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On phobia and homophobia: clarifying the debate on equal marriage Comment

As British MPs prepare today's free Commons vote on equal marriage, AL Shaw asks whether a more precise definition of Homophobia can prove decisive in the fight against it.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 0:00 - 0 Comments


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As British Members of Parliament prepare for the free Commons vote on equal marriage, the many abstaining and dissenting Tories will do so having rebutted repeated accusations of homophobia.

Following his widely-reported comments that legalising equal marriage would be “barking mad” and that “most parents would prefer their children not to be gay, knowing most parents want grandchildren if nothing else”,The Guardian interviewed the Conservative MP for Monmouth David Davies about homosexuality. Another ordinary homophobe? No.

‘Phobia’ and ‘homophobia’

A ‘phobia’ is simply an irrational or illogical fear that defies reasonable or rational explanation (as defined by the OxfordMerriam-WebsterCollins and Cambridge dictionaries). Phobias may arise from a particularly traumatic experience, as with arachnophobia: an encounter with an Australian funnel-web spider or tarantula may lead to a fear of spiders. However, no matter how understandable, it is still strictly speaking irrational to develop a fear of all spiders rather than a more rational fear specifically of Australian funnel-webs or tarantulas. In other words, there is a clear difference between rational (specific) and irrational (generalised, phobic) fear.

Accordingly, ‘homophobia’ should mean the irrational fear of homosexuality, as Patrick Strudwick’s recent article on homophobia clearly and understandably assumes. And yet it does not. A number of leading current definitions define homophobia in terms of hatred (or its close emotional relations) as well as fear:

A fear or dislike of homosexuals. [Cambridge]

[The] hate or fear of homosexuals. [Macmillan]

[The] intense hatred or fear of homosexuals or homosexuality. [Collins]

Homophobia is the irrational hatred, intolerance, and fear of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people. [Stonewall]

[The] irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals. [Merriam-Webster]

[A]n extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people. [Oxford]

The significance of this elision is the subject of this article. For the purposes of this discussion, please note the following two principal problems. Firstly, the irrational element is overlooked in the first three cases – clearly inconsistent with the term ‘phobia’. And secondly, in all cases, the inclusion of hatred (or aversion – simply a milder form) with fear treats it as a starting-point rather than a consequence, thus rendering it inevitable.

Homophobia: fear vs. hatred

Fear and hatred have long been recognised as psychologically very closely related emotions, and yet in the context of phobias, which are exclusively irrational fears, it is essential to recognise that the hatred is borne of the fear: hatred is often far less likely in the absence of fear or suspicion. Consequently, removing or stifling the hatred will not remove the fear, but remedying the fear will alleviate the hatred. Moreover, hatred is not an inevitable consequence of fear; similarly, it should be perfectly possible to be phobic without being hateful.

Thus, compared with ‘phobia’, in most definitions, hate is assumed to be a defining element of ‘homophobia’ rather than a non-automatic consequence of a defining element. This is the particular relevance of Davies’ comments: they are homophobic in a sense that is faithful to the definition of ‘phobia’ rather than ‘homophobia’.

Davies’ comments are consistently expressed in terms of “concern”, “worry”, a “slight sense of unease” and being “uncomfortable”. Probably the most provocative statement in the whole interview is: “But I suppose, at a certain level, I see heterosexual sex as being – and it’s probably the wrong word to use – but the norm.” He continues:

I just worry if children are going to be taught that [heterosexuality] isn’t necessarily the norm, and that you can carry on doing all sorts of other things, are we going to have a situation where the teacher’s saying, ‘Right, this is straight sex, this is gay sex, feel free to choose, it’s perfectly normal to want to do both. And you know, why not try both out?’ I mean, are we going to have that?


I’m not absolutely convinced it’s a good idea to be changing sex education in school to try and say to people, ‘Feel free to go out and experiment and do this, that and the other.’


 If you’re going to explain the facts of life you’ve got to explain at some point, penis, vagina, they go together, this is how children are made. Well, do you also have to start explaining in similar detail how gay sex is carried out?

His “concerns” can easily be recognised not only as incredible or stupendously far-fetched, but also as irrational: there is no evidence whatsoever that people can be ‘educated’ into being gay (as Section 28 so grievously assumed) or, for that matter, heterosexual. Nonetheless, Davies concedes: “Isn’t [wishing to have grandchildren] a natural instinct?” His recognition of “instinct” ties in with his “concern”, “worry”, “this slight sense of unease” and being “uncomfortable”: this is an amorphous mass of emotion and subtle phobia that cannot be readily expressed in rational, logical terms. As Davies – to his credit, I believe – explicitly recognises: “Maybe that’s the problem – it’s hard to rationalise an instinct with politics in a logical way, which you’re trying to do.”

This may seem a perverse argument, but these are essential comments to note in the fight against homophobia and similar biases, for while hardly an obvious liberal ally, Davies’ comments lie beneath the hateful surface so commonly associated with homophobia. It should be obvious why the elision of fear and hatred in the definition of ‘homophobia’ has occurred: so much homophobia is plainly hateful, as its classification as a hate crime clearly demonstrates. It demonstrates the later Wittgensteinian principle that ‘meaning is use’ – that is, the meaning of words change according to their use and their misuse rather than just what they should mean logically.

However, combating homophobia should not be limited to shouting down hateful homophobia, but challenging the irrational fears that lead to irrational hatred. Words such as ‘unnatural’ and ‘deviant’ are often used abusively, but their meaning as irrational fears as well as irrational hatreds must not be overlooked. Strange though it may seem, we need more homophobes like Davies in order to challenge homophobia, not fewer; sentiments such as his should be homophobic by definition, while hatred need not be – it is simply that hatred is often louder, attracts far more attention and, consequently, changes the meaning of ‘homophobia’.

