Engendering Homophobia: Violence, Sexuality and Gender Conformity

By Tomsen, Stephen; Mason, Gail | Journal of Sociology, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Engendering Homophobia: Violence, Sexuality and Gender Conformity


Tomsen, Stephen, Mason, Gail, Journal of Sociology


The emergent activism around violence

In recent decades there has been notable conceptual difficulty linking together a much expanded constructionist sociology of sexuality (as influenced by Foucault, Weeks, postmodern and queer theory) with the sociology of gender (particularly, feminist perspectives) without producing reductionist analyses that privilege one field to the detriment of the other (Pringle, 1992). The gaps within the existing understanding of anti-homosexual violence reflect this difficulty. But the problem of `homophobic' violence and evidence about its social patterns, signpost the way to further understanding the sexuality/gender link. Mobilization against violence has become a key feature of gay and lesbian activism in Australia and other nations in the last decade (Herek and Berrill, 1992; Jenness and Broad, 1997; Mason and Tomsen, 1997). The historical shift towards naming and classifying such violence as `hate crime' and the proliferation of related new research and organizing, suggest this activism has become very significant to gay and lesbian movements.

Discussion of this harassment and violence suggests a likely point of coalitionist activity among gay men, lesbians and other non-heterosexual groups and appears to offer the possibility of alliances with groups who are disenfranchised on such grounds as race, ethnicity or disability (Cunneen et al., 1997). This coalitionist potential seems especially important in the light of the contemporary stress on non-essentialist identity politics and the diversity of post-left social struggles. The shared experience of bias-driven harassment and violence is something that many groups will concede that they have in common when other sorts of overlap are doubted. Both American and British commentators have suggested that the organizational form and direction of campaigns against anti-homosexual violence frequently marginalize lesbians (Jenness and Broad, 1997; Stanko and Curry, 1997). Nevertheless, in contrast with AIDS/HIV advocacy and lobbying against anti-sodomy laws, in the 1990s the issue of `homophobic' violence appeared to be valued by activists for its more obvious implication of a shared interest between lesbians and gay men. Moreover, evidence about shared victimization and fear may be ideologically inviting in a period of unease about the multiple divisions within `queer communities' that are fractured by locality, social class, health status, race, ethnicity and age, as well as gender (Jackson and Sullivan, 1999).

The unifying promise of the violence issue sits oddly with arguments about the different ways in which non-heterosexually identified `sexual minorities' are oppressed, and the empirical evidence about the different forms of violence to which they are subjected. A backdrop of political doubt (among lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transsexuals) about the real value of coalitionist strategies, dovetails with differences about the descriptive terminology and theoretical models used to explain the prejudice and hostility that meet overt same-sex desire, non-heterosexual and queer identities. This phenomenon has been described as `homophobic', `heterosexist' and, more recently, as `heteronormative' to signal the individual, structural and discursive reproduction of sexual prejudice (Weinberg, 1972; Herek, 1984; Adam, 1998). The situation of distinct groups can be either privileged or marginalized by the use of such different conceptual frameworks. Most notably, the major feminist understanding of the causes and patterns of violence in patriarchal societies which has been developed in the last three decades, leads to a persistent uncertainty as to whether there is any significant resemblance between violence directed at gay men and violence directed at lesbians. In fact, this understanding appears to vindicate separatist models of lesbian organizing against violence (O'Sullivan, 1997).

The problem of violence has provided a rallying point between Australian lesbians and gay men in recent years. …

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