Homophobia is a matter of structures not intentions

William Foley

Comment Editor

Despite delivering a smack on the wrist to the national broadcaster, it’s good to know that the Iona Institute’s prolific lawyers have not managed to stop Ireland’s “paper of record” from weighing in on the homophobia debate. Noel Whelan opened the post-“Pantigate” proceedings in the Irish Times with an article on the twenty fifth of January. The substance of his position was that the term homophobe can only be applied to someone who has “an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people.” Thus, he was led to conclude, “the suggestion that anyone who disagrees with full equality for gays and lesbians is homophobic is surely a misuse of the word.”

The absurdity of this position is easily illustrated by substituting other persecuted groups for the “homosexual people” in Whelan’s statement. If someone said to our face that “the suggestion that anyone who disagrees with full equality for blacks is racist is surely a misuse of the word”, we would rightly laugh in their face. That we would be within our rights to immediately dismiss this position is a testament to the way that the notion of racial equality has become embedded in our common, spontaneous morality. That “full equality for gays and lesbians” is something that is up for debate illustrates that there is still a necessity for cultural struggle in our society to enshrine the notion of sexual equality, twenty one years after homosexuality was decriminalised.

When it comes to the homophobia debate, there are two tasks for progressives: firstly, they need to define homophobia, and secondly, they need to consider how it can be applied in the struggle for LGBT* rights. Noel Whelan clearly believes that homophobia is a matter of intention. In a February fourth column for the same paper, Fintan O’Toole penned a rebuttal to this position (though he did not reference Whelan’s column) – homophobia, he argued, is a structural affair. But in the February seventh issue, it was O’Toole’s turn to be rebuttaled – by Chris Connolly who argued that “motive matters”, that it is intentions not actions which make the homophobe. Connolly’s point may initially seem convincing. Affirmative action programmes, he points out, discriminate on the basis of race – does this make them racist? If not, then the structural definition of homophobia – that homophobia is any action which contributes to the structural oppression of LGBT* people – is problematic and we must return to the intentional definition. The problem with this line of argument is that, firstly, it does not take account of the broad structures of oppression at work in society, and, secondly, it does not take account of cultural and historical aspects.

Imagine if you were a black person growing up in Oakland, California in the seventies. Your daily life is the lived experience of oppression. The cops harass you, your family is constantly threatened with eviction, your school is more like a prison, practically your whole neighbourhood is unemployed and you have little hope yourself of ever getting a decent job when you leave school. The misery of your daily life is caused by structures established by powerful white people who profit from your subjugation. This pisses you off, it makes you angry, and you decide that you hate white people and you join the Black Panthers. Does this make you racist? If we hold with Connolly’s intentional definition it does. Indeed, some would describe this type of black nationalism as a form of “reverse racism.”

The Australian comic Aamer Rahman skewered the stupidity of the “reverse racism” thesis in one of his stand-up routines. In this routine, he imagines what would be necessary in order for reverse racism to occur: “I could be a reverse racist if I wanted to. All I would need is a time machine. I’d get in my time machine and go back in time to before Europe colonised the world. I’d convince the leaders of Africa, the Middle East, Central and South America to invade and colonise Europe, occupy them and steal their land and resources, set up some sort of trans-Asian slave trade where we exported white people to work on rice plantations in China. Just ruin Europe over the course of a couple of centuries so all their descendants would want to migrate out and go live in the places where black and brown people come from. But of course, in that time I’d make sure that I set up systems which privileged black and brown people and every conceivable social, political and economic opportunity so that white people would never have any real hope of self-determination…”

It’s clear that racism involves more than just intentions. Racism, as Rahman points out, takes place in a social and historical context of systematised oppression. Someone who believes that blacks shouldn’t have the right to marry is a racist, no matter how many black friends they have or how well-disposed they are to black people in general. Similarly, if we accept that the position of LGBT* people is analogous to that of ethnic minorities, someone who opposes same-sex marriage is a homophobe. This does not mean that they are a horrible person, by this criteria some of the nicest, kindest people I know are homophobes.

And let there be no doubt that there is a history of structural discrimination against LGBT* people. Homophobia is inscribed into our laws, into our perceptions and into our culture. This is the mistake Connolly makes when he claims that if the opponents of same-sex marriage are homophobes, then the opponents of polygamous marriage are anti-polygamist bigots. There is no history (in Ireland) of the structural oppression of practitioners of polygamy.

But this, of course, is only my definition. I happen to think that it is the definition that makes the most sense but, ultimately, the meaning of a word is defined according to social consensus. This attachment of meaning to the word is not necessarily a neutral process but often, as in the words racist and sexist for example, the result of a cultural and political struggle. Right now a struggle is being carried out to define the meaning of the word “homophobe.” The conservative side wants to limit the use of the word to the most extreme cases of anti-homosexual hatred because it suits their agenda. Progressives must battle for a broader definition which includes those who, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, support structures which discriminate against LGBT* people.