Jamaica is presently going through a moment of hysteria. We cannot call it anything but that. The buggery law, and questions about whether to keep it or not, has got every tongue wagging and every foot marching. Everyone is shouting, and women are on the front pages of the Gleaner bawling their eyes out as if they have had some very personal experience catching their husbands being buggered by a well-hung neighbour.
Everyone is clearly feeling very passionate and very desperate about the things they are feeling. It has become hard to even hear yourself think in all the hysterics. But incredibly, some of the loudest things that are being said, are being said without a sound being made. For consider those protestors marching magnificently with duct tape over their mouths, their banners proclaiming: SPEAKING TRUTH IS NOT HOMOPHOBIA.
I want to think about that banner for a moment. Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society (JCHS) put out an ad in the Gleaner with these same words. It is becoming something of a slogan.
As slogans go, I think there are more helpful and poignant ones the Jamaican church might wish to consider. For example: WHEN YOUR GOD HATES ALL THE SAME PEOPLE YOU DO, YOU KNOW HE’S MAN-MADE. But I suspect the church won’t take on board any of my suggestions.
In addition to the ad, there was also an article in the Gleaner where JCHS helpfully explained their position as regarding this new slogan. And give them credit, for this grappling and contending with definitions is actually a good way to step away from the hysteria and move towards a more meaningful discussion. Interestingly, JCHS gives us a definition by negation. They tell us what homophobia is NOT. Whatever homophobia presumably is exists somewhere in the negative space they have created, like those experimental artists who do not paint an object but rather the space around it.
This declaration by negation is getting quite popular across the island. The term homophobia is now regarded as a pejorative – a bad and backward thing to be – and so everyone wants to distance themselves from it. But sometimes the assertion ‘I am not homophobic!’ is a bit like that proverbial American southerner who declares, ‘I’m not racist! Some o’ mah best friends is niggers!’
Still, some of the objections to the word ‘homophobia’ comes with the weight of the academy behind it. An acquaintance who I’m quite fond of, Dr Karen Carpenter, a respected sexologist, insists that we are not homophobic in Jamaica; rather we are ‘homonegative’. I will unpack these terms shortly. But clearly it is important for us to arrive at some sort of definition.
Is homophobia actually a phobia?
This might seem like the logical place to start. After all, the word ‘homophobia’ declares itself as a phobia, and this is at the heart of JCHS’s attempt to distance themselves from the term.
Wayne West, the head honcho at JCHS makes his case in the following words: “To say persons who are against homosexual behaviour are homophobic is to say they have a mental illness. The very definition of phobia is an irrational fear of something. We are not mentally ill by any means, we are very rational.”
On first glance West’s logic might itself seem rational but the good doctor (bless him, for this is not his area) shows an unsophisticated grasp of how language actually works. Note that he points us to the definition of ‘phobia’ and not to the definition of ‘homophobia’.
Dear Dr West, this is closer to my area, so let me try to be of help. In defining a word, etymology is sometimes a useful place to start, but it doesn’t always tell us the full truth of what words mean. Words have an annoying way of doing their own things. They are a bit like children. Over time, they grow up, they rebel, they hate their parents, they pierce their ears and get tattoos, they change their minds and then change them back again, they often migrate, they pick up accents. Words don’t stay the same. Especially in the English language, they rarely mean precisely what their etymologies suggest.
Examples of words shifting are abundant. The word ‘artificial’ used to mean ‘artfully and skilfully made’. But knowing this, I doubt you will now go to an art gallery, look on an especially beautiful and elaborate sculpture, and tell its maker that you think her work is ‘artificial’.
The word ‘doom’ is another example. At one point it was simply a law or a verdict. It was perfectly possible to be ‘doomed’ innocent. We see why and how the word shifted over time – why people would be nervous about any ‘doom’ – why they might not look forward to their ‘doom’s’ day.
Other times words go full circle. Take the word ‘last’. It once meant the highest or the utmost. By this definition Usain Bolt would have been the LAST athlete in almost all his races. Clearly, the word seems to mean exactly the opposite of how it started.