Homophobia and liberty

The principal relevance of this is that as long as homophobic hatred is implicitly granted ontological parity with homophobic fear, it actually becomes harder to fight it for a number of interrelated reasons.

The elision of fear and hatred means that the ‘louder’ latter aspect dominates the concept; irrational fear is overlooked. This is what forces the frequent classic conflict between positive rights, such as the right to free expression, and negative ones, such as the right to be free from abuse or harassment. Hate speech is clearly harmful if expressed at the object of derision rather than just privately; ‘fear speech’, such as Davies’, is noticeably ‘quieter’. Moreover, while unquestionably provocative – as already quoted, “I suppose […] I see heterosexual sex as being […] the norm” – I suggest it broadens attention from the object to include its subject. This is hardly to suggest that ‘fear speech’ is necessarily less harmful, but that its expression much more openly exposes its irrationality and that of its subject.

The direct conflict between positive and negative rights thus shifts in favour of the latter by weakening the complete focus of the former from its object to at least a shared focus between object and subject. Accordingly, this can be addressed in much more measured, rational terms – precisely as Decca Aitkenhead and David Davies, to their great mutual credit, demonstrate. The interview is an admirably unhysterical case study in a homophobe being talked through their fears and increasingly recognising, “You may be right. I may very well be wrong about this.” Thus, ‘de-’ or ‘un-defining’ homophobia from its more prominent hateful public face may discredit such abuse by more openly demonstrating its irrational foundations.

It follows that progressives should not allow themselves to be completely distracted by hate speech, but should give greater attention to figures like Davies whose “instincts” and “worries” – that is, irrational fears – are the ontological foundation of vitriolic prejudice.

Furthermore, the dangers of homophobia are not limited to openly bileful ‘hate speakers’ or ‘hate preachers’: the hysterical protests of certain figures in the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and their close conservative allies against equal marriage, who warned of “the extreme gay lobby”, “cultural vandalism”, “political power grabs” and society “degenerating […] into immorality”, are examples simply of a more articulate, euphemistic homophobia. For these, too, are plainly irrational fears: while not unambiguously hateful, they are clearly fearful in the only slightly milder sense of ‘mistrust’ or ‘suspicion’.

Any rationalisation – the consequent justification of the irrational in rational terms – so often involves fallacious appeals to self-evidence, perhaps chiefly the commonest argument being that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ as it is non-procreative (as, too, is kissing). Such pseudo-moralising sentiments are always impossible to prove, and are only adopted to make the irrational appear rational. Accordingly, attacking just the pseudo-rational edifice – the euphemistic consequence of irrational fear or suspicion – has, by definition, limited value. As noted, it is probably because this is the more obvious public face of private irrationalism that it attracts so much misdirected effort.


Conventional treatments for phobias work by either bringing about a realisation of the irrationality of the phobia, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or by alleviating its symptoms, as with neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) and hypnotherapy. The challenge is how to bring about comparable realisations on a slightly simpler scale as homophobia is rarely a traumatic experience for the homophobe (as opposed to the subject of their fear). (Crucial exceptions include tormented individuals who are brought up believing their sexual orientation to be deviant, in which cases fear, hatred, love and desire become terribly conflicted.)

The critical element must be to ensure efforts are directed at the fear rather than the hatred; merely grandstanding with anti-homophobia liberal platitudes makes for good party politics but in practice achieves rather little – phobias continue unaddressed and the unconverted remain unconverted.

It should also be clear that this analysis may be easily applied to all comparable social or political phobias and the causes they are used to support. A particularly strong example, Islamophobia – also defined as a hatred and without reference to irrationality by the Oxford and Collins dictionaries; interestingly, the CambridgeMacmillan and Merriam-Webster dictionaries do not currently define it at all – has quickly spawned a whole movement in the form of the English Defence League, as well as justifying the dismantlement of an astonishing number of civil liberties by successive governments.

In all such cases, as long as the fear and consequent hatred is so grossly disproportionate to the actual threat posed (if at all), it may be called ‘irrational’ or ‘phobic’. Similarly, giving greater attention to ‘fear speech’ – thereby broadening public debate to include the subject from its exclusive focus on the object, and rebalancing positive and negative rights – may be an essential step to a more rational and politically fairer discourse.

So the next time you encounter a colleague or stranger holding forth on the wrongs of homosexuality, try responding calmly: “that is an irrational fear; there is no rational reason to be suspicious of it. Absolutely none.” If they are not placated, try asking them why it is wrong – they may well respond with something with which Davies may recognise. If they speak of the indoctrination or the corruption of youth, assure them that homosexuality is no more ‘caused’ that any other sexual orientation. If they appeal to ‘self-evident’ moralism, challenge them to prove it as the burden of proof rests with them.

However, I suspect the most common answer will be: “Well, I don’t know – I just think…” They may well not be “just thinking” logically but seeking to rationalise the irrational. The “I don’t know” is the crucial phrase that indicates the ambiguous ‘“concern”, “worry”, a “slight sense of unease” and being “uncomfortable”’s of unknown provenance at the root of social phobias.

In short, try encouraging others not to assume that this individual chose to be a homophobe – they may well not really know why. People choose to speak, of course, but not to fear. And most fears are overcome not through conflict or ‘counter-hatred’, but through greater self-awareness through dialogue. In this sense, David Davies is a model homophobe.

A. L. Shaw is a pseudonym. The author read politics at the University of Exeter and political philosophy at the University of York, where he held a Morrell scholarship. He is now a freelance writer based in London, and is previously published by openDemocracy and the New Left Project.

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