About a week or so ago, I read a very thought-provoking post on a wonderful blog by Clare Flourish. We got to talking in the comment section about the terms “homophobic” and “oppressive,” and I’ve been musing on the subject ever since.
Clare provided a link to an article about Joel Edwards, the general director of the Evangelical Alliance, in which Edwards discusses the need for a dialogue regarding religion and sexuality. I was most struck by Edwards’ frustration at being labeled homophobic for holding the beliefs he does.
I’m not sure about the term “homophobe.” I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it for quite a while now–long before I read this article. It’s a scary word. It sounds terrible. It is terrible.
Some people and organizations are without a doubt homophobic: the Westboro Baptist Church being the most obvious (and most disgusting) and first to come to mind.
If someone actively persecutes/uses hateful speech towards/acts violently towards LGBT people, though, then yes, I will label them homophobic without reservation.
But what about the others? The ones who think same-sex sex is a sin, but believe that all human beings deserve dignity and respect, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity? [Sidenote: Sorry, but, if you think we deserve dignity and respect, why exactly won't you grant us equal rights?] The ones who think it is a sin, but otherwise treat LGBT persons as well as they treat non-LGBT persons? Are they homophobic?
I can almost guarantee that these people themselves would insist that they are not homophobic–that it’s simply a belief about sexuality and, as such, applicable to all sexual acts that they deem immoral, be they hetero- or homosexual.
But the following question comes to mind: Why would someone actively contribute to an oppressive system? Surely, I answer myself, it must stem from homophobia–whether conscious or subconscious. I mean, what other answer is there? There’s zero evidence that same-sex marriage or equal rights for LGBT people would destroy society, destroy families, or be the end of civilization as we know it. So what is it? Fear of change? Fear of inclusion? Fear of losing power? (Yes, I answer myself again.)
Nonetheless, I am reluctant to call someone or some organization homophobic, because that seems like something on which I cannot make a judgment call. Are they homophobic? Are they claustrophobic? Are they afraid of failure? I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say. I can’t see inside their minds.
Some people may treat LGBT people the same way they treat everyone else. They may quietly and privately hold the belief that same-sex sex is sinful. But if they vote to deny us marriage equality? That’s oppressive. And that’s when it starts to matter. That’s when your beliefs start to affect how I live my life.
I am more inclined to use the term “oppressive” in place of “homophobic.” That anti-gay-rights stances are oppressive is, in my opinion, indisputable–because “anti-gay-rights” means “anti-equal-rights,” which means denying some humans beings the rights that others are granted. It means telling a group of human beings that they do not deserve what the others have, that their love and their sexual orientation is not as good, not as okay, not as normal and acceptable as others’. LGBT people suffer from systemic, institutionalized, and internalized oppression.
It’s a much simpler claim to defend. Why are you oppressive? Well, here’s why. I can explain what makes a viewpoint oppressive. I can explain how oppression works. It’s much more difficult to explain to someone that they hate or fear LGBT people.
I am reluctant to call people homophobic especially in cases in which I suspect a person is only subconsciously homophobic, when it has been ingrained in them by society or institutions but is not an active hatred or fear (yet still prompts them to take oppressive stances). To say, “You are homophobic,” to someone is inflammatory and will probably get us nowhere. It causes a mental block, creates a lack of willingness to hear each other out, an immediate barrier. It probably feels like an attack.
Perhaps equal rights activists jump too quickly to calling people homophobic. Perhaps this is unfair. In the article, Edwards expresses frustration at being called homophobic, as I said before. I think it’s fair that he be frustrated, but honestly? I don’t blame people for calling him homophobic. I don’t blame people for taking offense at his views, which belittle our experience and devalue our identity. I don’t blame them.
I’m not one to advocate fighting fire with fire. But I almost want to ask him, what does he expect?