Why I use the word “homophobia”

Opponents of gay rights and gay marriage (and all things gay or queer) sometimes resent being seen as defenders of homophobia. We are not afraid of gays, they say. We think homosexuality is bad for society. (Or something like that.)

Likewise, kinists resent being called racists. (If you don’t know what kinism is, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinism; or, you know, Google.) I’m not aware of many misogynists, racists, and homophobes who like being called what they are. But those labels (“misogynist”, “racist”, “homophobe”) are part and parcel of the worldview and moral outlook I want to commend to you. We ought to call white people who don’t want to associate with Blacks (for whatever reason) “racist”. It doesn’t matter that they have fancy justification for their (im)moral beliefs. The humanist vision for a better world and a better society is incompatible with calling people who oppose ‘racial mingling’ (or whatever they call it) anything but racists.

So also, those who oppose gay rights do so for a wide variety of reasons. For many of them however, those reasons exist in tandem with (some would say as justifications of) feelings of disgust (or mild disgust, or whatever) at the idea of sex between same sex partners. This is the “eww” of a man having sex with another man (which straight men who are also homophobes like to express) or the “gross” of a woman having sex with another woman (which straight women who are also homophobes like to express) that is so common in heteronormative discourse. Heteronormative gender norms, according to which ‘manly’ men are (by nature?) attracted to women and according to which ‘womanly’ women are (by nature?) attracted to men, are a social construct–a product of culture, and harmful at that (witness the bullying of non-gender-conforming individuals and especially young people). A humanist world is a world in which one’s gender performance is irrelevant to how one is treated. Whether I’m a total ‘dude’ or a ‘girly man’ shouldn’t matter. It certainly shouldn’t be policed. And so the vocabulary that is appropriate for humanist commitments includes words like “homophobia” and “homophobe” to identify the harm done to gay folk by a limited sexual imagination enacted in social norms.

Of course, I recognize that for the sake of civility in conversation, it might be better not to call a homophobe a homophobe. When people perceive that they are being insulted, this tends to shut down their (most) rational neural circuitry. And so there are times when it’s appropriate to talk about opposition to gay rights without using the word “homophobia”. But in many contexts, it will be the right word to use. And by adopting the lens it invites us to see through, we take one step closer to a humane world.