Homophobia and the Denial of Human Rights: "It Is Not My Place to Find Others' Relationships Agreeable or Offensive."

Article excerpt

HOMOPHOBIA AND THE DENIAL OF HUMAN RIGHTS: "It is not my place to find others' relationships agreeable or offensive."

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I'll rise.

(Angelou, 1978)

Sexual orientation matters in America. It matters a lot. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals are routinely the recipients of personal insults, ostracism, violence, and institutional discrimination in areas of employment, housing, and marriage to name a few. Our legal system does not offer remedies for homosexual oppression. Rather it perpetuates it.

In June of 1996, the United States Senate denied legal recognition of same-sex marriages, a major setback for homosexual rights. Even more disturbing was the Senate's narrow decision to reject "an attempt to bar employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation" (Healy, 1996). These decisions enjoy popular support, suggesting that Americans have a wide variety of negative sterotypes, fears and prejudices regarding homosexuality. Furthermore, while much of the media attention focuses on the most brutal violations of gay rights, it is our impression that more subtle and pervasive stereotypes, fears and prejudices are also part of the belief systems of many people - including those in college. This paper examines homophobia among college students.

Our study grows out of a course conducted at a major public university during the winter quarter of 1996. The purpose of the class, "Inter-Group Conflict and Prejudice," was to explore racism, classism, and homophobia and to focus on how prejudice, stereotypes, guilt and fears play out in students' daily lives and in the classroom. The students read and discussed a wide range of personal and theoretical materials in assigned books, 2 films 3 and articles, while learning about some of the causes and effects of discrimination and oppression at the institutional level. The main objective of the course was to encourage the students to confront their own racist, sexist, and homophobic feelings, ideas, and stereotypes of the "other."

Because the course description mainly emphasized racism, many of the students did not expect to be faced with issues of homosexual oppression. In fact, the sexual orientation aspect of the course evolved somewhat incidentally. While the professor had planned to address homophobia, and had assigned three articles on the subject, 4 the discussion evolved into something far greater than he had envisioned. Originally scheduled for one or two class sessions, the topic demanded over two weeks of class time. Thus, quite fortuitously many of the students' attitudes toward homosexuality, and their positions on gay and lesbian issues, were significantly challenged.

Understanding that the class depends partly on student interaction, the professor's approach was to be open to whomever was in the classroom. He had taught this course twice before, but in neither class did homosexual oppression become a predominant issue or have the same transforming effects. One reason for this may be because there had been no openly gay students in the earlier classes to challenge some of the misconceptions of heterosexual students. We surmise that the main reason for the enthusiasm of this particular class was due to the presence of two very outspoken lesbian students, as well as the presence of a few extreme fundamentalist Christians whose contributions generated a great deal of debate.

The course assumed that everyone in the class was racist, sexist and homophobic, including the professor. The professor's perspective was that simply reading about and analyzing sexism or elitism, as they operate in social structures, was "safe" because they are "out there" in the world. He took the more demanding position that racism, sexism, elitism, and homophobia are "right here" in the classroom, in the students' heads, attitudes and feelings. …