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Rethinking Homophobia(s)

July 7, 2011

Dear SMC readers: I work at the intersections of queer studies, digital media, and ethnography. Sometimes I like to dip deeply into the disciplinary wells of one area and serve it up to the other audiences I hope I engage with my research. The review below highlights some of the best work coming out of queer anthropology right now. I hope you’ll think about how it squares with/applies to your own musings on all things social and digital. Enjoy!

When Psychologist George Weinberg used homophobia—a fear of same-sex desire—to diagnose the collective loathing that met the rise of homosexual rights in the late 1960s, the implicit remedy seemed to be: get to know gay and lesbian people and everything will be ok (a take on immersion therapy, perhaps). But, today, when acceptance of gay and lesbian people feels like a no-brainer to some, particularly among those who consider themselves progressive (dare I say hip), the analytic purchase of homophobia falls short. Homophobia is, for example, unable to robustly address the geopolitics of queer-bashing, unpack the particularities of violence unleashed on bisexual or trans-identifying people of color, or shepherd gay and lesbian rights activists and allies through a thicket of profoundly complicated concepts like “marriage” and “human rights.” In other words, the explanatory promise of homophobia, its appeal to a kind of blind, idiosyncratic disgust, cannot carry the weight of such a complicated, intersectional world. And, just as importantly, attributing rejection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer rights to individual ignorance, fear, or hatred, means we miss the chance to see how norms of love and sexual desire cut to the core and sharply organize a range of institutions, practices, and contexts. Homophobias: Lust and loathing across time and space, by David A. B. Murray, helps us imagine a more complicated paradigm that moves homophobia beyond the interpersonal and irrational to a place of collective and deliberative debate and interlocking systems of oppression.

Murray organizes the nine essays of Homophobias into two sections that, in turn, unpack the limits of universalizing the meaning of homophobia and examine the baggage of particular cases where homophobia means something far more than we typically give it credit. Section One’s five, relatively short essays, ask readers to consider the limits of attributing anti-queer violence and rhetoric to the analytic frame of homophobia alone. The first chapter, Don Kulick’s pithy assessment of the humanist roots that render anthropologists perhaps too hesitant to take on those we don’t like or who don’t like us, makes sense of the discipline’s conspicuous absence from a discussion of the good, bad, and ugly of human affect. Ultimately, Kulick’s essay argues that it is precisely the depth of anthropology’s rich critique of anything transcendently “transcultural” that positions the discipline to effectively step up to the task of breaking down the complexities of homophobia as intricate, layered cultural work. It is the perfect lens through which to read the Section’s remaining essays. For example, Martin Manalansan’s arguments in Chapter Two further drive home Kulick’s claims about homophobia’s symbolic flexibility. Manalansan uses four vignettes from his landmark fieldwork with New York City Filipino and other queer people of color to illustrate how white queer-identifying people’s invocations of homophobia illustrate the term’s capacity “as a mobile category located at the intersection of the traffic and travel of race, class, gender, and sexual identities and practices”(36). Careful to note the very real pain people feel when they speak of homophobic marginalization, Manalansan just as cautiously points out how attending to that pain can be part of shaping who is seen, heard, and privileged as the subject licensed to call out the quality and truth of homophobic vitriol. Constance Sullivan-Blum’s study of mainline Protestant churches in New York asks us to contextualize evangelical resistance to homophobia as not (just) mean-spirited scapegoating but a deeper ontological angst over the relationship between modern Christianity and secular scientific discourses. Her work cultivates an empathy for mainline Protestants that, I would argue, seems politically necessary for those who believe in the value of recognizing the polysemy of religion and, as such, sees it as a valuable tool in the arsenal of political battles for queer social justice.

If the first three essays of Section One suggest that we have vastly underestimated the complexities of homophobia and the power dynamics embedded in it, the final two essays illustrate that, far from an expression of universal fear, homophobia is the outcome of contingent processes that have, to date, aligned it with conservatism, but, arguably, also leave it wide open to contestation and change. For example, Steven Angelides’ analysis of the 1983 controversy that engulfed Alison Thorne, an Australian schoolteacher and lesbian activist, when she dared to challenge national media’s conflation of pedophilia and homosexuality argues that political actors face particular moments when the specific dimensions of sexual discrimination takes shape in relation to other pressing national debates. Angelides’ genealogy suggests where LGBT activists have the most work to do, namely challenging “panics” that position gay men’s sexuality as inherently risky while at the same time defending the very possibility of young people’s queer sexual agency. And Brian Riedel’s account of the Greek acquisition of ratsismos in response to the inadequacies of the import omofovia remind readers that linguistic anthropology offers a rubric for recognizing the rich cultural logics always at work when signs and signifiers float about in a global context (as they always have). Taken together, Section One builds a compelling case for the value of what Don Kulick calls, in Chapter One, “an anthropology of hate”—a close historical, political, and locational account of the social structures that organize and channel the flows of hate on and beyond same-sex desiring bodies (31).

