't feel that it particularly impacts their orientation or identification. I saved myself a whole line of notes by just writing "those who heterodabble", and at least so far I can still look at it and understand what I meant.

I like to rationalize word-nobbling by insisting that the purpose of consistent definitions is to make precise communication possible. Perhaps there can be a distinction between nobbling for nobbling's sake, when it's clear what's meant, and nobbling in defense of (or in search of) comprehensibility?

The more I do law school, the more I like a quote by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that I initially didn't appreciate. In the case of Towne v. Eisner in 1918, Holmes faced a question of statutory interpretation that depended on what the meaning of a word was. Courts had for years interpreted it one way, but in this decision Holmes decided it meant something different. In doing so, he said: "A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanging; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used."

I think semantic debates can be quite helpful, insofar as they help clarify the meaning of words. What's not helpful is debates of the form "This is what this word means, and I'll be damned if I allow the forces of barbarism to change it!" I've been guilty of that myself, but it's silly, particularly when society has moved on and everybody uses the word in some new way. Language is but a means, and communication is the end. If everyone understands nonplussed to mean unexcited, and you use it to mean confused, you invite misunderstanding. You have sacrificed communication for the sake of language, which is wholely irrational.

I sympathize, though, with people who complain when a word with a unique and useful meaning evolves into a word with a meaning for which there are already ample synonyms, and the language loses a convenient way of expressing a concept. But at the same time, neologisms are constantly entering the language and adding to the diversity of its expression.

I suppose my point is: language adapts itself to the needs of society, and standing against that process is both futile and silly. Examining the contours of the language as it is now, on the other hand, is useful. That's a descriptive process rather than a normative process.

Which is a big long way of saying: I agree. Word-nobbling for the facilitation of communication: Good. Word-nobbling to make yourself feel smart/slay the White Whale of linguistic post-modernism: Bad.

Oh, hey, apropos your earlier mention of the queers-don't-have-babies-so-respecting-gay-rights-will-turn-everybody-queer-and-our-nation/race/planet-will-die-out argument, Pat Robertson is apparently concerned that existentialism and modernity are causing Europe to malaise itself into non-existence."

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on February 3, 2006 10:09 PM.

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