Homophobia and Closets

CN: mention of self harm, suicide, queerphobia/homophobia/cissexism/ableism

Source: http://www.someecards.com
Source: http://www.someecards.com

So you’re a straight ally to queer people and you find out a terrible bigot said terrible things about teh gayz and you rush in to defend queer people with some variation of “I bet they’re closeted and hate themselves!”.

Usually, I would simply respond by saying that expressed or overt homophobia is not a reliable indicator of whether or not a person is a closeted queer. Today, though, I’m going to expand this and explain why this is a harmful idea and how it upholds structural oppression of queer people and places the burden of queerphobia/homophobia on the marginalized while allowing the privileged to disregard their own contributions to queer oppression.

So where did this idea come from?  As far as I can tell, this argument seems to be based on one study done in 1996 in which 64 straight men were gathered and separated into “homophobic” and “non-homophobic” groups. (Just to be clear: I’m reasonably certain the idea itself is older than this one study, but I focus on it here because it is the one study brought forth as evidence.)

Already, I have a problem with this research. You cannot simply group straight people into “homophobic” and “non-homophobic”. Straight people are born and raised in a culture steeped in homophobia and heteronormativity. The best they could do is split the groups into “overt homophobic” and “not as obviously homophobic.”

*sigh* Moving on.

Then they showed the men a series of porn videos (straight, lesbian, and gay male) and measured their penile responses.

Can we play “Spot the Ableism” here? I know plenty of disabled people who do not/can not use their genitals as their primary sexual organs. Reducing sexuality to one measure of physical response is ableist and incredibly narrow. I understand that scientific studies have to be narrow at times, but so far I’m not impressed. I’d like to see research that reflects the diversity and full experiences of queer people. I acknowledge the fact that this study has been taken and misused by people who like to think homophobia is caused by secrety gays, but it would be nice for there to be more research to point to that describes and measures queer sexual responses using more than just a penis.

We could also play a game of “Spot the Misogyny” here. As far as I know there has not been a similar study done to test women for latent homosexuality in relation to homophobia. I’m thinking this is due to sexist and cissexist notions of how “difficult” it would be to test women’s sexual responses, therefore women are ignored altogether in this research (even though it is just as difficult to test men’s sexual responses because erection does not equal DTF!!).

This study also only used men with penises and ignored the possibility that any of the people in the group might possibly be trans. Who’s to say none of those men were trans women still in the closet? So, “Spot the Cissexism” is also relevant.

Next, the research is muddied by the question of separating out sexual responses from disgust responses (which can have similar physical signs). In 2006 a study was published which indicates that rather than homophobic men experiencing sexual attraction, they are actually experiencing an aversion or disgust response (akin to other phobias) to gay porn which was mistakenly attributed to sexual attraction. It appears that a single physical response to gay porn does not a gay make.

Given the small sample size of both studies and the many problems I mentioned above, I think it’s safe to say that this research is far from definitive.

Even with the current state of research surrounding the phenomenon of homophobic men harboring latent homosexual feelings (aka: teh secret gayz), the research is still far away from suggesting all homophobes are secretly gay. And is very far away from any indication that homophobia can be used as a reliable indicator of a person’s possible homosexual tendencies. The one study that sort of vaguely supports this notion had only 64 test subjects, 35 of which made up the homophobic group, while 29 made up the non-homophobic group. If we’re going to make sweeping claims about the causes of homophobia, then I suggest we at least do so on the basis of more than 35 people who may or may not have shown a sexual response to gay porn. As far as I can tell, the incidence of closeted queer people is probably about the same regardless of their expressed queerphobia.

I’ve discussed why the research doesn’t support these claims. Now I’ll talk about the harm this idea causes.

Most of the time I don’t explicitly hear someone say “all homophobes are secretly gay”. Instead what I see is someone say “this particular homophobe is probably gay” on almost every article detailing the words and actions of bigots. You don’t have to explicitly say “all” if this claim comes up for every single bigot. If this suggestion gets trotted out every time a homophobe is mentioned, then it’s safe to say that there is an implication that the argument is “homophobes are secretly gay” –especially if it is always the same person bringing up the possibility.