If Wayne West is really interested in the etymology of ‘homophobia’ he might go further back to the first use of the word. You see, it once lived another life – though a very brief one. In the 1920s ‘homophobia’ was introduced as ‘the fear of the male sex’. The latin was precise – homo, meaning man; and phobia, meaning the fear of. A woman who had suffered the ordeal of being raped could then be said to suffer from ‘homophobia’, and many animals who had been abused by men were homophobic. By the old definition, many lesbians today might be homophobic. But in its first incarnation, the word simply did not catch on. It fell out of use as quickly as it had been suggested. It died.
The word was resurrected in 1969, this time re-coined by a psychologist, George Weiner, with a new and less Latin etymology. ‘homo’ now came from homosexual, rather than from the Latin word meaning ‘man’). Now it is true that even Weiner as a psychologist wanted homophobia to be listed as the very kind of medical condition that Wayne West suggests it is. But it has never been listed. ‘Homophobia’ has never been a medical phobia.
This is the thing with words that ‘catch on’. They necessarily escape the people who invented them and tried to control them. If you ask a linguist they will tell you that to understand what a word means we simply have to listen to how it is being used. Dictionaries do not tell us what a word OUGHT to mean; instead, they tell us what a word DOES mean to the communities that use that word.
Homophobia is therefore not a phobia in the medical sense of the word. It never has been. Homophobia, like its sister xenophobia, is a form of bigotry and discrimination. It can include fear and repulsion but in fact it describes a much wider range of negative responses towards the LGBT communities. Homophobia therefore exists on a spectrum and it’s certainly useful to think of some kinds of homophobia as being more violent than others.
A very short dictionary of words that describe LGBT discrimination
Other words have attempted to either take the place of ‘homophobia’ by being supposedly more ‘accurate’ or by giving a much broader sense of the oppressive world that LGBT people live in and the kinds of discrimination they face:
Homoerotophobia was a precursor to homophobia and perhaps more accurately described the disgust not with the homosexual individual but with the homosexual act. However, homoerotophobia is a difficult word to pronounce. Its tongue twisting effect consigned it to remain in the 1967 paper in which it was introduced, never to be taken up and spoken by the average man. You might say it fell victim to another phobia – sesquipedaliophobia, the fear of long words.
In 1980 the term homonegativity was coined, and this has gotten slightly more traction – but hardly enough. The problem with homonegativity is not its own definition, but that it objects to the term ‘homophobia’ using exactly the same problematic grounds that Wayne West tries to use. Medical Doctors and psychologists really ought to stick to their fields. It’s a futile exercise to stand up and shout at language – HEY HEY! This is what you SHOULD mean goddamit! Language is not impressed or intimidated by doctorates. It just sucks its teeth, saunters by, and continues to mean what it means for however long it wishes to mean that. Homonegativity is therefore a pointless duplicate -meaning precisely what homophobia already means, but which it wishes it did not mean.
Heteronormativity is a much more popular term – one you’re probably familiar with already. It describes the ways in which the world we live in generally assumes everyone is heterosexual, or should be, and it makes little attempt to accommodate you if you aren’t. Grandmothers and parents always ask their sons, expectantly, have you found a girlfriend!? New acquaintances as well might ask a man, are you single or do you have a girlfriend? Women are routinely asked: do you have a boyfriend? Men and women of a certain age are always asked, ‘do you have children?’ Under this constant, everyday pressure many LGBT people either lie, or try to conform to the heteronormative world. In so doing, they risk the health of themselves and their various partners.
In a sense, heterosexism is not much different from regular sexism. The word hetero in front simply reveals the process of sexism for what it is – a way in which the world polices gender, requiring us all to conform to certain ideas of what a man should be and how a man should behave, and how women – the fairer sex, should be and behave as well. Sexism or heterosexism is a natural product of a heteronormative world, or a world that is profoundly shaped by homophobia.
The limits of a word
Homophobia, in its own way, is an accurate word. Despite the attempts of amateur etymologists like Dr Wayne West, the word continues to mean what it means: a range of negative and discriminatory attitudes towards LGBT people.
Wayne West says, SPEAKING THE TRUTH IS NOT HOMOPHOBIA. Well, Wayne, I don’t know about that. if the truth is that you are disgusted by the act of homosexuality and you wish to impose or retain laws that limit the expression of that sexuality, then you probably are homophobic.
