Article Title:Behind the taunts: Homophobiaphobia
Category:Features
Author or Credit:Eugene Moore
Published on:15th March 2003 - 12:00 pm
Published by:GayNZ.com
Story ID:68
Text:The spat between Act MP Rodney Hide and employees of ACI Glass Packaging may have its roots in a fear of homophoboa - homophobiaphobia - according to Eugene Moore, a specialist in workplace education on homosexuality issues. The exchange on Waiheke Island between Rodney Hide and some businessmen speaks volumes regarding the difference between the 'official ban' on gay people that was the law before 1986, and the 'unofficial ban' that continues to operate long after the law has changed, and that effectively keeps glbt people fearful of disclosure - particularly in the workplace where so much is at stake. Many people assume that with changes to the law, there are corresponding changes in attitude, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. When a manager, such as the Human Resource Manager for ACI Glass Packaging of Penrose, considers it an insult to be referred to as gay, what message is given to those employees who are weighing the pros and cons of coming out at work? It is these kind of unofficial comments, particularly from significant people in politics and business, which mean infinitely more than official statements that claim non-discrimination against sexual minorities. There is often a huge gap between policy and practice. But there is a larger story behind the childish taunts of Mr Hide and the deep feelings of offence taken by the men who he labelled as gay. The types of exchanges that took place at that Waiheke resort are quite common among boys and men, and things are not always what they seem. The fact that many men regard 'gay' as the ultimate insult, and Hide's specific use of homophobic labelling (calling others fag, poof, gay, etc.), really needs to be seen less as 'homophobia' (defined here as prejudice against glb people) and more as 'homophobiaphobia' (the fear of homophobia itself). To understand many men's propensity for using homophobic labelling against other men, we have to examine the socialisation among males that is rife throughout childhood and often continues into adulthood - particularly within professions that have a high degree of what is called "masculine ideology". According to Dr David Plummer of the University of New England in NSW, males grow up using homophobic labelling as their means of bullying. Boys in school who exhibit certain characteristics that have nothing to do with being gay (such as showing academic excellence, not taking part in high-status sports such as rugby, having shiny shoes, showing positive emotions, etc.) are often targets of this type of labelling. As a result of being homophobically labelled, these boys often experience isolation and verbal and/or physical assaults. By the time most boys leave high school, they have well-and-truly learned to fear even the slightest suggestion that they could be gay. And in order to avoid being labelled, boys have learned how to use labelling against others. That is, by calling other males 'gay', there is less chance that the labeller will be labelled. This is where Plummer's term 'homophobiaphobia' comes in. This socialisation in school is not teaching males to fear or hate homosexuality, but rather to fear homophobia itself! When a boy is homophobically labelled, there is a significant chance that homophobic actions will follow. In other words, males don't so much grow up learning to fear homosexuality, they grow up learning to fear homophobic labelling, and in order to protect themselves from that labelling, many men adopt anti-gay attitudes (homophobia), particularly in their speech. It is a vicious cycle. Thus, one can appear to be anti-gay, when in reality one may instead simply be homophobiaphobic. Good examples of this can be seen in the highly masculine worlds of military and law enforcement agencies: the police officer who balks at having an openly gay colleague in his patrol car - not necessarily because he is anti-gay, but because he fears being homophobically labelled by his mates because he is partnered with a gay officer; the tank-crew that is not so much fearful of their gay workmate, but rather because of what the other tank crews will call them because they are sharing sleeping quarters with a gay man. It is interesting that some of these unfortunate exchanges on Waiheke took place in the context of a men's toilet, and it illustrates how powerful is this fear of homophobia among males, particularly in situations where the potential for being labelled is high. If you ask any group of males what is the first and foremost rule for men who are standing at a public urinal next to a stranger, they will always answer, "Keep your eyes straight ahead and don't talk!" Why? Because if you look or talk, the stranger might think you are gay, and there could be a homophobic reaction by him in the form of a verbal or physical assault - it is the fear of homophobia, not homosexuality, that is operating in this situation. In such contexts as toilets, complex rules of homophobia operate to regulate male behaviour. As soon as men enter a public toilet, all the normal rules of social engagement are altered to take homophobiaphobia into account. So, people like Mr Hide who exhibit what appears to be homophobia, may actually be using homophobic labelling against others as a means to protect themselves from such labelling. Many men feel that by becoming the labeller, there is far less chance of them ever being labelled as gay. And while it sounds like a rather immature way for grown heterosexual males to behave, it is actually quite common and indeed understandable when the interactions of the schoolyard over many years are taken into consideration. Some men just don't ever get over it. We are only beginning to understand the pervasive influence of homophobia upon society as a whole, and the way that it regulates (especially) male behaviour. It is too simple to just assume that people who use homophobic language are necessarily anti-gay. By helping people to understand what may actually be behind their apparently anti-gay attitudes, we can help them to change. It is this approach that is proving so successful in the military and law enforcement organisations in which we work to reduce the damaging impact of homophobia. It helps straight men in particular to see homophobia as the enemy that has dogged them since primary school - not homosexuality. This not only enables them to view homophobia as a threat common to straight and gay men, but also enables them to understand the fear of disclosure that many gay people feel in society in general and in the workplace in particular: if straight people can be so afraid of being thought to be gay, then they can relate to the fear of disclosure on the part of their gay colleagues. On the other hand, some homophobic behaviour can also come from those who are personally dealing with issues of homosexual orientation. In the NY Times on September 24, 2002, there was an interesting article that looked at internalised homophobia. One particular paragraph stands out: "A provocative clue to the psychological origin of homophobia comes from a study of self-described homophobic and nonhomophobic heterosexual men by Dr Henry Adams of the University of Georgia. The two groups were shown gay pornography while penile circumference was monitored. None of the nonhomophobic men had erections; the homophobic men did, but denied any subjective feelings of sexual arousal". Does this mean that all or even most homophobic actions stem from those who experience same-sex attraction? Of course not, but for some men, this is clearly the case. Again, things are not always what they appear to be. And yet, despite what may actually be behind such comments, they nonetheless have a huge impact upon those that hear them. Whether the hearer is gay, straight or anything in between, such language creates an environment that is toxic and utterly incompatible with a society in which sexual minorities are purportedly free from discrimination. The gap between official policy - whether that is the law of the land or a statement of non-discrimination in a corporate manual - and practice, was vividly illustrated in the antics of those boys at the Waiheke Resort. Eugene Moore - 15th March 2003    
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