We must study homophobes rather than Gay people! As I have previously written:
“I can certainly see the validity of studies as to why some people love war and others love peace; why some people are sadistic and others are not; why some people take advantage of others and others don’t; why some people prey on others and others don’t; why some people are homophobic and others are not, but I can’t understand why studies of the causes of sexual orientation are viewed as being so important.”
Here, I want to address what I consider to be some of the major psychological and social dynamics that provide the roots as well as the payoffs of homophobia and its expressions.
“Phobia,” of course, means “fear!” So when we speak of “homophobia,” we are essentially speaking about fear of Gay people and/or fear of one’s being Gay.
Externalized and internalized homophobia [“At his new church, Ted Haggard said he will teach that God intended marriage to be a monogamous union of a man and a woman.”] are manifestations of a basic fear, often deeply rooted in one’s unconscious mind, that one is what he/she has been trained by all too many clergy and others to view as something loathsome; so, to counteract and neutralize that feeling, anger and even rhetorical and/or physical aggression are often used as defense mechanisms.
That anger and aggression can be directed at Gay people themselves or, in the case of one who is Gay or “fears” he/she is Gay, that anger can and often is inwardly directed (And can also often be outwardly directed at Gay people as well.), in many cases culminating in counterproductive and risk-taking behavior, and even suicide among those who are internally homophobic.
Moreover, the all-too-frequent use of hateful epithets (queer, dyke, fag, tranny, etc.) as self-identifiers is another manifestation of recognized or unrecognized internalized homophobia! Hence, it is no surprise that in the case where internalized homophobia exists, actions counterproductive to the struggle for LGBT equality can be seen to exist, and even occur at precisely those times when equal rights are before the courts and in the public eye.
In this connection, I don’t think that it’s any accident that such phenomena as the Folsom Street Fair, the Million Fag March, and the seeming increase of frivolous, if not onerous, content in assorted Gay-themed media, occurs at this particular juncture in American history when DADT, DOMA, ENDA, and Prop. 8 are being discussed and adjudicated in both the political and judicial arenas. Such counterproductive, if not traitorous, behavior are signs of often unrecognized internalized homophobia!
Internalized and externalized homophobia are both congruent with fear, and are caused by fear; that homophobia (and its manifestations) is, in itself, an instrument or defense mechanism that one uses to minimize the fear and/or shame of one’s being Gay, or even used to minimize the generalized fear of the unknown, that resides in the homophobe’s own psyche.
As Sigmund Freud asserted, the unconscious is not merely a passive part of our personality. Rather, it is comprised of all sorts of tempestuous forces, often “unspeakable” drives and urges, that one cannot afford to bring to consciousness in order to maintain his/her ego-integrity his/her sense of self.
“In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.”
These “unacceptable” and “unpleasant” feelings, conflicts, and anxieties that reside in the “Id,” the “unconscious,” are usually repressed by the psyche. However, when those unpleasant feelings, conflicts, and anxieties threaten to come to consciousness, all sorts of defense mechanisms are used to keep those feelings suppressed, not the least of which is denial; when denial is impossible, anger and aggression (externalized and/or internalized) usually become manifest.
When one’s unconscious anxieties and fears are threatened to be manifested in their nakedness, the result is often anger and aggression so as to repress and suppress those anxieties and fears; that repression and suppression cause homophobes to both live inauthentic and self-defeating lives on the one hand, and also fool themselves into believing that they are intact human beings on the other hand.
And, of course, nothing could be further from the truth! One cannot live an inauthentic and/or self-defeating life and also be emotionally intact!
Repression and suppression of sexuality as a price we all pay to live in civil society, as alleged by Freud, is dramatically fueled by religion that seeks to maintain the status quo, and maintain its moral hegemony over others; even over people’s self-concept that in reality is not usually in line with the truth of one’s tempestuous psyche that screams to get out of its repressed state.
And, tragically, it is often “homophobia” (and its manifestations) that is used as a defense mechanism that helps keep the person’s frustrations, urges, and other tempestuous forces that reside in the unconscious repressed and suppressed. Hence, the virtual impossibility of educating the strident homophobe into seeing that being Gay is a normal sexual orientation.
It seems to me that among many people there is an inordinate need for certainty in this uncertain world, and this phenomenon is no less true when we speak of one’s psychic world. Hence, the seduction of “fundamentalism,” be it in religious life or in secular life.
As I wrote in an article entitled, “The Illusion of Certainty” (“Whosoever,” March/April 2009):
“When one is afraid, one usually doesn’t have the psychic energy to empathize with another person, particularly when it is felt that the other person might conceivably be a “burden” in one way or another. Chronic fear, like any other type of neurosis, breeds self-absorption and, therefore, makes it rather unlikely that that person will seek to help out another person, since virtually all of that person’s psychic energy is being spent on “keeping it together.” And, fundamentalism’s success is that is does, in fact, help those who are fearful of life, of ambiguity, of the unknown, and of the complex multidimensional aspects of life and of God, keep it together.’
For many people, fundamentalism is a desperately needed form of psychotherapy! This fact is not all bad! Most of us want safe places, safe havens, in which to rest, even if it means having our complex and existential problems addressed by a simple Bible verse, or by a rather trite remark such as, “God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle.”
