WHERE DOES HOMO-HATRED COME FROM?

 

            "Everybody hated homosexuals, and so did I," Joe Steffan writes astonishingly in an early passage of his Honor Bound, just before he could see his own mountain range appear on the horizon.

            Why have people condemned and hated homosexuals so consistently, at least until very recently?

            There are many glib answers. Men tend to be more "homophobic" than women, and a simple explanation is that homosexuality reminds men that they can fail in their own attempts at initiation and penetration. It reminds them that they can become vulnerable and powerless. What particularly disturbs some men is the idea that submission (even plain tenderness) can actually be enjoyed erotically, almost as a reverse template for some sort of new meaning for one's life.

            A related answer can be found in religion. Homosexuality complicates things in an already difficult world, and moral ambiguity makes people feel even more insecure. To return to moral absolutes putatively laid out in the Bible, to enjoy the smug assurance of unearned salvation comforts many not especially competent people.

            Then, there are the rationalizations, often more hinted than directly stated. Gays (especially men) are seen as freeloaders, spending their resources on themselves eschewing the obligations that go with their genders, such as to bravely offer their lives for women and children and to marry and become committed parents. More recently (in the 1980's) dangerous public health arguments arose. Of course, these can all be debated by careful understanding of the facts.

            In fact, homosexuality, in the context of today's culture, indeed challenges the automaticity of the nuclear family and its comforts. It seems to offer a more self-serving alternative to a lifetime of psychological (not just sexual) fidelity to family members who may often not offer what one wants out of interpersonal relationships. It seems to question the simple assumption that the deepest questions about one's interpersonal existence are to be settled by, say, age twenty-five by a wedding night consummation. It seems poised to distract and tempt young men away from the automated patterns of initiative that supposedly lead to aesthetically realistic and procreative lifelong commitments of a very re-engineered emotional heart. It looks like an easy way out!

            My own personal experience of three decades can illustrate some of this. I will, at times, tend to see a particular person as exciting and seek the company of that person. I may sense that I cannot return to that person the ideal I see in him, and bank more on what I can bring to the interaction in the way of intellectual insights and outlook. Especially rewarding to me is that a person "gets it" when I interact with him. I will value occasional but discontinuous contact with the person, and then value retreat into my own space. Intermittence is the other side of quality. I would rather spend just some time with a person whom I truly would want to "be like" (or to have been like) than have a partner relationship with a "compromise." Sure, this process is what George Gilder used to call "upward affiliation."

            This sounds brutal. Who am I to "judge" someone for being just who he is, you say - well I do judge him for the point of my own interaction with him. Oh, this does sound like the scenario of Love and Death on Long Island or even Death in Venice. But "love" is very much a transitive verb. In it's highest sense, it means having the best interests of another person at heart, whether or not this requires "being with" the person. But it also has a costly side. If I love someone, then he represents in some maximal way what I value and responds to what I can teach him. It's all too easy for someone to fall off a pedestal with behavior he feels is innocuous but which I perceive as self-deceiving or gradually self-destructive. Can I morally demand this of others before meeting their own needs on their own level?

            Most people cannot afford to engage in this psychological peeking and copying. In fact, it seems that "society" cannot afford to let them! Most adults "define themselves" with a "family first" policy. ("I love you more than anyone else.") Most people will fight hard to keep an intimate continuous relationship that they think somehow defines them. Keeping your marriage is supposed to he the highest priority. People often do not have enough inner resources of their own to contemplate being alone for long periods. It is a matter of legitimate debate, whether the individual sacrifices demanded by conventional family life are overrun eventually by the growth that should occur from continuously meeting the real needs of others and the knowledge that one is needed. One price of family life, however, is that varied intimacy (psychological, not necessarily sexual) with "non family" others is definitely "put in its place" and made back-burner. On the other hand, the single person has a better handle on relations of psychological (not necessarily genital) intimacy with a number of special people: and this is definitely not an exercise in communally "loving everybody."

            Of course. men don't marry and become fathers deliberately just because of "obligation." They fall into the "tender trap": it starts with aggressive sexual interest and grows into a sensation that a lifetime female partner and children can, paradoxically, bring a sense of completion. Sexuality generates a panoply of human interactions and expressions with psychological products ranging from art to daily care-taking. Both homosexual and heterosexual attraction is filled with paradox, particularly as they approach psychological mating and contemplation of long term commitment. But many people have the (rather mistaken) impression that homosexuals can love only those persons who are exciting from the beginning and only as long as they stay exciting; homosexual values putatively would put less able people in the position of never finding a partner.

            So here we come back to "fear" of gays, particularly gay men. Even contemplation of homosexual opportunity sounds like spoiling your dinner with dessert first. Who wants a humdrum lifelong "marriage" if one has tasted the forbidden fruit of peak experience, however temporary. Of course, heterosexuals experience this puzzlement all the time (an extreme example is the all too frequent stalking of female celebrities by unbalanced heterosexual men), and some homosexuals (even men) do form lifelong relationships. Still, the notion that homosexuality can invoke narcissism seems to make this particularly a temptation, a forbidden fruit, for male homosexuality. It provokes the impression that young men can be "ruined" so that they will never enjoy "normal" procreative heterosexuality and never willingly dedicate themselves to family life.

