Mitch Helix answers an article from Slate, explaining why its conclusions are wrong.
Zach Howe’s piece for Slate, “What is Homophobia? Why Straight Men are Right to be Homophobic” presents an unexpected victim of homophobia: straight men. The piece contains many important insights such as the fact that men are not permitted to have complex sexualities, heterosexuality’s power lies in its perception, and that homophobia is a systemic outcome of our society. However, the piece’s title, likely chosen for shock value, presents a thesis that I find fundamentally flawed. Also, despite several great observations, Howe is unable to fully answer questions such as why is perceived heterosexuality seen as ideal even among gay audiences and why do straight men react so negatively to male attraction? Expanding Howe’s examination to include systems of gender can provide some answers.
We live in a society where notions of gender are deeply entrenched and strongly enforced. The system elevates men by lowering women. With male status comes numerous advantages: assumptions about your intelligence are not made solely on your gender, you are allowed to have multiple female partners without being labeled a slut, people do not label your standards as bitchiness, your arguments are not seen as inherently emotional. These advantages are commonly referred to as male privilege. However, a requirement to access the full benefits of male privilege is an ability to stay within conventional standards of masculinity and that includes the perception of heterosexuality. Thus, a critical aspect of homophobia stems from the rigid gender roles of society.
Male privilege is maintained by devaluing women and all traits deemed feminine; this includes attraction to men as well as the ability to attract men. This is why straight men react to attraction from other males so strongly because it is a perceived assault on their own masculinity and therefore privilege. Attention from men is seen as degrading because, in the existing system, men subconsciously believe being a woman is inherently degrading. Hence, to have or be perceived to have homosexual desire carries the risk of losing male privilege. Within this system, accusations of gayness operate as a method of restricting and checking male behavior to fall within the accepted confines of masculinity.
Even among gay men, the ability to achieve the masculine ideal through perceived heterosexuality is seen as positive. In personal ads, the phrases “straight-acting” and “masculine” are common and frequently desirable. In media that is directed at gay men, feminine males are generally absent, desexualized, or comic relief. The comic relief trope exists as a conduit for gay men to ameliorate their incomplete access to male privilege by pointing out someone less acceptable. In society at large, the greater acceptance of gay men has taken on an undertone of ‘not all gay men are sissies’ instead of ‘being a sissy isn’t a bad thing.’
As Howe rightly points out, lesbians have been largely ignored in public discourse on homosexuality because of our society’s difficulty in admitting that women have a sexuality at all. However, the focus on gay men also stems from the fact that the debate on homosexuality is mired in a heavily gendered system. Gay men’s adoption of traits that are defaulted as feminine places them in an inferior class to the masculine ideal. Still, gay men’s existence is threatening to the system because they have access to male privilege, but do not conform to its mandates. Lesbians are not seen as equally offensive to the larger society because, by virtue of their female bodies, they do not have access to male privilege, and, therefore, cannot condemn it. Thus, female homosexuality is relatively ignored, but male homosexuality is viewed as dangerous and perverse.
Even without the context of gender, I find the point of Howe’s piece dubious and apologetic. I agree that homophobia is the inevitable outcome of our societal norms, but that makes it all the more crucial that prejudice isn’t just casually accepted. Homophobia’s pervasiveness doesn’t absolve the people who perpetuate it of criticism.
Yes, straight men face a high price for being perceived as homosexual, but it is ridiculous to ask for sympathy when gay men and women in general have already paid that price. We shouldn’t have to bear the additional burden of forgiving straight guys for their homophobia so they can maintain their privilege particularly when that privilege is supported by our oppression. Homophobia is not just being called a faggot or getting an odd glance when you are with your partner; for many, it’s not getting the job you want, it is relocating to achieve greater social and legal acceptance, it’s facing greater subjugation to violence and homelessness, it’s dealing with assumptions about your interests and abilities. Howe halfheartedly acknowledges this, which makes his suggestion that we should just accept added insult to injury more perplexing. So, no, straight men aren’t right to be homophobic.
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