Still, this doesn’t mean we should throw the word about. The ‘gay lobby’ and those sympathetic with the cause of Human Rights and justice ought to be wise to the fact that it isn’t always useful to use the term homophobia. Some words close down a discussion as surely as a fullstop closes down a sentence.
Once again, parallels with the word ‘racism’ are instructive. Few people in today’s world consciously think of themselves as being racist despite the fact that we are mostly all products of a deeply racist world. Only recently, having given a talk in New Zealand, a man came up to me in the streets and complimented me by saying how much he loved seeing me on stage and that he found it amazing the ‘shocking disparity between [my] eloquence and [my] physical appearance.’ I get comments like that ALL the time and the people who say such things earnestly mean to pay me a compliment. Their assumptions about what I should have sounded like – me, a Jamaican man with dreadlocks – are rooted in a historic racism. Still it would have been unhelpful for me to call them ‘racists’. They do not mean to be racist, and perhaps they have several black friends. Perhaps their wives and their children are black. The problem is, they have a firm idea of what a racist is – someone who wears white sheets over their heads and who consciously hates black people. Because their own expressions of racism are not so extreme or conscious – they cannot accept the truth that they have internalized many racist opinions.
Similarly, in Jamaica people seem to believe that homophobes are only those people who sing boom-bye-bye or those who actively encourage the death and beating of homosexuals. If they do not engage in this most extreme form, they do not know how to understand their actions or their thoughts or their values as homophobic. They do not understand that homophobia exists on a spectrum.
Like racism, homophobia is often internalized – and just as even black people will hold on relentlessly to unhelpful ideas about ‘good hair’ or ‘nice, cool complexion’ so too many homosexuals have internalized homophobic values and perpetuate it themselves. Gay black men often insist on certain ideas of how a man ought to behave, or what role he should play. In so doing, they expose attitudes of heterosexism. They might insist on being ‘straight-acting’ or ‘DownLow’
They might insist on having wives and families, on going to church every Sunday, possibly even being pastors of their churches – or leading mass marches in Half Way Tree to stand in support of the buggery law . Yet, if you return to church one Sunday night after everyone has supposedly gone home, you might find these same down-low, straight-acting pastors, kneeling, not in front of God but in front of a goodly deacon, their mouths full of something more firm than prayers.
Such are the consequences of life on our homophobic island – there emerges a necessary pattern of deception, lies, self-loathing, and risky sexual behaviours. It might be more difficult but it is far more useful to talk about these consequences of homophobia, heteronormativity and heterosexism than it is to use the contentious word, homophobia.
As well, we might consider that most Jamaicans – straight and gay – are homophobic because we are the products of a deeply homophobic society. It is not easy to suddenly reconsider these deeply ingrained attitudes and recognize them as wrong or unhealthy for our society. We’ve survived this long with these attitudes. Why should we change!? Jamaicans must be allowed some space to work through these complicated feelings and reactions and attitudes towards homosexuality without constantly being accused of being bigots.
I leave this blog in stereotypical Jamaican fashion by sending out special greetings. For I find it especially important in times as hysterical as these to have friends with whom I respectfully disagree, friends who do not reinforce my own worldview but challenge it. It is important to have friends won’t walk away from areas of contention, but will linger in that uncomfortable place with you, will talk their talk sometimes carefully, sometimes heatedly, but who will always listen, will consider and reconsider, and talk their talk again. It is for this reason that I send special greetings to people like Michellle Roach and Samora Bain. Indeed, It was Samora Bain who recently posted a question on Facebook and in my answer to that question, I talked about a homophobia that wasn’t necessarily conscious, hateful or malicious. Sam responded with incredulity. I could almost feel her rolling her eyes: c’mon Kei, does the term ‘homophobia’ really not refer to an attitude that isn’t conscious, malicious or hateful?
Because I think Samora speaks on behalf of several well-thinking people, I answer her publicly.
No. Homophobia doesn’t always refer to an attitude that is conscious or malicious or knowingly hateful. It is a good thing that we are now willing to step away from the more extreme expressions of homophobia. It is a sign that, despite everything, some progress is being made in Jamaica. But the homophobia we must now work to challenge is a homophobia that is more subtle, more internalized, but one that is just as damaging in the long term. It is so ingrained that we take it for granted. We must now confront that homophobia as it exists in many of our values and also in our laws.