The Dark Heart of Homophobia

I’m riding the bus when we come to a stop near a local high school. Five teenage boys get on. They are all jocks—football, probably. Their jackets are emblazoned with varsity letters and they appear to be fresh from practice. Each carries an oversized duffel.

They are boisterous and full of menacing bravado. The bus is immediately overwhelmed with a rush of testosterone. As they move toward the back of the bus, they purposely jostle everyone in their path. They are rude and crude and every other word is fuck.

The bus lurches forward, and my fellow passengers instinctively know not to make eye contact. The older women clutch their belongings tight to their bosom. Everyone is tense.

The pack mentality emboldens the young men, who are flush with their newly discovered sense of male privilege. Hormones rage in their adolescent bodies, yet there is an awkward childishness about them too. They are alpha, but only in as much as they are part of a pack.

They have off-color comments for everyone around them. Girls are singled out for the most abuse. They make insinuations about their sexual prowess, while pawing at their groins. The women blush with embarrassment.

Despite being loud, obnoxious and brutish, they lack conviction. They giggle too much, indicating self-consciousness. It’s apparent that, at their core, they are still very uneasy about themselves, and have yet to grow into and own the alpha maleness they mimic.

The bus approaches the next stop, and several of us get up to exit. A nerdy boy with glasses and a violin case accidentally trips over one of the teen’s duffel bags. This is the spark. The jocks erupt, lunging at the offending kid. He is easy prey. He’s petrified, but his survival instincts kick in, and he quickly maneuvers further up the aisle. I grab his shoulder and push him toward the door ahead of me. He makes his escape.

Now I’m in the line of fire. The rear door is only a couple steps away, but I stand my ground. The jocks size me up. I’m not an easy mark; I’m older and more dominant than any of them as individuals, but they trump me as a group. I may even be dangerous. In a split-second, the teens reevaluate the situation and instead of coming at me, they try to take me down with their best verbal shot: “You motherfucking fag!”

I move to the door. This could end very badly for me, but I will not show any weakness. Adrenaline courses through my bloodstream. I alight from the bus, holding the door open so I can briefly yell back. “Hey, thanks for the recognition. Oh, and for your information, its father-fucking, brother-fucking and/or son-fucking fag, never mother-fucking. Get it?”

By the time the jocks realize what’s happened, the bus is in motion, and I am safe.

The teens thought better of physically attacking me, so they did the next best thing. It’s what most threatened males do: they tried to diminish the threat by calling into question my masculinity. And they do it in that time-honored way—by inferring I was a defective male, a queer, and a sissy. Trouble is, I am queer, and I owned it—right in their faces. On top of that, I stood up to them and even had the temerity to publicly shame them. So that had to be unsettling to them on several levels.

How did the derogatory epithet fag become the quintessential means of destroying the male ego? Why has the only somewhat less offensive slur, “that’s so gay,” become emblematic for everything stupid, negative or girly? These questions get to the root of our culture’s deeply ingrained homophobia.

I contend that homophobia is rooted in a fear and hatred of women. It’s no accident that when we want to denigrate a man we call him a pussy—the same word we use to refer to female genitals. In our culture, men are superior to women—it’s the oily by-product of male privilege. A man who falls short of this lofty ideal, or, god forbid, assumes a passive role in sex, cheapens the “privilege” for all other males. This is a particularly sensitive issue for ostensibly heterosexual men.

This prohibition is so deep-seated in our culture, one can trace its roots back to the Bible. Leviticus 20:13: “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death.” In biblical days, women were nothing more than chattel. For a man to behave like a woman—particularly in a passive, receptive sexual way—back then was an even greater insult to the male privilege than it is nowadays (which explains the whole capital punishment thing.)

Women are also objectified as sexual objects before men dominate them. A woman is not so much a person as she is a collection of parts—tits, pussy, ass, etc. A heterosexual man, familiar with and practiced in this dynamic, will not tolerate another male objectifying him as a sexual object, either real or imagined.

These cultural triggers are exceptionally easy to trip. With very little effort at all, we can debase a man simply by suggesting that there’s a whiff of the feminine about him or that his cock is small. In turn, the slandered male is burdened with proving the contrary, which often leads to overcompensation. To deflect suspicion, some men affect a macho bravado so as to appear even more masculine than their peers. And how better to do that than to suggest someone else is a pansy?

I can say for certain that all those boys on the bus had been, at one time or another, accused of being a fag. It’s exceedingly common in sports for even teammates to insinuate a fellow athlete is not performing up to expectations. Each of them must have known the sting of that reproach. Some may even have had self-doubt about their own sexual tendencies. That’s why they hurled at me what they knew would hurt any other self-respecting male the most.

What they didn’t count on was that I had, long ago, inoculated myself against this poison. I own, even revel, in my queer sexuality. An insult doesn’t work if the one insulted self-identifies as the slur.

Institutionalized homophobia, on the other hand, is more insidious. The dominant culture enshrines male privilege and, like the boys on the bus, punishes anyone who attempts to undercut the paradigm. Discrimination is so widespread, ingrained—and sometimes so subtle—that many non-gay people don’t even notice most of it. But those of us on the receiving end of the bigotry are keenly aware.

It’s a particularly acute problem for young people who know they are different, and different in a way that isn’t tolerated of by the dominant culture. They are much more vulnerable because they have yet to developed the emotional resources to counteract the oppression. They don’t yet realize that it’s society’s problem, not theirs. Their peers mercilessly persecute them. And for the most part, authority figures don’t even try to stop the torment. That’s why young gay people commit suicide at a rate of about seven times that of straight kids.