            Indeed, this is the moral milieu entertained by the values of such entities of the Boy Scouts and (formally speaking) the United States military. You "don't tell" so others can live with themselves and function (in committed marital sexuality) day after day with reasonable comfort in themselves. Even so, this notion of morality raises interesting questions. It suggests that many of us are better off living within the aesthetic boundaries and limitations of our commitments. But is this "moral value" really a "sweet lemons" rationalization? If it's immoral to even want something (or somebody) we don't have to deal with disappointment and even rejection (particularly when this morality can be implemented onto others). The same could be said of "moral" notions derived through blind fidelity to external authority: religion.

The homophobia-"family values" nexus links back to a deep public distrust of the intuitively obvious case for personal sovereignty or "self-ownership." If the man-woman nuclear family is to maintain a special place in our culture, it follows that gay men and lesbians are in some ways second-class citizens who will be expected, at least, to subsidize the efforts of "real families" to raise children and who may be excluded from critical functions in society, like the military. Perhaps many gay men and lesbians make up for this by spending more resources on themselves. Because of their social eccentricity, they may feel that, relative to conventionally married straight people, they are more in touch with their real inner selves regardless of the social supports they may or may not receive. Again, shouldn't people define their internal psychological cores first and then use interpersonal relationships to reinforce (even visually or symbolically) their own individual values? The trouble with this may be, that average people in a real world need the discipline and guidance of real commitments to others, commitments, usually experienced through the family and perhaps church, not always completely chosen on strictly personal criteria.

The debate over whether sexuality can be "chosen" raises an interesting paradox. The Left (when it harps on immutability and comparisons to color) sometimes makes it sound like homosexuality would be immoral if it could be chosen. The far Right sounds like it fears heterosexuality is a fundamentally irrational individual "choice" that is necessary just for society collectively. People committed to raising families do tend to succeed in efforts requiring public approval and numerical results (such as conventional career ladders); the non-conformists tend to excel in their own artistic efforts (although there is the "Mahler exception.") People who don't achieve any particular recognition from the world (or from themselves) can live with the moderato satisfaction of family ties. There is another twist to this "axiom of choice." If homosexual interest can be "chosen," then so can heterosexual courtship, procreation and parenthood. Both choices have moral consequences not always immediately visible; can we learn to live with a psychological diversity in which personal choices spin out little comets that once in a while bounce into each other like billiard balls on a pool table?

            Some people on the political Left want to stop debate on the "morality" of homosexuality. It should be very simple: homosexuality is a benign immutable trait, and homosexuals suffer from discrimination which should be remedies in civil rights laws just as it is for currently recognized minorities. But homosexuality may indeed be a complex personality or character trait with voluntary components. Then the question to debate is, should people have the basic right to choose willing adult partners according to their own values? Indeed, some "liberal" rhetoric denying choice suggests that a same-sex partner choice, if it really were free-willed, might be of questionable morality. Some may claim, allowing or enshrining this "right" hurts "society" and the disadvantaged and "unlovables." That kind of argument becomes increasingly suspect when you look at the evidence. Still, it needs to be answered. Then, if adult intimacy becomes such a basic right, does it need merely to shielded from government meddling (sodomy laws, military ban, marriage laws) or does it need affirmative, civil-rights style protection? In any case, equal political rights "on paper" - even in a Candide-perfect world, would hardly scratch the diamond surface of the moral pandora's box of the way we attach importance to other people. Gay men, particularly, may sometimes find themselves personally better off with a kind of "dynamic," rather than theoretical, equality that respects the creative experiments with love and power.

***

Is there some succinct way to “summarize” this?  It is possible to confuse knee-jerk “homophobia,” derived directly from male failure of penetrative sexual performance, with a certain philosophical viewpoint which runs underneath homophobia but remains poorly articulated.  So here we go: Homosexuals (particularly men) and the politicians helping them are denying the “obvious” problems with homosexual conduct and values (and deliberately hiding these problems within a dubious notion-“object” of “immutability”). These problems include an unpredictable downstream hazard to public health, an evasion of the gender-related obligations that any civilization must demand, and a narcissistic value system that logically implies that people, once they can no longer take care of themselves or particularly “turn others on” should go out in the cold to die, like mice after eating poison.  All of this is stated in the subjunctive. One could make the same comments about a lot of heterosexual society, and one could rebut these points. In fact, as a younger man I tremendously resented the automaticity of the heterosexual “family” and the way that the family seemed like a convenient cover for men who had let themselves go but who somehow expected reward for competence in heterosexual performance.  But what bridges obligation to responsible private choice seems, to many people, to be the proper direction of sexual energy and personal motivation (“what makes you tick”) into the nuclear agape-loving family; otherwise obligations really become burdens, exercises in “paying your dues.”  The other big bridge, of course, would be religious faith—when construed as a humility about approaching one’s own purposes in the face of “God’s will.”   The story of the last fifty years is the graduation deregulation of the individual psyche.  Increased personal responsibility must go with that, and this responsibility may well include proving that one can take care of others.  The new individualism allows more expressive “private choice” including sexual choice but demands more inflexible personal accountability and still recognizes common social obligations as spontaneously ordered “rules.”  

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