Well, eventually, everyone has to face this subject. I have put it off as long as I could, but some comments made in a book have prompted me to attempt to cast my thoughts into the ring.
There is a great confusion about homophobia because some gay people tend to label all opposition to gay matters by this word. This is a grave mistake and one we must correct, otherwise true debate will be stifled. Obviously there are genuine objectors out there. On the other hand there are some people who object to the very idea of homophobia, apparently believing that all objections to homosexuality are purely rational – and that is equally nonsense.
So where do we start? Lets start with definitions. My dictionary – dated in the eighties – does not even show the word. This confirms that there is still much confusion about the term. It can be used with all sorts of different meanings – and be a trigger for many muddled arguments.
Let us define what we mean – for the purpose of this article - by homophobia. I am going to use my own definition and then explain why I use it.
I define homophobia as:
“an irrational dislike or hate of homosexual people or of anything to do with homosexuality.”
Let me try to explain that. If someone objects to homosexuality or to gay people, it may be because of a perfectly rational objection. I believe they are perfectly entitled to so object. They have reached a certain viewpoint by a process of thought. I do not necessarily agree with them, but it is their genuine viewpoint.
Other people, however, have an irrational hatred or fear of homosexuality and this drives them, even if they are totally unaware of their prejudice. These people are homophobic.
The degree of homophobia may be slight, average or excessive. We have to gauge that when we test the person’s reaction.
So then how does homophobia show itself?
It is revealed in a person’s response to homosexuality or to gay people. Often they are uncomfortable. Sometimes they will flush and get angry. Sometimes they will become sarcastic or cutting in their speech. One way or another they show that there is a lot of emotion trapped beneath the surface and they are struggling to hold it in.
If a homophobe is in a discussion about homosexuality they will probably become heated and maybe even violent. They may give rational reasons for their dislike, or they may be irrational. They may well appeal to ‘nature’ – saying that it is natural to dislike what (for them) is ‘unnatural’.
Sometimes a homophobe cannot even bear to shake hands with a gay person. Sometimes they want to have nothing to do with them. The greater the emotional reaction in the homophobe, the more one suspects that there is deep emotional struggle going on inside them.
Homophobia comes in all shapes and sizes. But the vast majority of homophobes are ordinary people who are infected with the disease without even being aware of it. Of course some people have it worse than others. Those with only a mild form are more open to discussion, but it is hard for any homophobe to change.
It is the early conditioning that often decides a person’s instinctive reaction to the idea of homosexuality. They may be ordinary and gentle people, but still be deeply homophobic. It is an inbuilt thing and cannot be shifted by reason. Many are Christians and their attitude contributes to the idea that many Christians are ‘against’ gay people. The truth is simply that many Christians have been brought up to consider homosexuality as evil, perverted, dishonourable and something that nice people don’t discuss.
It is because there is this latent homophobia in so many of the population (and especially the Christian population) that we have laws against discrimination. It has been recognized that people only change such views very slowly, if at all. Hence there are laws aimed at preventing prejudice against gay people. Racism is another attitude deeply embedded in people (especially older people) which has needed legislation.
So what can we say about the causes of homophobia?
The first and crucially important point is: it is quite possible that the severe reactions by the homophobe may stem from a previous inner struggle concerning their own sexuality. It could be that that person was drawn towards homosexuality – in perhaps a mild form – at an earlier stage in their lives. Their response (instilled into them, often, by the family, friends or society around them) to the inner feelings was one of shame. They turned away from any thought of homosexuality, with an emotional rejection of the very idea. This was a decision they made - possibly on the grounds of what they had been taught earlier as children.
Having recognized that they were tempted and having resisted the temptation, they are in a position to say ‘no’ to any future attraction of that sort. But because they felt shame – perhaps even disgust – they thrust the whole idea deep down within themselves. So when the subject comes up, their memory recalls the emotional struggle and the shame they felt, and reproduces the same effect again. The person thus feels strongly – as a gut feeling – that they want nothing to do with homosexuality. So much so, they don’t even want to meet a gay person or discuss it.
