Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Is It Homophobia or Homoppression?

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Is It Homophobia or Homoppression?

Article excerpt

UNTIL A GENERATION AGO, three of Canada's major social institutions were unanimous in judging nonheterosexuality as problematic, and stigmatizing LGBTQI individuals. The legal system condemned them as criminals, the religious system rebuked them as immoral, and the medical system classified them as mentally ill. Most notably, the American Psychiatric Association included all forms of nonheterosexuality in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the World Health Organization included homosexuality in its International Classification of Diseases.

In a fascinating case of social change, remarkable for its relatively rapid reversal of social norms, today same-sex marriage is legal, religious adherents are deeply divided by the issue of sexual orientation, and, if the diagnosis of homophobia is taken literally, those who object to homosexuality are now the ones suffering from mental infirmity. May 17, 2016 was the 12th annual International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, celebrated in over 120 countries.

A phobia is simply an irrational fear, or as Merriam-Webster puts it, "an extremely strong dislike or fear of someone or something; an exaggerated, usually inexplicable, and illogical fear of a particular object." More clinically, the DSM-5 lists phobia as an anxiety disorder. "Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat ... Individuals with specific phobia are fearful or anxious about or avoidant of circumscribed objects or situations" (American Psychiatric Association 2013:189).

As such, the term homophobia is very likely unfair to most of those so labeled in and by the public, despite its air of medical authority. Islamophobia, in contrast, is a more plausible assessment, though it too is usually employed to signify offense more than malady, to express accusation more than diagnosis. Indeed, Amanda Hess of the New York Times (2016) recently traced "How '--Phobic' Became a Weapon in the Identity Wars" on other cultural issues as well.

Perhaps some people do have a genuine fear of homosexuality, and the term remains suitable in rare cases. After all, psychotherapist George Weinberg's (1972) original formulation of the concept included not only irrational fear of homosexuality in others, but fear of homosexual feelings in oneself, and self-loathing because of one's own acknowledged homosexuality. But most persons in the Western societies of the global north who disapprove of nonheterosexuality probably do not fear or hate LGBTQI people, so it is equally unjust to deem them all pathetically scared "haters."

Their disapproval is moral and/or religious, and coming to the cognitive conclusion of moral disapproval does not necessarily elicit the emotion of fear or the sentiment of hate. To disapprove morally of whatever one defines as sin does not necessarily cause one to fear or hate those thereby defined as sinners. True, in the case of sexual orientation, it is not just the behavior of the other that is censured, but the very essence of their sexual being, whether their core desires are expressed behaviorally or not. Yet, even that does not add up to fear or hate.

Use of the term homophobia to describe the "disorder," and homophobic to describe the "disordered" is not only unfair, it is counterproductive. Tossed about as loosely as they are today, these terms are not only erroneous, but provocatively confrontational and adversarial. They reduce discourse about sexual orientation to a shouting match straining for the most inflammatory labels possible. As Hess (2016) put it, "fostering reflective dialogue is one way to go about advancing an agenda. Shaming your ideological opponents into silence is another," though it impedes progress rather than facilitating it. For level-headed, even-handed fair-mindedness to be exercised both ways, these neologisms need to be replaced with something more accurately descriptive and less judgmental. …

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