Two riffs on homophobia

(1) “Enlightened homophobia” and straight privilege

Everyone has heard some version of, “I don’t mind gays so long as they don’t bother me.” This is somewhat like saying, “I don’t mind grocery clerks so long as they don’t throw canned goods at me when I enter the store.” Even if the statement were acceptable on its own, the fact that one would bother making it at all calls even his qualified acceptance of grocery workers into question. The fact that he isn’t saying it about other groups of workers assumes some special propensity on the part of these groups to misbehave.

What these vaguely enlightened types mean by “gays bothering them” is most often: approaching them romantically, making out in front of their children, etc. Once we plug in this variable, the comparison to grocery store workers is less apt. Of course we blame grocery workers for hurling stock at patrons; but on what grounds do we blame, say, gay men for approaching straight men? (I target straight men here because they are the demographic from which the argument tend to emerge.) Why must gay men bear the burden of making absolutely 100% sure in advance that whomever they are approaching is receptive to the approach? It is quite possible that the target of a cold straight approach could be a lesbian; yet straight men hold themselves to no such standard. (And holding different social groups to different standards is, in a word, discrimination.)

And why limit mandatory advance knowledge to knowledge of sexual orientation? When I equated matching orientation with “receptivity,” this was a pretty cavalier simplifying device. Any number of straight women are unreceptive to any number of straight men, too; and sexual orientation is just one of many factors that would make them so. Men concerned to “not bother” an unreceptive woman would have to deal with this entire catalogue. The whole enterprise of flirtation would be fatally hampered by an attempt to obtain all the requisite information beforehand. A clinical demographic survey is quite the turn-off for an opener.

Nor would it be enough; receptivity to a romantic approach is at least in part determined by how the approach itself goes, and thus logically cannot be determined in advance no matter what “facts” we know about the parties. (My wife and I are damned compatible, but we’d never have gotten off the ground if on our first meeting I’d shat my pants and addressed her only through a ventriloquist’s dummy.) We simply cannot know if we are open until we see a bit more of what we are opening ourselves to.

(2) The “incomprehensibility argument” against homosexuality

Years ago, I thought I had heard a certain “argument” against homosexuality. It was so absurd that in time, I figured this was misremembering. But sure enough, I heard it again a few times lately. This prompted some light internet research which yielded many more references (including this recent invocation by Mike Huckabee). I talked to some of my coworkers about gay marriage and it was the first thing two of them said about it.

One might call this the “incomprehensibility” argument—insofar as it can be called an argument at all. It consists entirely in the homophobe’s sheer inability to understand why, for instance, a man would want to be with another man. (I hear this argument from both sexes, but mostly of gay men.) It is not entirely clear what this even means. This can’t be like not “understanding” a math problem or a foreign language. It is some kind of failure to “project,” to imagine or picture oneself in the position of having this attraction—and of course the conclusion that the attraction must then be wrong.

So much can be said here. Is the homophobe saying, because he can’t imagine these feelings, he doubts that gay men actually have them for one another? Surely not. But then, if it is true that someone can “imagine” this, the argument wouldn’t apply to those persons’ behavior, right? Homosexuality wouldn’t be wrong for them. Surely it is not the case that, if not everyone is gay, then no one can be. The strongest mandate the logic permits is: Don’t be gay if you can’t imagine what it is like. (And I imagine you wouldnt if you cant.)

By the same token, the homophobe can’t “understand” so many other things—why his friends enjoy cigarettes, or Indian food, and soforth. There are even straight sexual acts, no less—some underworld kink, if nothing else—which he doesn’t “get.” This is, I think, almost exactly what it means to have different interests; and everyone’s interests differ at least somewhat from everyone else’s. In such cases, we don’t work up our lack of imaginative projection into a norm against these activities. Another’s interests could be wrong, yes, but we demand other kinds of evidence to make the case. Nobody says, “I don’t get 70’s music, so it is immoral.” And nobody would listen if they did.

Conversely, many homosexuals will fail to “get” the homophobe’s attraction to women. They can’t imagine themselves wanting that. Should it not follow that the homophobe’s orientation is also wrong? For him to maintain that his own lack of understanding “counts” here, and the homosexuals’ does not, simply begs the question: His argument is supposed to show that homosexuality is spurious; that same argument cannot simply assume that conclusion when it gets in trouble.

Finally—and I consider this the kicker—even the most rabid gay-basher already accepts sexual ‘orientations’ he doesn’t “understand”: He is no more able to “picture” his wife’s or lover’s attraction for men, or for him in particular. He (we’ll assume) is not turned on to look at himself in the mirror, or at other men. But this inability does not lead him to doubt the reality nor the moral legitimacy of his lover’s attraction to him, or to males. He cannot have it both ways; if the “incomprehensibility argument” is rational, then, his lover’s behavior is not.


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