Thursday, February 28, 2008

Homophobia and Anti-Semitism

During the "ask any question, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics" section of class yesterday, a male student asked why other men were made uncomfortable by his conversing with them from a stall in the men's room. The discussion opened up to explain the intricate set of rules required in making the socially acceptable choice in selecting a urinal given the urinals currently in use. The young women in the class were stunned by the entire scheme. When the student who raised the question asked for the underlying explanation for these bizarre gender-specific customs, the answer was obvious...homophobia.

It set me to thinking about it. In the case of bias and bigotry against Jews, we use the term anti-Semitism. Our usage stems from Wilhelm Marr who used it (Antisemitismus) to replace the notion of hatred of Jews (Judenhass) because the latter is a mere personal attitude while the latter makes reference to indelible cultural lineage which was useful to Marr in trying to sociologically ground his beliefs in the inferiority of Jews. The ploy, of course, is veiled so thinly that it is clear that the term anti-Semitism maintains its connotation of hatred.

But in the case of bias against gay men and lesbians, the term we use is homophobia, fear of homosexuals. Fear, not hate, is the etymological basis for the word. In both cases, there are prejudices and injustices, but the differentiation does seem meaningful. There is no doubt that there is much hatred directed towards homosexuals, but it is also true that fear is involved in a way completely different from the way Jews are treated by anti-Jewish bigots.

The question, then, is in the bathroom scenario, where is the fear directed? There is a sense of unease that is clearly connected with some fear, but what are men afraid of? Is it an other directed fear of gay men themselves and of what they may do to you? Is it a fear of being thought to be gay yourself, in other words, not a fear of others who are gay, but, rather, a fear of being included in the oppressed group whether or not you are? In this way, it would be a fear of being oppressed by an unfair social structure, not necessarily a fear of anything having to do with homosexuality itself aside from the fact that gay men are in the undesirable group. Is it an inward-directed fear of one's own sexuality, a sense that there is something uncontrollable in our sexual desires and a concern that one might actually be gay? In the case of arachnophobia, we understand why people are afraid of spiders -- they can bite and hurt you -- but what exactly is the source of the phobia in homophobia? What are homophobes afraid of?