There’s another layer to this. When somebody says “this homophobe is actually gay” every single time, it gives the impression that they are blaming gay people for our own oppression. After all, if the most virulently anti-gay people are all secretly gay, then clearly it’s us gay people who have a problem. To me, it’s as ridiculous a claim as saying that the Grand Wizard of the KKK must be secretly black. This is wrong on multiple levels as it is a form of victim blaming people who are already marginalized.

Many people use the abundance of anecdotes to make their point. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people say “of course Ted Haggard was secretly gay” back when that ‘scandal’ broke. Not only is this, again, blaming gay people for our own oppression, but it’s also a form of bi/pan/polysexual erasure. How do they know Haggard is gay? Because he had sex with men? Well he also clearly had sex with his wife. For all we know he could be bisexual, pansexual or polysexual. Immediately jumping to say that any queerphobic bigot who gets caught with their pants down is secretly gay is just another way to erase all other queer identities.

And of course, the idea that all homophobes are gay is another way for straight people to wash their hands of any responsibility they have for holding up or contributing to queer oppression. This rests on the false notion that there are non-homophobic straight people. Go back to the first problem I had with the 1996 study: you cannot simply categorize straight people as “homophobic” and “non-homophobic.” Straight people like to pretend that as long as they’re supporting gay marriage and not using slurs against us, then they must not be homophobic/queerphobic/transphobic/etc. Oppression is not that simple though. All straight people harbor a certain amount of homophobia and, intentionally or not, contribute to the oppression of queer people due to the fact that homophobia/queerphobia/transphobia is systemic.

Since this argument is often used to mock or taunt the homophobic person assumed to be closeted, it perpetuates the notion that it is okay to mock someone for being gay. This is especially rich when coming from supposed allies. They want to express support for queer people by shaming some people for being queer? Sorry straight people, you don’t get to do that. If you actually suspect somebody is closeted and they are dealing with their internalized bigotry in harmful ways, the best thing you can do is show them compassion and let them know that you are a safe person to talk to about their possibly latent queerness. Mocking or taunting them for being closeted is not going to help them. (If a homophobic closeted person needs to be mocked or taunted or otherwise angered at, we queer people can do it. It’s not the job of straight people to mock or taunt suspected queer people.)

It hurts and undermines the experiences of those of us (myself included) who struggled for years with internalized queerphobia and had to maintain a homophobic appearance as a survival mechanism. I grew up in a very queerphobic household. I was taught that being gay was a choice. I didn’t even know that other kinds of queer people existed until I was in college. Imagine poor bisexual gaybie me realizing at the age of 11 or 12 that I seemed to crush on people regardless of their gender. It was confusing and painful and the only messages I got from home and church and school was that being gay was a choice. I admit I did lash out once against a table of queer girls in 7th grade, but it was quite literally for my own survival. This was the year I was relentlessly taunted for being a d*ke. I was horrified one morning to sit down at a table with girls I didn’t know and find out they were all gay together. I didn’t want my bullies to see me with them because the verbal, physical and sexual assaults would only get worse. I made a big show of leaving the table and threw a couple slurs at them. I’m not proud of that moment. If I could find those girls now and apologize, I would.

Other than that one experience, most of my queerphobia was directed inward. I engaged in various forms of self harm that were not readily noticeable, such as practicing (I played marimba) for hours on end until my fingers bled. Staying up for days at a time and not letting myself sleep because I didn’t want to have those dreams. Several attempts at suicide by overdose. And, of course, I kept a running monologue in my head of how disgusting I was.

This is why I urge straight allies who think they know someone who is closeted and simply lashing out to use compassion rather than mockery. They need to know they have a safe place and safe people to go to. If I had never found safe people, I probably never would have come out or embraced my queerness. It took years for me to be able to be open and happy about who I am. Your one off “haha i bet theyre gay” comment on a news article is NOT helpful.

Even those of us who were closeted homophobes form only a very small part of the massive system of oppression that queer people have to endure. We may have caused harm and contributed in small ways to the system, but that is merely a symptom, not the cause of queer oppression. Think about it. Why would someone be so afraid of coming out that they feel the need to lash out against other queer people? It’s because they live in a world that is so hostile to who they are that they would rather pretend to be part of that world than attempt to come out and take on that hostility. Queer people do not have the strength of numbers, capital or privilege to create an entire social system bent on oppressing us. We didn’t build this. You did. Own that, show compassion, and stop blaming queer people for the system that hurts us.

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