This is the speech I gave as part of the panel in the LGBT+ Lib Dems/Stonewall Fringe at the Lib Dem autumn conference in Brighton.
I want to talk a little bit about the nature of homophobia. This is an area where one has to choose words carefully, but if you’ll bear with me for a minute, I’ll attempt a working definition of homophobia as the hatred of someone who experiences same sex attraction, or who is perceived to experience same sex attraction.
The point about perception is important, because not only do you not have to be homosexual to experience homophobia: bisexual people experience it too, for example. You don’t even need to experience same sex attraction. You can be entirely and conventionally heterosexual in your sexual behaviour and desires, and still be a victim of homophobia.
Indeed, plenty of people are on the receiving end of homophobia before they are sexually active at all – we all know that homophobic bullying happens to kids from a very young age.
Actual sexual behaviour isn’t really a causative factor in most homophobic abuse. I have experienced homophobic abuse in public, and I, like most people, don’t actually have sex in public. As an elected representative of the people, that sort of thing is frowned upon.
So when someone screams “faggot!” or “dkye!” at someone in the street, what are they actually keying off that triggers that homophobic reaction? What is it about certain people that homophobic bigots decide to home in on? Gay, lesbian and bisexual people are just like everyone else, apart from the sex thing, right? Right?
Well, no. Spend even a short amount of time in LGBT circles and it becomes pretty obvious that there is something different, not about everyone, but about a lot of people.
I’m going to suggest that what a lot of people are picking up on, and reacting with homophobia towards, is something they perceive as transgressive about the target of their abuse. It could be the way they look, or the way they talk, or the things they’re doing, or whatever. I’m going to further suggest that the apparent transgressions that are being picked up on are, in fact, perceived transgressions of gendered behaviour.
About gay men, homophobes use words like, “mincing”, “flamboyant”, “limp wristed”, “camp”, “ducky”, “effeminate”. Jokes about airline stewards and their handbags are often made. If you’re a lesbian woman, as I am, you might get homophobes telling you that you’re ugly, that you need to shave, that you should get back in the kitchen, that you “wear comfortable shoes” (I do actually wear comfortable shoes – life’s too short not to). If we have short hair or don’t wear any makeup, they pick up on that.
So I’m going to say something perhaps a little bit controversial here. Much, probably most, homophobia which gets directed at people is about what we might call non cisnormativity. Most homophobia is, in fact, rooted in and emergent out of, transphobia.
So what’s transphobia? I’ll attempt a working definition again. Transphobia is the hatred of people who identity, or who are perceived to identify, in a way that is commonly associated with a gender other than the one they are assigned at birth. You don’t need t be trans to experience transphobia. Someone just has to decide that you are not meeting their standards of what a real man, or a real woman should be.
A lot of the abuse that gets hurled is the same as for homophobia, because really transphobia and homophobia are two sides of the same coin. Trans women, for example, will often get called “ducky” and “sissy” and “faggot”, just as gay men will. Trans men will often have “dyke” hurled at them by an abuser. We’re all basically being abused for the same thing – that is we are transgressing what someone regards as acceptable gendered behaviour.
I’m not stopping here though, because I think transphobia itself is a manifestation of a deeper gendered neurosis in our society, and that is misogyny – hatred of women and the feminine.
Think about it: if someone comes out as gay at work and gets abused as a result, a lot of the abuse will centre around whether they are the one who takes on the so-called “female role” in sex. To be penetrated is to have sex like a woman, and that is degrading and not something a “proper man” would permit himself to be subjected to.
It’s similar with women who have sex with women, and indeed with trans men. Both groups are seen as trying to “better” themselves in ways that they aren’t really “entitled to”. Lesbians are derided as never being able to truly satisfy a woman. Only a proper man can do that. We just need to experience the real thing, so the story goes, and we will be straightened out into well adjusted heterosexual women, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
I’m reminded of a sketch on the Catherine Tate show. You know the one – she plays a passive aggressive woman who gets into a trivial situation and starts screaming, “Man! Man!”. In one episode there is a slight twist. Her car breaks down, and she starts her usual mantra. A woman comes along and offers to help and once again she starts yelling for a man. The other woman says, “it’s OK, I’m a lesbian”, and proceeds to fix the car.
Comedy like this reflects society’ attitudes towards LGBT people. We’re a bunch of men who taint ourselves with the effeminate, and a bunch of women who try to shed what’s seen as pathetic femininity to be proper people, i.e. men.
Homophobia is rooted in transphobia, and transphobia is rooted in misogyny, and if we are to challenge any of this we desperately need to engage in joined up thinking. There’s a school of thought that LGB people will gain acceptance if we can convince the homophobes that we’re just like the rest of them, apart from what we do in the bedroom. For some of us, that might be true, but for a lot of us it isn’t. I think this approach to try and address homophobic bullying and abuse is largely futile because it doesn’t deal with the core problem. Some people will always express behaviour which is seen as not gender normative. Our message needs to be that there is nothing wrong with that, and furthermore there is nothing wrong with femininity either.
We need to get our own houses in order. When we see transphobia in the LGB community, we need to challenge it. When we see misogyny an sexism in any part of our community, we need to challenge that. Every time a drag queen refers to women as “fish”, every time the LGB establishment turns a blind eye to transphobia in its own ranks, we serve to further the attitudes that underly homophobia bullying. We need to get this right ourselves, because if we don’t, who will?
A well put argument with a very important message. Thank you for making this speech and I hope it was well received.
Thank you for speaking up and for saying all of those things. At its most basic level abuse and persecution is about difference, whatever that difference happens to be. We are a diverse community grouped by labels and, as you say, we need to recognise that diversity and be respectful of it.
Excellent article Sarah! My thoughts entirely, you cannot seperate these three things and those who try to do so are deluding themselves.
Thank you for this Sarah. I have never heard of the ‘fish’ thing – why do drag queens refer to women as ‘fish’ and what to do they mean by it?
I believe it’s something to do with how it’s imagined that vaginas smell.
This is an excellent and important speech, Sarah. I think it’s always important to bear in mind that transphobia and turning a blind eye to transphobia stem from a much more deep seated and pervasive ideology … what Gavi Ansara and others have described as cisgenderism. It’s one thing to ask people not be nasty to other people who behave differently. Getting them to understand the invalidity of their beliefs that that difference is fundamentally perverse or ‘goes against nature’ is something else.
The more I read the comments to this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2012/oct/09/gay-marriage-carey-nazi the more I think you’re right.
It’s not that the homophobes are bothered by the sex as they are that people aren’t fitting into their prescribed gender roles. And I know that most LGB folks don’t get that.
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