I didn’t always know what homophobia was. I always assumed that it simply meant that someone was frightened by queer people. That would have explained why my snot-nosed classmates were deathly afraid — or too uncomfortable — to sit next to me at lunch or be alone with me in the restroom.
I thought I understood that particular definition of homophobia. I have my own irrational fears and a list of things that make me uncomfortable, too. I’m afraid of heights, bugs, and being forced to listen to Taylor Swift’s rendition of Earth Wind and Fire. I become very uncomfortable when people reach or talk over my food, and I’m very uncomfortable around people who purposely neglect their personal hygiene.
I, too, go out of my way to avoid my fears. I don’t climb ladders. I don’t go outside without bathing myself in insect repellant. I muted “Taylor Swift” on Twitter. I take appropriate actions to avoid my fears and whatever makes me uncomfortable.
Although, as I matured, I watched the definition of “homophobia” evolve. What I once mistook for trivial jokes and alienation is actually something not altogether humane. It isn’t something funny. It’s revolting. It’s scary. It’s life-changing. Homophobia is something that I learned to fear, but I can’t do anything to avoid it.
What’s the term for queer people who are afraid of arbitrary anti-queer attacks? Why is there no single word ending with ‘phobia’ that regularizes our irreproachable fear of being attacked, harassed, or murdered for simply existing?
Ten years ago, I saw the fire in my father’s cold, dark brown eyes when he threatened to choke the life out of me for being queer, then kill my mother for trying to defend me. I relive that moment at least once a day. It makes me think about 14-year-old Giovanni Melton and eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, minors whose parents stole their lives because of their identity.
The term “homophobia” was created in the 1960’s by a psychotherapist named George Weinberg. He coined the term after observing his colleagues’ behavior around openly queer people. The New York Times reported that a group of Weinberg’s colleagues learned that he invited a lesbian woman to a party, and they asked him to rescind that invitation. “I sensed not just the dislike, but also fear — a fear so extreme that it suggested some of the characteristics of a phobia,” he said. “I coined the word homophobia to mean it was a phobia about homosexuals.”
This does not reflect my experiences.
Andrew Smith said, “People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer.” But my father understands me fully. He understands my sexual identity, and he understands that he cannot control who I am or who I will become. He is not afraid of me or any other person who is queer. He hates me, and the feeling is mutual. He hates me because I am unchangeably queer, and I hate him because he’s an unchangeably homophobic piece of shit who very nearly succeeded in ruining my life.
The term “homophobia” evolved because queer people have gained enough visibility to redefine the very poorly worded term through our own painful experiences. Homophobia isn’t a phobia like arachnophobia or agoraphobia; it isn’t exclusive to offensive slurs, petty alienation, and weird hetero obsessions with queer sex. It’s about violence, keeping control over queer people, and perpetuating menacing stigmas that demonize the entire community.
Let’s observe the New York Times‘ Trump-and-Putin cartoon, which is supposed to poke fun at Trump’s adoration for Putin — his treasonous adoration for Putin. In lieu of creating a funny cartoon that showcases Trump’s blatant betrayal of America and our intelligence agencies — who have proof that Russians interfered with our 2016 election — we got a softcore Trump-and-Putin gay porno.
Let’s say that homophobia is about fear. Why the hell would someone who is afraid of homosexuality feel comfortable enough to create a homo-erotic cartoon? Is this a homophobic person’s coping mechanism? Is this their way of keeping control over whatever the hell homophobia is supposed to be?
Moreover, many straight people still go by Weinberg’s very hetero definition of “Homophobia.” They still believe it’s about fear, and that’s what makes it dangerous. People, especially straight men, will always go to extraordinary lengths to prove that they’re not afraid of anything.
In a Facebook post, my friend’s boyfriend wrote, “How am I homophobic? I’m not afraid of you faggots, I’ll beat all your asses.” To prove that he’s not afraid of queer people, he is willing to physically assault us.
Fragile masculinity has a way of making men want to prove that they are fearless. A man will step on a spider to prove that he isn’t arachnophobic. A man will wrestle with and kill an alligator with his bare hands to prove that he isn’t herpetophobic. So, what will a man do to a queer person to prove that he’s not Weinberg’s definition of “homophobic?”
I can understand why someone would be afraid of heights. Why someone would tremor in fear if a spider ambushed them in a bedroom, in a tight hall, or even in an open field with plenty of space to run. But I cannot fathom the daft idea of being afraid of queer people.
My experience with homophobia is not about fear. It’s about violence, harassment, and sometimes death.