Not many of us know who invented the word “homophobia” even though we use it every day. Dr. George Weinberg first mentioned the word in the 1960s in one of his groundbreaking books, “Society and the Healthy Homosexual.” He was interviewed in 1998 in New York and gave the background to his creation of this word.
“After seeing in the 1950s and 1960s the enormous brutality against gays and seeing that I myself couldn't introduce known, professed homosexuals even to my friends who were supposedly liberal or psychoanalysts --that they always had reasons for avoiding these people. They weren't at all distressed by the worst kinds of brutalities toward gays. I realized that something else was going on-- more than simple mis-education. This was some deep emotional misgiving these people had, some phobic dread. It seemed to me the problem was theirs, not the homosexual's. I knew a landlord who had two lesbians living on the 5th floor of his brownstone and he couldn't sleep at night at the thought they were up there making love, and obviously the problem was his, not theirs. After trying to introduce gay friends of mine to heterosexuals in those days I just almost couldn't make the bridge. They always found reasons not to invite them to their homes and I realized that this is a classical phobic revulsion. They exhibited the same traits as your claustrophobic, your agoraphobic except that they were traits toward gays. I realized when I went to Washington D.C., a woman I met there was terrified about being alone in a room with me. As soon as her male friends left the room she began to tremble and almost couldn't speak and I realized she thought I was a homosexual and she was extremely phobic about me. I recalled a comment by Oscar Wilde's brother: "I don't know why they say Oscar's immoral. Any woman is safe with him." and it turned out-- I realized this was something that had a very deep root, a classical phobia, but of all the phobias, the most destructive being homophobia. Claustrophobia or agoraphobia---if you can't go to the theater or outside---or you have almost any kind of dread but it doesn't ordinarily get converted into the violence. These were recognized as phobias, but this --- homophobia -- was not recognized as one.”
Our time has come
Sixty years later, although we have seen great changes in attitudes and understanding in this country and in many parts of the world, homophobia is epidemic in many parts of the world and every day I deal with some manifestation of this fear towards people I know and work with.
Colin Stewart’s excellent daily account of the effects of homophobia through his “Erasing 76 Crimes” blog gives journalistic detail to the ordinary westerner that we have not heard before. This kind of systemic homophobia was unknown and is largely forgotten in the west as we euphorically wait for the end of DOMA and the beginning of marriage equality.
Perhaps it is time to build upon Weinberg’s psychoanalytic definition to help a new generation describe more fully the effects and implications of homophobia in societies and cultures that are not heavily influenced by western psychology or even the fairly recent understanding of human sexuality (from Freud to Kinsey). If vocabulary is to convey something meaningful and connected to reality, we may need other words and phrases still to be created, like Weinberg did in the 1960s. For example, in the last decade, we are struggling with all the letters (LGBTQI) to include the marginalized as best we can and even “gay” seems to be limited in its description of who we are today.
Money, faith and politics
Three important developments will help this process along and we addressed them all at the Civil Society Organization meeting at the World Bank last week.
The first is an attempt by the World Bank to begin to quantify the cost of homophobia and will be developing a research project to begin to give some economic framework that our movement has not seen before. The HRC Corporate Index is a helpful tool for 350 large American corporations who value the contribution of their LGBT staff colleagues and there are now moves to take some of the tools that have shaped LGBT equality issues in the workplace and share their valuable experience to American companies working abroad. Can we begin to quantify the economic impact of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda by proving that companies and governments are shifting aid and investments to neighboring countries because the climate in Uganda is so inhospitable to the talent still needed here. That talent is undoubtedly in LGBT and straight professionals who may be tempted to move elsewhere simply because the climate is not conducive to keeping the best talent in the country. Corporations in the USA are clearly self-interested in attracting talented LGBT people in a very competitive market and the HRC model ensures the workforce remains on the creative cutting edge.
A great awakening
The second development is an awakening by the evangelical Christian community that they can no longer support the criminalization of homosexuality in almost half the planet and its effects on social and health services provided by the faith community.
There is more oversight of government and foundation funding that expects LGBT people to be included in the services that the faith community shares with them. Forty percent of health care is provided by the faith community, and films like “God Loves Uganda” are helping the faith community to differentiate between personal and theological opposition to homosexuality and using the state to enforce laws which put people in harm’s way through denying them access to HIV prevention and care or subjecting them to second-class citizenry.
The head of World Vision Uganda came out against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill because it would put her staff in harm’s way to provide services to everyone. The Vatican has spoken clearly in support of access to healthcare as “a universal right” so the effects of homophobia as an access issue rather than a sexual or human rights issue, will help deepen our vocabulary about the real effects of homophobia.
Widening the lens
Finally, homophobia musty be placed in a framework most human beings can relate to and I believe this framework to be sectarianism. We limit sectarianism to religious conflicts in far-flung places in the world but a new definition of it speaks clearly to the effects Weinberg struggled to define 60 years ago.
At that time in another part of the world, two researchers were looking at the conflict in Ireland and ways to heal and transform it. They noted sectarianism never quite disappears but is in the fabric of our walls and major institutions and even though two neighbors may come from different religious or political traditions and develop a strong and deep friendship, Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg noted their churches or political parties would do their collective “dirty work.” The challenge was institutional change and transformation.
Joseph Liechty is the Plowshares Associate Professor of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies and department chair at Goshen College. Cecelia Clegg teaches at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity. Here is their extremely helpful definition, which is written in book “Beyond Sectarianism.”
“A system of attitudes, actions, beliefs and structures:
- at personal, communal and institutional levels
- which always involves religion, and typically involves a negative mixing of religion and politics
- which arises as a distorted expression of positive, human needs especially for belonging, identity and the free expression of difference.
And is expressed in destructive patterns of relating:
- hardening the boundaries between group-overlooking others
- belittling, dehumanizing, or demonizing others
- physically or verbally intimidating or attacking others”.
As the LGBT community and our allies attempt to heal homophobia and its dreadful cost to millions of human beings, the sectarian model speaks deeply to me and it may help other allies see something afresh. Seeing our suffering as a direct product of sectarianism is a new paradigm.
Homophobia is serving us well but we are more than defined simply by our sexual orientations. As new vocabulary is created, we are moving beyond the psychological aspects of fear of LGBT people, to the economic or religious dimensions to this struggle. This will also involve celebrating success stories from people to institutions that have been healed from homophobia or are showing the economic power of inclusion. Meanwhile, there is much work to do to see our “destructive patterns of relating” and begin the slow journey to transforming them.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.