Even in the wake of political correctness, homophobia still haunts many people in our culture. Heterosexuality is still the dominant social expression and any intimate relationship that falls outside the accepted boundaries of heterosexual union is considered to be taboo. The modern media and institutes of higher learning are only recently beginning to try changing the ingrained belief that heterosexuality is the only "normal" form of sexual relationship. However, in spite of gender studies courses and television shows portraying homosexuality in a positive light, many people, including myself, still retain some homophobic beliefs. In fact, based on the recent outcry against gay marriages, American society is generally and powerfully heterosexist. Homophobia manifests in a wide range of behaviors, many of which are so innocuous as to go unnoticed. For instance, when people make jokes or utter stereotypes about gay men or lesbians, they are essentially cloaking their homophobia with sarcasm or humor. Like racism, homophobia is pervasive and often subtle. In fact, many gays and lesbians are homophobic, evident in the psychological difficulties of coming out of the closet and the problems that gays and lesbians have coming out to themselves. Unfortunately, in many cases homophobia creates severe and fatal consequences, as in gay-bashing.
As a straight person claiming to be open-minded, I must admit that I retain lingering vestiges of heterosexism. My homophobia, however mild, colors the ways I perceive gay culture and gay individuals. I may have inherited by homophobic beliefs from my family, peer group, or the media. Regardless of where my beliefs stem from, I express homophobia in a number of subtle ways, mainly through stereotyping, avoidance, and overcompensation. Stereotyping causes me to automatically pigeonhole certain people into categories and to label individuals as "gay" or "straight" depending on their appearance. For instance, if I see a woman with very short hair wearing a plaid shirt and no makeup, I may assume she is a lesbian. From there I will conclude that she is a "butch" lesbian and that she exhibits certain personality traits. However, I have no idea who this person is, what her sexual orientation is, or what her personality is like. I have fallen into a key homophobic trap of negative stereotyping. Most of the time, my stereotypes are not overtly negative in nature but are nevertheless harmful in that they prevent me from overcoming my prejudices. Interestingly, my stereotypes have little if anything to do with actual sex, as if I dissociate what makes gay people gay from the stereotype or label.
In addition to stereotyping, homophobia also causes me to avoid cultivating friendships with gays and lesbians and avoiding situations in which my sexuality is called into question. For example, if a friend of my same gender hugs me, I will be self-conscious that others would assume that we were gay. This underlying fear is the most direct manifestation of homophobia, or the fear of homosexuality. Similarly, I have no close friends who are gay. Of course there could be a number of reasons for not having close friends who are gay, and this fact itself is not an expression of homophobia.
A avoid confronting my own sexuality and my own feelings about homosexuality because of underlying homophobia. Because we have been taught that homosexuality is deviant, we don't want to be thought of as gay. Furthermore, a close examination of our personal sexual preferences is threatening and frightening. I might, for instance, find that I am attracted to members of the same sex. I believe that many heterosexual people are in some ways and at some times sexually attracted to persons of the same gender, even if they choose not to act on those desires. My feelings of homophobia emerge most strongly, in fact, when they directly impact the ways I feel about my own sexual nature. If I have a same-sex fantasy, for instance, I immediately wipe it from my consciousness and would not share it with others for fear of exploring this aspect of my sexuality.
Because I realize that homophobia is a destructive force like racism, I also tend to overcompensate for my subconscious and conscious fears in an attempt to prove to others and myself that I am not homophobic. For example, I go out of my way to stick up for gay rights, champion the causes of the gay community such as gay marriage, attend the gay pride festival activities, and watch movies and television shows depicting gay individuals and gay culture. When people around me utter mean spirited jokes or make blanket statements about gays or lesbians I come to the rescue and refute those statements as being homophobic. In general, I try to have an open mind and express politically correct sentiments to all my friends. However, I often feel that my behaviors are in some ways overcompensating for an underlying homophobia.
As with all belief systems, homophobia and heterosexism will be difficult to reverse. As it is imbedded in the psyches of most people in our society, heterosexism will remain the dominant belief system for some time, until a critical mass is reached. Much in the same way as racism isn't completely eliminated in spite of laws and affirmative action policies, heterosexism will not be erased from the public consciousness even after laws are passed demanding equal rights and protections for gay citizens. Furthermore, I find it odd that sexual behavior should be a factor at all in human relations. What heterosexual couples do in the privacy of their bedroom is rarely shared with others, and straights don't announce that they are straight. I don't on any level believe that homosexuality is immoral or unnatural and yet because of my cultural programming and the influences from media, peers, and family members I still have some feelings of homophobia. These feelings mainly stem from a fear of my own sexuality and sexual orientation and are not necessarily directed outwardly at the gay community or gay individuals.
B. Gay bashing and verbal assaults of homosexuals and transgendered individuals is the most heinous manifestation of heterosexism and homophobia in our society. These hate crimes make stereotyping and jokes about gays seem kind in comparison. Moreover, these crimes say more about the perpetrators than of the victims. Gay bashers harbor deep fears, anger, and hatred toward gays, bordering on Nazism. The particularly ugly nature of many gay bashing is a testament to severe psychic complications and hang-ups. Moreover, these hate crimes reflect the homophobic nature of our culture in general. Unfortunately in many instances, the authorities do not treat gay bashing crimes as seriously as they should because of the sexual orientation or gender of the victim. As these individuals are considered to be deviant in the first place, they are treated as second-class citizens.
The brutal murder of Gwen Araujo is a prime example of the nature of heterosexist hate crime. A pre-operative transsexual, Gwen was born a biological male. At the age of fourteen Gwen essentially became a woman and began dressing and socializing as one. One day at a party in Newark, California, Gwen was assaulted when a woman discovered her transgender status. Three males at the party gouged her face, beat her severely, dragged her body into a garage, and proceeded to strangle her to death. Afterwards the perpetrators drove the body to a campground to dispose of it. Fortunately, the three men were caught and charged with hate crimes and murder.
Matthew Wayne Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old University of Wyoming college student, was beaten and tied to a fence, where he was left to die. The only motive for the crime was his sexual orientation. Similarly, thirty-nine-year-old Billy Jack Gaither was bludgeoned to death with an axe because he was openly gay. Such hate crimes make no logical sense; however, the motives behind these crimes are like the motives behind the lynching of African-Americans: hatred and fear. In these cases, being gay was considered to be an affront against "Christian morals." Any objective person would realize that there is nothing Christian about killing a person, regardless of their sexual orientation. The foundation of these un-Christian, anti-gay beliefs is heterosexism. Because heterosexuality has been established as the dominant sexual orientation and the only one permissible, heterosexist individuals feel justified in murdering gays.
These hate crimes could also be considered as manifestations of a homophobia based on latent homosexual tendencies. In a heterosexist culture, to experience feelings of attraction for members of the same sex would be uncomfortable. Especially in rural areas like Alabama or Wyoming, where Billy Jack Gauthier and Matthew Wayne Shepard were from, respectively, homophobia is rampant, more so than in urban centers. Furthermore, I believe there is a strong connection between rural culture in America and homophobia because of the Christian Right's conservative social politics. If a man from the Bible belt, for instance, experienced homosexual feelings or engaged in homosexual behavior, he might subsequently try to deny those feelings or experiences. Repression breeds hatred and…