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The origin of Homophobia

Written by John Hudson
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Personal story

At around the age of 12 to 13, I began to understand that I was much more interested in boys than girls.  Shortly thereafter, I learned that there were words for someone like me: “gay,” “fag/faggot,” “queer,” and “pervert,” just to name a few of the terms that I heard in those early days of realization.  I knew intuitively that my attraction for other boys was something I had to keep hidden, though I didn’t understand why.  My feelings seemed so natural to me.  Yet, I knew all too well that being different in this way was unnatural and unacceptable to others.  I only needed to hear those terms and listen to the ways in which they were used to be reminded of what I already knew instinctively.


“Gay,” “faggot,”  “queer,” and the like were terms of denigration, words used to inflict pain and humiliation, words of attack and violence.  These were words that other boys would spit venomously, even if they were intended in fun.  The words held power which was unmistakable to me; they were threatening, stabbing at me whenever I heard them uttered.  I knew they would all hate me if they knew.

Why this hatred and anger?

This hatred is something that I have spent most of my life puzzling over.  Why would people, often otherwise very rational people, harbor such an intense hatred of anyone GLBT?  What had anyone GLBT done to them to earn such malice?  Why would so many in church…people who would preach and teach love and forgiveness…preach and teach hatred of homosexuals?  Why would other boys speak of beating up fags as if it were a sport?  Why would some go so far as to boast that they wanted to kill gays, whether they made such boasts seriously or in jest (as if ending another’s life could ever be something to joke about!)?  This hatred, which I eventually learned was called “homophobia,” seemed aptly named, since it seemed so devoid of any kind of logic or rationality.  Homophobia always seemed to me intensely inhuman, and it has always sickened me to see or hear overt homophobia expressed by those who I call my friends.

Not normal

The usual explanation that I encountered for homophobia, including homophobia in its more brutal forms, was, to summarize how it generally gets presented, that people hate homosexuals because they are not normal. This explanation has always seemed terribly inadequate to me. For one thing, there are many identities and orientations which are not “normal,” and yet are accorded a great measure of tolerance.  In addition, growing up gay and coming to terms with the consequences of being gay in a homophobic culture taught me to question the very notion of “normal.”  After all, my feelings of attraction to men seemed quite normal for me.  Why couldn’t they, in a better society, be accepted as an alternative “normal”?

Not irrational fear

It was not until I began doing research for this project that I began to see that homophobia is not the irrational fear that it’s name suggests, and that it is not just a simple, visceral reaction to what is considered “abnormal.”  On the contrary, homophobia is a vital cultural construct, which systematically helps to maintain important structures of patriarchal, heterosexist culture.  Queer theory offers insightful ways of understanding the role and function of homophobia by deconstructing a fundamental binary of society: heterosexuality versus homosexuality.  This binary, which the vast majority of Americans would take as a “natural” given, is a powerful construct which not only defines who people are, but has a role in shaping how people think and behave (Sedgwick 1), setting the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is taboo in regards to sexual identity, thus regulating identities (Nelson 376).  Sexual identities are essentialized into two categories: the dominant, and therefore “normalized,” heterosexual, and the minority, and therefore deviant, homosexual.

Are people always either/or, heterosexual or homosexual?

Queer theory, with the influence of post-structuralism, questions the very notion of the essential poles of the binary, recognizing the “polyvocal or dialogic nature of any defining label or category” (Alexander 212).  Are people always either/or, heterosexual or homosexual?  Or is sexual identity more complex than the cultural binary allows?  This question points toward one of the vital functions of a binary, that of defining one axis of the binary in opposition to the other; in this case, heterosexuality is defined “in critical opposition to that which it is not: homosexuality” (Fuss 1).  The identity “heterosexual” requires its opposite, “homosexual,” in order to define itself and to delimit the boundaries of behavior that receives society’s sanction and behavior that is demonized.  One identity cannot exist without the other.  And while society takes for granted that heterosexuality is the “default” setting for everyone, it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that the concept of heterosexuality and homosexuality were created, with the concept of homosexuality actually preceding that of heterosexuality by a number of years, prompting one writer to remark that heterosexuality emerged from homosexuality like “Eve from Adam’s rib” (Halperin 17).

Of several explanations for Western culture’s “need” for the hetero/homosexual binary, the argument offered by John D’Emilio (1), and summarized in Malinowitz, is one of the more plausible.  According to D’Emilio, as industrialization took hold in the 19th century, individuals were no longer tied to family life out of economic necessity.  Wage earners began to have the “freedom” to cultivate alternative sexual identities, which were not possible under the pre-industrial regime in which the family was the most important economic unit. The capitalist system, however, pushes men and women into families, at least long enough to reproduce the next generation of workers.  The elevation of the family to ideological preeminence guarantees that capitalist society will reproduce not just children, but heterosexism and homophobia.  (D’Emilio quoted in Malinowitz 50)


Thus, homosexuality constitutes a threat to capitalism’s labor supply.  If men and women (read: breeding stock) cultivate alternative sexual identities, there will be fewer children (read: future laborers) to feed the capitalist machine in the next generation.