You may have noticed that I’ve framed this presentation in terms of the natural world. Dominant and submissive behaviors in other species often have sexual overtones, especially in other primate species. A dominant male will harass a male subordinate until he submits and presents his rump. This establishes a pecking order in the troupe: a subordinate male is submissive and the dominant male is in control.

Some straight men see gay men as a threat, instinctively fearing a supposed challenge to the established order of things; who is in control. It’s basically a struggle for dominance and troupe status. A gay person who is a productive member of society, who is indistinguishable from his heterosexual counterparts, ups the ante. He’s a threat to anyone who believes what he has been told all his life—that gays are perverted, miserable, lonely people who live short, desperate lives.

Institutionalized homophobia impacts so many aspects of our culture. It may be obvious how it skews our notions of sex and sexuality, of who can do what to whom and when. But did you know that it is often an underlying cause of much male sexual dysfunction? It also contaminates national policy in terms of public health issues, military readiness and the rights and freedoms we afford our citizenry. Most religious traditions force their priests, ministers and religious women and men to live duplicitous lives, which contradict the basic tenants of every religion. The business sector also suffers. Harassment and intimidation of gay workers result in loss of productivity costing businesses millions every year. But the most tragic is the toll it takes on individual relationships. Families are torn apart, friendships end, and people sometimes are killed or kill themselves over a futile and misguided attempt to uphold the status quo.

Make Up Your Mind!

Part 5 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology

This column concludes my series on Roman Catholic moral (sexual) theology. But before I move on to other topics I’d like to leave you with some tips on how you might make up your own mind when grappling with difficult moral issues.

In Part 1 of this series, A Key To Understanding Catholic Moral Theology, I talked about the cornerstone of all Catholic, and indeed all Christian, teaching — the principle of the primacy of one’s conscience. That is, you must follow the sure judgment of your conscience even when, through no fault of your own, it might be mistaken.

Tip 1 — When faced with a moral dilemma, start with some soul-searching. Your conscience is, in fact, your primary connection with your God. No law, dictum or dogma can take precedence over your conscience. I contend that we don’t need theologians to tell us what is right and wrong or what is just and unjust. We simply need to tap into that simple formula called the golden rule. Deal with others, as you would like others to deal with you. That pretty much covers everything.

As we’ve seen in this series, much of Catholic moral theology is shame based. Shaming is a very effective means of regulating an individual’s behavior so that it conforms to the mores of the group. But capitulating to shame is never the same thing as acting morally. In fact, in many situations the moral thing to do is to stand against the prevailing opinions of the group.

Tip 2 — Try to unravel the system that instills the shame. If you go back to the source of the shaming you will, most likely, discover the reason why the shaming continues. I gave you a good example of this in Part 1 of this series. “To get a handle on Catholic moral theology one must first grasp the depth and breath of it’s institutionalized misogyny.“ Once you uncover the root of the shame you can demythologize it. This will free you up to form your moral decisions less encumbered with dubious communal mores.

Guilt-based theology is dependent on demonizing people or behaviors. When people blindly accept what they are told, they perpetuate the communal mores even if they are unjust or intolerant. Sometimes this becomes so extreme that whole groups of people are vilified often using only stereotypes as evidence of their wrongdoing.

As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, Sins Of The Flesh, it all begins with language. That’s “wrong”, “dirty”, “bad”, “disordered”, “unnatural” or “intrinsically evil”. In short order this incendiary language becomes a rallying cry that inevitably sets in motion active persecution. Moral maturity, on the other hand, demands that each of us take responsibility for our judgments and prejudices. If nothing more, this process of owning our biases slows down our rush to judgment.

Tip 3 — When faced with a shaming statement, like “that’s wrong”, it’s incumbent upon us ask why it’s wrong and who is making that judgment call. Because if something is “wrong” that means there must be a “right” way. But who gets to determine that, and what are the criteria for making that judgment?

“That’s dirty, disordered, unnatural or intrinsically evil!” Are some body parts or some sexual behaviors more wholesome, more in keeping with the natural order, than others? Again, whose prejudices are at work here?

I suggest that theologians aren’t competent to offer the definitive interpretation of the natural world, but even if they were, we still should ask. How much of your “natural/unnatural” worldview is culturally induced and dependent? Remember, it was once anathema to suggest that the world is round and not the center of the universe.

Finally, Catholicism is not a club. Despite what the hardliners say, lock-step adherence to every facet of church dogma is not what determines ecclesial fellowship. Baptism is! Catholic Christianity is a faith community. That means it’s a living, breathing, malleable thing. Just as I pointed out in Part 4 of this series, Seismic Shift, even the Pope must, from time to time, bow to the currents of culture, history and science.

Tip 4 — Questioning systemic injustice or intolerance in the Church is the right, nay the responsibility, of every believer. And if you find yourself at odds with Church authorities on moral issues, know you are not alone. Catholic women and men of conscience have always been a voice of dissent within the church. Their loyal opposition is precisely what helps keep the hierarchy honest.

Of course the flip side of taking a conscientious stand against the institution can often result in ostracism, shunning and persecution as I pointed out in Part 3 of this series, Sacred Cows. But then again, no one ever said embracing gospel values was gonna be easy.