Why I Will Not Call You ‘Homophobic’

One of the hardest things about trying to fight for a just cause is realizing just how much you compromise yourself.  In retrospect, this shouldn’t be surprising.  We were born in a century where fighting for class equality spawned Stalinism, ‘stabilizing the world economy’ bred secret police, a movement for racial equality attacked gender equality, and a movement for gender equality attacked trans people.  Of course, these things also overthrew oppressive regimes, secured civil rights, prevented violence and warfare, and formed the foundation for contemporary notions of justice.  It’s important that, sitting at the current moment of these historical motions we recognize that a just movement is never fully formed, and that we ourselves must always be a target of our criticisms, that we must continually reexamine and renegotiate our actions and relationship with history, and must always avoid falling into the sclerotic dogma that divides communities and breeds distrust, violence, and, on rare occasions, genocide.

Which all stands as an introduction to what I want to say today: I will no longer use the words ‘homophobia’ or ‘transphobia’ to describe the bigotry directed toward people of marginalized gender and sexuality.  The phenomena commonly understood to be the meaning of these words is absolutely real, and I will continue to critique it.  However, I will not use the words because they are ableist–which is to say, bigoted against disabled people.  To explain:

Phobias are real psychological conditions.  They effect real people, sometimes in detrimental ways.  There is nothing “wrong” with having a phobia, any more than there is something wrong with having a physical disability.  However, they are still affected by the stigma of ‘mental illness’ in our contemporary culture, a stigma that associates psychological disability with degeneration and deviancy.  As people interested in equality, queer rights activists should be working to remove this stigma.  Even if it weren’t a general moral imperative, it’s especially significant withing the queer rights movement because disproportionately more queer people are affected with a number of these issues.  The stigmatization of psychological disability both results in a double dose of marginalization for disabled queers and is part of the general network of bigotry toward gender and sexuality minorities, since these minorities are often assumed to be in some way “mentally ill” or “sick in the head” by bigots.

And yet, despite this, queer activists have been comfortably using the words ‘homophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ to refer to what is, in fact, straight-up bigotry.  Yes, most people understand the meanings associated with those words, but that is in a sense the problem.  Rather than people thinking we’re talking about phobias when we’re actually talking about bigotry, we’ve got people thinking about bigotry while using the word ‘phobia’.  This creates an unnecessary, inaccurate, and unwarranted negative association with the word phobia, and thus contributes to the marginalization of phobic people.

Equally problematic, these terms create a pathological association with bigotry.  Attacking bigotry by treating it as a pathology means basing your attack on ableist norms–the assumption that pathologies will be received as negative.  Let’s not forget that for a good chunk of recent history, homosexuality was regarded as a pathology.  Let’s not forget that being transgender is still referred to as ‘Gender Identity Disorder’.  Rather than distancing ourselves from this pathologizing of queer identity, we should be fighting the negative stigma of pathology, itself a holdover from inaccurate fascist notions of biology.

Furthermore, using a pathological representation of bigotry exoticizes it insomuch as pathology means, (according to Encarta Dictionary 2006) “a condition that is a deviation from the normal.”  The sad fact is, bigotry is the norm, and it is a norm that needs to be destroyed.  But as long as we treat it as a sort of ‘condition’, we’re misunderstanding the origins and nature of bigotry.  Bigotry is immanent to the social fabric; it is the result of how our society is structured.  The responsibility lies with no one and everyone, and as something that flows through our everyday discourse we all stand at a point to stop it and fight it.  When someone says, “you’re gay,” as an insult, they are not demonstrating the symptoms of a condition called ‘homophobia,’ and to treat it as such would be a mystification.  Rather, they are reiterating a bigoted use of language that they have heard before and that others will hear from them.  To fight bigotry is not to point out ‘homophobia’ or ‘transphobia,’ it’s to cut off the continued repetition as acceptable and try to encourage an empathetic understanding.

Recently I argued that we all have privilege.  I would like to extend that argument a little further to say that almost certainly we have all been bigots at some time.  Being a bigot is not a matter of identity, like being queer or even having a temporary psychological disability.  It is a state brought about by our actions or our words that we only occupy so long as we maintain those behaviors.  The difficulty is that since bigotry is premised on ignorance, we often cannot move out of it on our own.  We require someone else to remind us of our privilege and the bigotry it has produced.  As a relatively able-minded person, I had not thought about the harmful effects of using the word ‘homophobia’ until someone referred to the word as ableist.  Responsibility for our bigotry always rests on our own shoulders, but it is also important that one of the easiest ways to fight it is to point it out to others, and insomuch as we live a life devoted to creating a just society, it is important to not remain silent.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Why I Will Not Call You ‘Homophobic’

  1. Whilst I appreciate the sentiment behind this post, I think using the word “bigot” will carry its own problems. If the intention is only to describe then perhaps it works, if however the intention is to challenge, to encourage a change in behaviour, then I’d suggest words such as “homophobia” have a greater chance of success. “Bigot” has such a broad use, often with an intention to insult, it’s tantamount to calling someone an asshole, and I can’t think of many whom when challenged this way would proclaim “you know what, you’re right, I am an asshole!”

    • A couple people have had that objection. One person suggested using ‘anti-gay’, but I don’t like using ‘anti-gay’ for the same reason I don’t like using ‘anti-semite’–precisely because the term is specific and focused on the marginalized figures rather than the individual being discussed. The ambiguity of ‘bigotry’ is important because I see bigotry as a complex interconnected network rather than a set of individual hatreds. It also incorporates different levels of force, and is different in each given moment and situation. To use a blanket term like ‘anti-gay’ or ‘homophobia’ is problematic because you equate someone who is proposing legislation to kill gay people, which is very literal anti-gay legislation, with someone who is just perpetuating negative gay stereotypes. The second example isn’t really anti-gay or even based on something I would refer to as hatred, and the person can probably be appealed to through empathy (which in the case of a genuinely anti-gay person would be much more difficult). In a world where people really do actively hate, and campaign on political platforms of the extermination of those they hate, it seems dangerous to me to refer to people who are only very slightly bigoted in these terms because it flattens the discursive landscape. Bigotry on the other hand is already understood broadly so it puts the focus on what specific behaviors are harmful. Phrasing is important–there’s a world of difference between saying “You’re a bigot” and “You’re being a bigot,” the second of which is always the usage. Few people would respond to being called an asshole but (purely by anecdotal evidence) you can sometimes get people to re-examine their behavior by saying that they are being an asshole.

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