Sexual identity is more like a work in progress


While the binary hetero/homosexual seeks to bring order to sexual identity and delimit normativity, the problem of the “polyvocal and dialogic” nature of identity and categories remains, resisting essentialization by the binary.  Rather than being an inherent, essential state, sexual identity is more like a work in progress, a condition Judith Butler describes as “performative” (136).  Sexual identity is in a constant state of development, performance, interpretation, and negotiation as individuals interact “socially and discursively” (Nelson 375).The result, particularly for men (2), is confusion and insecurity about one’s sexual identity.  The socialization of men is extraordinarily heterosexist, rigidly in conformity with the hetero/homosexual binary.  But the reality for men is that their sexual identities are not nearly as simple and clear-cut as their socialization demands.  In fact, as Gary David Comstock points out in his study of violence committed against gays and lesbians, by the age of 20, nearly one out of two males has had some kind of homoerotic experience (115).  The result of this confusion is homophobia, which all too often is externalized in the form of physical violence.  Comstock goes on to explain that:

Many teenage males, therefore, face a serious conflict of (1) their socially constructed and sexually felt similarity with a socially powerless, deviant, and feminized category of people and (2) the socially constructed expectation that they be powerful, masculine, and heterosexual. (115-16).

Gay bashers are confused


A teenage gay basher whom Comstock interviews admits that, when he and his friends attacked someone, they “’were probably attacking something within ourselves’” and that they “’were actually attracted’” to the victim (172).  The seriousness of this inner confusion…the clash of one’s homoerotic feelings and attractions with the social demands of heterosexist society…is often expressed in the “rage and extreme mutilation” common in gay bashing (Comstock 116).  More often, the confusion and identity conflict of the questioning (3) individual is interiorized in the form of self-hatred characteristic of internalized homophobia. An openly gay teacher captures this inner hatred as he recalls a boy in his junior high gym class to whom he was attracted: “Gary entranced me, even though I hated him and, more importantly, myself, for his doing so.  I could barely take my eyes off him” (Jennings 19).  This young man never expressed his conflict through violence, though he admits “hating” the boy who “entranced” him.  Instead, he internalized his homophobia, directing his anger and hatred upon himself rather than upon others.  But there is a fine line between the young person who secretly tortures him/herself because of her/his conflicted sexual identity and the young person who directs his rage outward, choosing a perceived homosexual target upon which to vent his anger and frustration.  Comstock pessimistically concludes that:

Given the prevalence of homosexual contact, the pervasiveness and rigidity of prohibitions against it, the tendency for teenagers to want to conform to social norms, compensating for one’s own socially unacceptable behavior by physically attacking others who engage in it cannot be viewed as either unusual, anti-social, or the result of being psychologically disturbed (by the perpetrators).  (116)

Comstock’s study shows that his findings concerning teenage men apply also to men through their mid to late twenties.  The intense difficulties of dealing with a conflicted sexual identity do not end with adolescence.


Heterosexuals are projecting negative images on homosexuals


In terms of the demonization of homosexuality in general, Diana Fuss describes how the heterosexual majority attempts to understand homosexuals by projecting onto them a negative image, an image which is made up of the “contaminated and expurgated insides of the heterosexual subject” (3), rather than anything inherent in homosexuals themselves.  This does much to explain some of the common myths and misconceptions about homosexuals that heterosexual society holds: that homosexuals are hypersexual; that homosexual men are pedophiles; that homosexuals are constantly seeking new “recruits” by “converting” young people to homosexuality; and so on.


Fuss goes on to show that the binary further feeds homophobia due to the very narrow band separating hetero and homo and the “ever-present threat of a collapse of boundaries, an effacing of limits, and a radical confusion of identities”. At the individual level, homophobia is not so much a personal hatred of the GLBT individual as it is a paranoid reaction to the confusion and conflicting impulses within the heterosexual individual who is not meeting the identity requirements of heteronormative society.

The conflicted individual first feels homophobia toward his/her (usually his) own unstable sexual identity.  As a means of demonstrating heterosexual status, and also of venting his self-hatred and fear, the homophobe externalizes his homophobia by targeting a perceived homosexual.  The victim becomes objectified, no longer a subject in the eyes of his/her attacker, but a fetish for a ritual cleansing of the attacker’s conflicted sexual identity. 

By venting such hatred at GLBT targets, the homophobe may or may not gain some feeling of inner peace with his own confusion.  Most importantly, though, by externalizing his homophobia, a gay basher has “proven” his heterosexuality to society, showing that he does indeed measure up to the heterosexist standards of the culture.  Individual acts of homophobia collectively enact the program of homophobia at the societal level: the maintenance of the boundaries of heteronormativity and the perpetuation of the hetero/homosexual binary.  Homophobia thus functions as a cultural mechanism by which the heterosexist status quo can be maintained and affirmed.


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Updated: 2/27/11