issue 201 - November 1989
Fear and loathing
Prejudice, abuse, violence, sometimes murder. Why are lesbians and gay
men hated? Dennis Altman explores the psychology behind the hostility.
The term 'homophobia' was first coined in the 1970s by George Weinberg, an American psychologist. Literally it means 'fear of homosexuality'. But the term has come to refer to all hostility directed towards lesbians and gays - a shorthand for a whole range of persecution, discrimination and prejudice that seems to exist in most societies.
But why does it happen? The simplest explanation is the fundamentalist one: homosexuality is 'unnatural' and therefore hostility towards it is no more than a 'natural' reaction. Given the ubiquity of some form of homosexual behaviour this does not seem a convincing explanation. And if homosexuality really were unnatural its opponents would not need to spend so much psychic energy in opposing it - as it would be unlikely to survive.
The most we can say is that in most societies homosexuality is the practice of a minority. But this does not in itself explain why it should so engage the hostility of the majority. After all, so is celibacy a minority preference.
The next most common explanation is that sexuality is not like other forms of human behaviour. Social cohesion depends upon a certain degree of 'sexual repression' - in the language of Freud - or restraint' - in the language of the Moral Right. For the social order to survive certain forms of sexual behaviour viewed as anti-social must be rejected. This is the argument of those who would proscribe homosexuality because they see it as threatening the institution of the family.
The trouble with this is that many people who are predominantly homosexual are also parents and there is no inherent reason why they should be any less able to fulfill this role than those who are exclusively heterosexual. There is also a good case to be made that homosexuality actually strengthens the family by liberating some adults from child-bearing duties and so increasing the pool of adults available to look after children.
Tomboys and sissies
The threat to the family is one of the most common ideological expressions of homophobia. But the real objection is probably more deep-seated: homosexuality is threatening because it seems to challenge the conventional rules governing a person's sex, their sexual preferences and the general female and male roles in society.
The works of nineteenth-century sexologists who first coined terms like 'homosexual' and 'lesbian' assumed that there was a necessary connection between sexual preference and social roles of men and women. Lesbians were seen as women who wanted to be men and male homosexuals were men who wanted to be women. Women who preferred other women must be behaving 'like men' - men who preferred men must be behaving 'like women'.
Some sexologists still believe this and claim that the best predictor of adult homosexuality is unorthodox gender behaviour as children: tomboys grow up to be lesbians, 'sissy' boys to be gay men. This theory might find it hard to account for the super-macho look that has become the dominant style of much gay male life since the 1970s, though there is an element of truth in it.
But at any age, the assertion of homosexual identity clearly challenges the apparent naturalness of gender roles. That women might find full emotional and sexual fulfillment with each other is clearly a threat to heterosexual men. While the position, held by some lesbian feminists, that lesbianism is the logical response to male oppression, appears to confirm the conservative fear that homosexuality undermines the traditional roles of the sexes. And if men establish primary relationships with each other this too suggests that there are ways of organizing emotional and sexual lives other than those approved of by religion and State.
Homophobia tends to take different forms depending on whether it is directed against men or women. This is not surprising in societies which value men above women. Many straight men are titillated rather than shocked by lesbianism; most pornography showing sex between women is actually aimed at straight men. This can ironically, mean that lesbians have more space and are less likely to be prosecuted for their sexual behaviour. Lesbians do encounter homophobic violence, however Women identified as lesbians are sometimes very vulnerable to being raped.
This is because violence, at least physical violence, is largely a male phenomenon. Men are particularly prone to use it against those who they think are undermining their masculinity. And it is here that we can find at least some of the roots of homophobia.
As Freud understood, most societies are based on relationships between men - most powerful institutions like parliaments or business corporations are male-dominated. And this 'male-bonding' demands a certain degree of sexual sublimation. Watching football players together illustrates very clearly Freud's theories of sublimated homosexuality as the cement which binds together male institutions. So too, more grimly, does gang rape - where the pleasure seems to lie as much in 'doing it with your mates' as in anything else.
In many societies the links between men are much stronger than the relations which link them to women. But these bonds are social rather than individual, and for this reason need to be restricted. Armies, for example, depend upon a very strong sense of male solidarity though this does not allow for too close an emotional tie between any specific pair of men. A soldier may well die for his mate, as in the Australian film Gallipoli, but his mate is then expected to be able to bond with the next soldier he finds himself alongside.
