A month ago, I wrote a blog post Private Eye magazine’s troubled relationship with LGBT issues. While I tried to focus on the present, this inevitably meant engaging with the magazine’s past opposition to the gay rights movement under former editor Richard Ingrams. I tried to keep this encounter brief, but one argument Ingrams made in the Independent, about how he couldn’t possibly be a homophobe, irked me in particular. So I’m going to address it more fully here:
‘Likewise, a recent addition to the dictionary, the word homophobia, is used to describe any expression of anti-gay feeling. The effect of this made-up word is to suggest that any such feelings are the result of a morbid and abnormal psychological condition similar to an irrational fear of mice or spiders.’ – The Independent, Richard Ingrams’ Week: Youth appeal is wasted on the young, 17th December 2005
This is in the context of a broader tantrum he was throwing over how language is changing to be more inclusive, as though language has ever been a stable construct. What is particularly galling in this is that Ingrams thinks he is the one being pathologized. Originally referring to the fear of straight men that they might be considered gay, the word homophobia was coined in the late 1960s. It is of course derived from the word homosexual which was first used in English in the Psychopathia Sexualis 80 years earlier, this work explicitly called homosexuality a mental illness.
This idea gained traction in psychiatry for a time, and the pseudoscientific idea of a cure is still clung to by fringe weirdos such as the Vice President of the United States of America. Ingrams should know all this because he has in the past defended people criticised for propounding conversion therapy. In short, homophobia sounds medical because it evolved out of language constructed by a homophobic society, but Ingrams only considered this an issue when it turned around to bite him in the ass.
I’d love to write Ingrams off as an irrelevant dinosaur, but unfortunately similar arguments are resurfacing all the time on social media. You see, people who have a problem with gay people really don’t like the existence of a word for this phenomenon. So they question whether it’s really accurate to say they’re afraid of gay people (as though they would actually prefer a word claiming they hate gay people). They are missing the admittedly difficult concept that the meaning of words may have altered slightly in 50 years, or since ancient Grecian times.
Okay, I can do better than glibness. Accusations of homophobia can admittedly be a broad-brush approach. It may refer to something people do unconsciously and without consideration. It may refer to systemic attitudes and problem. And, occasionally we can use other words such as bias to reassure the insecure that we are not accusing them of being a card carrying member of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Yet in spite of its inexactness. In spite of the backlash it can arouse. In spite of how people don’t like to be criticised or called on bullshit. In spite of its bastardised mix of Latin and Greek. I think homophobia is more than simply a tolerably functional word. It is a reminder of the real perverse relationship here. That of fear and ignorance with hate. Christians told us that if we accepted gay people, bestiality and paedophilia would be next. Jeremy Irons claimed in an interview that if gay marriage was allowed nothing would stop sons marrying fathers to dodge inheritance tax. Dogs and cats living together. The hysteria has already abated considerably, but the word will always remind us that not all fears are legitimate.
Forgetting is a luxury not everyone has to worry about. Trans acceptance lags decades behind that of the gay community, in spite of their presence throughout LGBT movements as early as Stonewall. I will reiterate that not one trans person has been reported attacking or assaulting a child or woman while going about their business in a public bathroom. This is in contrast to Republican lawmakers who get up to a great deal in bathrooms it seems.
Those against trans people being allowed in bathrooms of their choice (or at least the more tactful among them) like to claim that they don’t actually think trans people are sexual predators. They fear that real sexual predators will use new laws to enter bathrooms belonging to the opposite gender, because sexual predators are famously respectful of laws and boundaries. This fear over trans people is completely irrational… if only we had a word for such irrational fears. In contrast, a survey of over 27,715 transgender people in the US found over half had avoided using public bathrooms in the last year. Nearly a quarter had been questioned or challenged when using a bathroom in the same period of time, and more than one in ten considered this severe enough to constitute harassment. The people with legitimate fears are not those being heard by those in power.
I hope that by maintaining the label homophobia the gay community will be reminded that we have been through the same conservative playlist as the trans community, and we must support their fight against transphobia. My hopes aren’t exactly high, increasingly it seems the price of mainstream acceptance for the gay community has been the privilege to be bigoted. We must not forget the role trans people have played in our liberation. We must not forget how it felt to be powerless, now that we have a little power. However tenuous the link, homophobia is a word that reminds us of our roots.