This illusion of certainty, although it serves a needed psychological and social purpose for many of those who seek out fundamentalism, has another, much more dangerous, downside. Fundamentalism, by its very nature, requires that there be scapegoats! In the fundamentalist frame of mind, there has to be an “us,” and for there to be an “us” there has to be a “them.” And the current “them,” the enemy de jour, is LGBT people!
The psychological need for certainty morphs over to the social need for bonding with like-minded believers. Therefore, it’s “us” against “them!” Anyone who is viewed as not seeing God, the Bible, or the world as that person does is viewed as the outsider, the enemy. In my experience, many people in fundamentalist churches don’t even see those who go to “progressive” (Seeking to apply biblical principles, rather than apply every biblical and cultural practice, to contemporary social problems and issues.) churches as being ‘Christian.'”
So, homophobia, beyond reflecting one’s often unconscious anxieties and fears, being an attempt to neutralize those anxieties and fears, repressing and suppressing one’s own often sexual anxieties and fears, also serves a vital social function, as homophobic rhetoric and/or actions is often a powerful medium that brings like-minded people together into an in-group, such as exists in much of the institutionalized Church that is often characterized by incestuous socialization.
And that in-group’s cohesion is increased in proportion to the homophobic rhetoric that addresses that level of fear provoked by Gay people; fear of the tempestuous forces in one’s unconscious mind. Hence, strident homophobia cements in-group solidarity which is another powerful payoff for insecure one-dimensional thinkers who seek to impose their own prejudices onto others, and often fallaciously do so in the name of God!
Homophobia is a fear inculcated largely by religious forces in society that are undeservedly given credibility as having the right to take the moral high ground when dealing with love and sex but, ironically, not given that same level of credibility when dealing with poverty and war. This very phenomenon shows both the selectivity used when adhering to religious sentiments, as well as the intensity of the unconscious (and sometimes conscious) drives that create and exacerbate homophobia, as well as the role that religion itself plays, and is allowed to play, in facilitating homophobia and its expression.
So, in addition to psychological payoffs provided by homophobia and its expression, social payoffs are provided by homophobia and its expression, as when creating an out-group, in-group solidarity is increased. Hence, deeply felt needs to belong, to be liked, to feel in control when the unconscious tells the fearful homophobe that he/she is really not in control, are deeply felt needs that the expression of homophobia seeks to address, even if it causes untold amounts of suffering to countless numbers of LGBT people and their families.
And, to add insult to injury, showing the level of desperation of homophobes in attempts to justify their position, all sorts of irrational and false “justifications” for homophobia are presented, such as same-sex marriage being “a threat to the family,” “Gay people being a threat to our children,” “same-sex couples not being able to raise emotionally healthy children,” “being Gay is a sin,” etc. These types of “justifications” for homophobia show just how much homophobia and its expression is needed by emotionally needy people who need to repress and suppress tempestuous forces within their psyches to which xenophobia provides an easy, albeit false, remedy.
Indeed, homophobia and its expressions can be seen as being perversely “therapeutic” for those who lack emotional/sexual intactness. Rather than courageously try to understand what prompts their need to denigrate and bear false witness against LGBT people, and even seek to prevent the acquisition of equal rights for LGBT people, homophobes attempt to address and treat their emotional and social neediness by taking the coward’s way out by expressing derision and even hate toward LGBT people as a catharsis for their own internal turmoil.
It seems to me that all emotionally healthy people recognize Freud’s assertion that, “The Ego is not master in its own house!” (Sigmund Freud, “A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis,” 1917.)
That is, we contain unconscious forces within us that we can barely, if at all, understand; we do not have the degree of control over our thoughts and behaviors that we often, though falsely, think we have!
One of the indicators of emotional intactness, and also intelligence, is the ability to handle the many uncertainties and ambiguities of life! Homophobes, and xenophobes of all types, those who feel the need to denigrate and exclude others, seem to lack that ability and, hence, they show themselves fearful of the many gray areas that exist in society, exist in what and who they perceive to be “the other,” and exist in what often unknown forces reside within themselves as well.
After all, as I’ve often written, emotionally healthy people don’t really care about the love and sex lives of others, let alone compulsively focus on, and condemn, Gay people, to the degree that some people even make careers (and sometimes a handsome living) as professional homophobes!
So, simply put, people do what they perceive to be rewarding for them! And there can be no doubt that there are psychological and social payoffs provided by homophobia and its rhetorical and/or behavioral expressions!
Both externalized and internalized homophobia are largely used as defense mechanisms to repress and/or suppress often sexually tempestuous forces that threaten to come to consciousness, often when provoked by the mere existence of LGBT people; the objects of one’s fear, be it others and/or him/herself, become objects of derision, and even hate, that reflects, and futilely seeks to eradicate, the very derision and hate that one feels toward him/herself.
Professor Emeritus of Sociology at California State University, Chico, Rev. Dr. Jerry S. Maneker served as an ordained priest in the Congregational Catholic Church, a division of the Independent Catholic Churches International (ICCI). For many years he published a weekly column in the Sacramento Valley Mirror titled “Christianity and Society” where he dealt with a variety of social issues from a biblical and sociological perspective. He also published a blog called A Christian Voice for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Rights and the website Radical Christianity.