Thus the most extreme homophobia is often found among tightly-knit groups of men, who need both to deny any sexual component to their bonding and who can increase their solidarity by turning violently on 'fags' or 'queers' who are defined as completely alien. This is a phenomenon found amongst teenage gangs, policemen, soldiers, and the German Nazi party, which shortly after coming to power purged those of its members who were tempted to turn the hyper-masculinity of Naziism into an excuse for overt homosexual behaviour.
Many observers of sexual violence have argued that the most virulent fag/poofter/queer-basher is attacking that potential in himself - a potential that he has learned to suppress. Because homosexuality is 'un-masculine', those who struggle with feelings of homosexuality (often unacknowledged) will be particularly tempted to resolve them through masculine' expressions of violence.
In court cases involving violence against gay men the idea of preserving one's male honour is often pleaded as a defence. More recently the fear of AIDS is invoked, and has been an excuse for very vicious attacks on homosexuals - often extended to lesbians amongst whom there is a very low incidence of AIDS.
Homophobia has effects that go far beyond those individuals against whom it is directed. Like racism and sexism, it is an expression of hatred that harms the perpetrator as well as the victim; the insecurities, fears and sexual hang-ups that lead young men to go out looking for 'fags' to beat up are dangerous to the entire society.
It has become fashionable to denigrate the wave of sexual liberationist theories of the late 1960s. Right-wing politicians such as Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet have made attacks on such theories part of their appeal. Yet it is important to remember that there are very real costs to us all where sexual expression is crippled and distorted by violence and prejudice. Acceptance of homosexuality means recognition of human diversity and allowing individuals to develop to the maximum of their potential.
Those societies which are best able to accept homosexuals are also societies which are able to accept assertive women and gentle men, and they tend to be less prone to the violence produced by hypermasculinity.
Dennis Altman teaches politics at LaTrobe University, Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of six books, including AIDS and the New Puritanism, Pluto, 1989.
ACTIVIST - Simon Nkoli
It is very difficult for a black person to be lesbian or gay in South Africa. First, there is no privacy. We have to live with our families, in very crowded conditions, until we get married. In my parents' home for example there were six of us living in four rooms.
Second, homosexuality is very much taboo among black people in South Africa. The most important thing in a black family is to get married.
So 'coming out' to my family was not easy for me. I was 19 at the time. My mother was deeply upset. My stepfather, on the other hand, was cool about it and actually supportive. But still they took me to see a psychiatrist in the hope that I would be 'healed' - that I would become a 'normal' person. It lasted six months, It was not a good experience. And anyway, I knew I could never be changed.
Once I had 'come out' I realized I would be better off on my own. I lost contact with school-friends and former playmates. I was afraid they would victimize me if they knew about me. Anyway I had joined the students' organization and become so politically involved in the struggle against apartheid that this took up all my time.
When I was 21 I joined the Gay Association of Southern Africa (GASA). During that year I became increasingly aware of the fact that the interests of black gays were being ignored. GASA social functions were frequently held in places where blacks would be turned away. It was very humiliating for us. Some of GASA's members were openly racist.
We tried to challenge this racism and spoke to the executive committee. But after a while we decided it would be best to form a separate group - altemative but not opposed to GASA - and so we launched the Saturday Group. This was a non-racial group for people who wanted to do practical things. Our motto was: 'help each other to solve your own problem'.
We also had a political aim: to mobilize gay people. In 1984 we took up a campaign against the sacking of two women from the State railway because they were gay. GASA would have nothing to do with this - partly because the organization was male-dominated, but mainly because it was a political issue. Even though homosexuality is illegal in South Africa they did not understand that being gay is a political issue.
Now I am involved in trying to get the United Democratic Front and the African National Congress to adopt a policy on gays. I cannot predict how they will respond. Attitudes depend very much on individuals. But there are gay people high up in the movement. To be accepted by straight people we have to be fighting the same struggle and working together so that they get to know us and get to understand gay issues.
We are also trying to do AIDS campaign work in the mines. Many of the migrant miners have sex with each other. They do not see themselves as gay or homosexual - they do it because they are forced to leave their homeland and their families. The Government has responded by testing migrant workers for HIV and sending back the ones who were found positive. This is not going to solve the problem. You need to educate people about safe sex. So we are trying to get a programme going and to get rid of the inhuman system that forces miners to leave their families behind.
Simon Nkoli is a prominent gay rights and anti-apartheid activist living in Johannesburg.