While Section One asks us to consider what we take for granted about the motivations and meanings of homophobia, Section Two’s “Transnational Homophobias” offer cases to help readers reflect on how to hold complexities and double meanings in hand while also investigating the very real effects of homophobia in the lives of same-sex desiring people. This Section’s four essays ask us to grapple with the complicated global register, indeed plurality, of the term homophobia and its related discursive moves through a series of cross-cultural examples. Suzanne LaFont, for instance, delves into the power of heteronormativity in Jamaican popular music, arguing that homophobia can’t be understood outside of the context of British colonialist violence and racial and class ordering that shaped much of Jamaican history. While Jamaican dance hall stars position homoerotics as Western imports that threaten homegrown morality, wealthy gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jamaican jet-setters demonstrate that class status still holds the power to trump—or sidestep—the moral superiority of heterosexuality. Like LaFont, the next three chapters, by Tom Boellstorff, David Murray, and Lawrence Cohen, take up how intersecting racial, gendered, classed, and sexual hierarchies organize through and in response to the legacies and persistence of colonial violence. All three authors consider the colonialist underpinnings that set the stage for how to read the relatively recent rise in homophobic violence in Indonesia, Barbados, and India respectively. While Boellstorff poses the provocative question of whether or not Indonesian social order, organized by an orthodoxy of heterosexism, avoided investing in its evil twin, homophobia (Boellstorff believes it did) prior to the 1998 fall of the Soeharto regime, Murray argues that, at least in the case of Barbados, homophobic discourses circulate as ways to (literally) talk back to—and rage against—the brutal churn of modernity and its prerequisite unequal distribution of resources. In both cases, it becomes impossible to understand homophobia outside the logics of colonialism, postcolonialism, and the ruptures and flows that these logic produce. The final full chapter, Lawrence Cohen’s close read of media coverage and regional responses to the 1994 rape and murder of six men in the north Indian city of Lucknow, leave the reader with the haunting suspicion that homophobia can (and will) be used to mark deviation from societal norm as an “incessant desire” that deserves, perhaps is destined for, retribution (171). A poignant Epilogue, penned by Murray, chronicles the very real violence imposed on Edward, a gay Ugandan refugee now living in Canada, to underscore the need for “strategies of resistance” that draw on the force of global and local activism that resist the urge to reterritorialize where homophobia really resides (11).

As moving and illustrative as the Epilogue is, I want to highlight the significance of the collection’s opening reflections to close this review. Murray’s Introduction does a remarkable job crisply contextualizing the conversation and underscoring the value of the anthology’s contributions. The volume proffers nothing less than a paradigmatic shift in how we think and talk about homophobia. Murray also carefully qualifies the volume’s arguments. He notes the limited range of case studies available, but he also quickly points out that this volume should only be read as a first step in doing anything to undo homophobia; he suggests that this volume cannot resolve whether homophobia is a national or global problem, though he astutely suggests that this is a false and unproductive dichotomy; and he acknowledges the conspicuous attention to violence directed at male bodies to the exclusion of female-identifying and trans-identifying bodies. And it is the narrow framing of gendered homophobic violence that produced my only frustration with the collection.

While, as Murray points out, we may have few accounts of homophobic violence directed at female-identifying bodies for a range of reasons, not the least of which might be the misogyny that pushes such accounts to the margins, I felt that more could certainly be said to theorize the likelihood that homophobic violence might look very, very different for female-identifying bodies. Murray does note that such accounts are likely under-recorded and “institutionalized academic prejudice” renders queer women’s lives “too narrow” a topic in some disciplines otherwise well positioned to flesh out the experiences of homophobia directed at queer women. At the same time, I would draw on Murray’s volume to push us to consider how homophobias directed at female-identifying bodies might expand how we think about different kinds of violence, not just different kinds of homophobias. For example, public displays of affection with my female partner routinely embolden men to tell us how we’ve “made their day” or “fulfilled a fantasy.” These comments, sometimes said casually, other times, with lewd intonation, produce a violent, symbolic annihilation: lesbian and bisexual women’s desires for each other must constantly combat the spectacular, consumptive control of the heterosexual male gaze. While readers may consider this example too trite to count or a simple case of mundane heterosexism, it is precisely my reading of Murray that suggests we should think otherwise. Homophobia, in this case, does not just undercut queer difference; it attempts to control and subjugate women’s bodies and desires under the guise of heterosexuality but in the service of patriarchy and misogyny.

My one concern aside, Murray’s ethnographically rich and theoretically engaging collection accomplishes a critical feat: it moves the hatred experienced by those read as “queer” beyond an exchange of interpersonal feelings to the messier terrain of intersecting systems of power and privilege. As each of the essays in Murray’s collection deftly argues, a range of cultural contexts and intricacies come together to shape what we universalize as the individual (sinking) feeling of homophobia. There are no easy salves to sooth homophobia, as this collection so effectively illustrates, without considering how homophobia is always necessarily rooted and entwined in myriad other “historically grounded relationships of inequality produced through the intersections of local and global social, political, and economic forces” at work in any given time or space (3). Murray’s contributors offer us an opportunity to reexamine how hating us is about so much more than, well, us. As such, Homophobias provides scholars and political activists alike with a much-needed intervention in the global analysis of and fight for queer possibilities. Plainly put, this timely and prescient anthology underscores the social and political importance of attending to the complications of hate—a necessary step if we are ever to intervene.


The draft review above will appear later this year in American Ethnologist [paywall].

Homophobias: Lust and loathing across time and space
by David A. B. Murray
Durham: Duke University Press
2009
227 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4598-5

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