Sometimes, however, the repressed feelings go in a different direction – that of fascination with the subject. Clearly they are drawn to the idea of homosexuality, but they have programmed themselves (or were programmed) to resist it. But they are playing with the idea. When discussing it they can satisfy that part of themselves that wants to reject it, by saying how much they hate it etc, but at the same time they can cater for their interest in the whole subject by continuing the discussion.
Lets summarize :
Homophobia is an aversion (weak or strong) to things or people homosexual.
That aversion may be caused by some form of emotional struggle at some previous time in the life of the person.
That aversion can take them out of contact and discussion with gay people, or it can propel them into more discussion and possible contact with gay people.
Now we see why the whole subject is fraught with problems! Any two people discussing homosexuality may be at any stage along these lines – and it is likely that any discussion they have will be largely unproductive.
On the other hand it is perfectly possible for a person to decide in their minds that they consider homosexuality a moral evil (or a sickness, or a failure to grow up etc), without there being any deep emotional reaction going on inside them.
Having cleared the air, so to speak, so that we are clearer about what we are discussing, perhaps we need to observe that a homophobe is often unaware of his homophobia. He may be utterly unaware that he is harbouring deep emotional conflict deep within himself about the whole subject.
This is where the problems begin to creep in. Because there are many, many Christians who are taking a stand on some doctrine or other against homosexuality but who are quite unaware that for them the whole subject is actually an emotional one.
They think they are being objective. In fact they are homophobic.
How can we distinguish? It is hard, but the clue is how much emotion is involved in the person’s attitude. If they are strongly opposed, it is as well to at least question exactly why they feel so strongly. If they think homosexuality is an abomination, then it is as well to find out whether they are simply following biblical language, or whether they actually feel that it is an abomination.
The age of a person may sometimes be a helpful guide. Generally you will find that it is the older section of the population that has problems with homosexuality. Why? Because they were brought up in a world where homosexuality was not only seen as morally evil and illegal, but also the whole subject of sex was not talked about – it was a forbidden subject. Homosexuality was rarely referred to – and then only obliquely.
Older people have problems with the whole idea of a gay relationship being blessed by God. I recently heard a Vicar’s wife say that she thought that God might ‘understand’, but she could not go so far as to say that God would bless the relationship. Her husband was shocked at the very idea, and saw the gay problems in the Church as a sign of the decadent times.
Young people usually know several gay friends – and they are not shocked by the idea, nor are they brainwashed into some biblical doctrine or practice.
The question arises – can a homophobe change? I am afraid that my answer is: very little and very seldom.
Whether they can change or not depends to some extent on the cause of their homophobia. By and large those with an aversion to the subject of homosexuality or to gay people will be unable to change. Certainly they will not change through argument.
The more one argues with them, the more they become settled in their viewpoint.
The only hope is that homophobes can begin to see themselves as they really are – that is the best hope of a beginning of change. You are dealing with very deepseated emotions here and change is both difficult and painful.
This is why the present dispute in the Church of England will get nowhere. Neither side will change. There are many homophobic Christians (and some genuine objectors) opposing the inevitable move towards acceptance of gay people. They will not change. And they certainly will not change through argument or even discussion.
The only way forward seems to be either outright division, or living in separate compartments in the Church. Eventually, when young people get into positions of power in the councils of the Church we may see the necessary change come. But that may take several decades.
Homophobia is very clearly evident to gay people – they see it all the time. It is evident in the Church – and especially in the evangelical wing of the church. Whenever someone ‘hates’ the idea of homosexuality, there you have cause to look for traces of homophobia.
This situation is a fact of life and we may as well get used to it. There is no point in pretending that things are going to work out well. There is a long hard slog ahead, before British Christians mature to the point that they can believe that God blesses all loving couples – including gays.