Homophobia and beyond: Closets, cloisters and other corrective measures

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Vendredi 14 octobre 2011

Richard Sullivan, University of British Columbia
Guest contributor

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

The recent publicity about bullying to the point where young people were driven to their deaths got me thinking about how “anxious” the perpetrators were. A phobia is an anxiety disorder and the term homophobia has now been bandied about for at least three decades, curiously without psychiatric validation as a diagnostic classification. I remember that the term homophobia  served a political purpose when it was first coined. It provided a counter-narrative to the prevailing paradigms within psychiatry and religion – the disciplines and traditions that had paid greatest attention to same sex relationships and within which prevailing constructions placed us within the folds of sin and mental illness.

A counter-narrative felt good but I also remember a vague annoyance at what seemed to provide a rationalization for hateful behaviour. At the time I was a visible minority gay youth inasmuch as I had never been able to “pass” and had early lost sight of much value in ascribing to the rules. I tread lightly around questions of “choice” since my “no thank you” moment in observation of gender rules came early, though probably abetted by some awareness that I was not likely to be convincing in any effort to play by those rules. I don’t ever remember my tormenters looking anxious. They behaved with social impunity as if they were doing the work of correcting us – getting us back in line.

Some four decades on, I find myself having become an invisible minority since all middle aged white men, and academics in particular, look pretty much the same. The corrective disciplines of propriety, age appropriateness and dignity have long since extinguished any distinctive style and as long as I don’t speak, gesture or dress suspiciously well, I can probably pass for straight.

But for those not yet faded into the woodwork of convention, I wonder if harassment is the price they pay in backlash against what has been gained. What do they have to say about the “anxiety” of their attackers? Is it time to consider other explanations for bad behaviour? And even accepting that there may be some instances of violence motivated by a clinical disorder in the realm of a phobia, do most instances of queer bashing need a rationalizing clinical construct when plain serviceable terms like hateful and stupid will do?

Corrective measures abound, some overtly hostile, some covertly persuasive. I suggest that it might be a more productive route to explore these corrective/coercive normative mechanisms in relation to the closet as an instrument of labour extraction, particularly caring labour or domestic labour. For those for whom conventionality was compromised by visibility or more subtle disinclination, there were closets and very literally cloisters of respectability. I suggest that cultural traditions with a strong emphasis on family duty and filial piety over individualism are most inclined to resist the impulses to freedom of their less conventional members.

These same families have respectable alternatives to marriage and reproduction in the prototypical roles of spinster aunt and bachelor uncle – roles in service to the conventional family. This is not to suggest that all such persons were sexual minorities but the latter may owe an historic debt to tradition in providing sanctuary, albeit at a cost. Those disinclined to conventional marriage and family life could find some sanctuary from normative pressures in the form of roles that still provided service within the normative conventions of family and community life.

The religious service orders and the professions of social work, nursing and education also owe an historic debt to the disinclined – the single men and women whose vocations took them into the service of community at sites often perceived as inhospitable to their married peers. Disproportionate numbers of single people have figured in the histories of these institutions and professions. For some, a respectable solitude was traded for any impulse to freedom and solidarity with the sexual peers from whom they were separated by enforced secrecy. Social convention is the beneficiary.

Bullying then and now serves to enforce rules by which the resources of sexual minorities are extracted. As with many groups, enduring labour ghettoes exist. Consider the number of stereotyped gay and lesbian “professions” that are in the personal or public service fields, meeting the needs of the community including the needs for entertainment and aesthetic improvement.

Stereotypes themselves are exercised as corrective measures but they can also serve as a north star, a beacon to sanctuary. We are now in a period of exodus from labour ghettoes. We are coming out all over and families and communities can be expected to defend their interests as continuing beneficiaries of our labours.

Pseudo-clinical rationalization in terms like homophobia does not serve to interrogate the interests served by subordination in all of its brutal and refined forms. If “It Gets Better” is to be more than a bumper sticker, our young must be protected. They must be supported in the ferocity they will need to sustain the pride that is also their rightful heritage.

Passion is not friendly, it is arrogant, superbly contemptuous of all that is not itself, and as the very definition of passion implies the impulse to freedom, it has a might intimidating power. It contains a challenge. It contains an unspeakable hope.” (James Baldwin)

By way of shifting our gaze to the unacknowledged beneficiaries of our labour, in another blog I would like to use traditional religious reasoning to argue against assimilation and the reproduction of the traditional nuclear family by sexual minorities. I will argue that God’s plan included setting roughly 10 percent of the population aside and exempting them from reproduction, hunting and grunting so that they could get on with the task of building civilization.  I might also like to further develop the discussion of queer labour ghettos and the cultural appropriation of “fag shui” and other inclinations more commonly attributed to ten percent of the population.

And having dispensed with the concept of homophobia outside of acute clinical circumstances, I would like to explore a number of equally rational reasons for disliking sexual minorities and perhaps propose some others like jealousy, resentment over the consolidation of male privilege in the white gay community, using internal networks to access resources just as other minority communities have done, and an annoying tendency toward conservatism and assimilation once rights are gained.

I would also like to advise traditional families on the practicality of raising a queer child as a hedge against the collapse of social security. With declining family size, it is merely efficient to raise a “twofer” – to get yourself a tomboy daughter who can fix your plumbing and decorate your cake.

Richard Sullivan  is a professor and social worker at the University of British Columbia, and provides unbidden direction to his extended family, community and anyone who will tolerate it.  “If I must serve, you must roll the credits. That's how it gets better.”


Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgendered/ Queer/ Intersex/ Two-SpiritedGender equityEquity and diversity


Mr. Sullivan,

I loved your article. I especially related to your term "labour ghettos." I had some thoughts of my own while I was contemplating your argument. Namely, the exodus of gay and lesbian labour into the caring and community service professions might also be explained in relation to straight male hostility and our affiliation with women. Yes, those of us who do not conform to convention often find sanctuary, safety and community in jobs that the powers that be do not wish to occupy. They will tolerate our gender bending as long as we are providing an essential service (i.e. colouring their hair or cleaning the bed pans of their aged parents). This phenomenon mirrors the formal and informal immigration policy of the US. Specifically, as long as you are cleaning toilets or picking fruit.... we don't ask and you don't tell. But not all community service employers welcome our creative flare and our nurturing, undivided hearts. Policing, firefighting, garbage collecting, construction (flaggers exempted of course), plumbing, just to name a few, are all positions that serve the public good (in theory, anyway). Why aren't gays (and to a lesser extent, lesbians) found there in disproportionate numbers? It's for the same reason we gravitated towards the corner of the student cafeteria occupied by the cheerleaders and glee club. Women are safer. I can think of many young effeminate boys in my youth whose only friends, well into adulthood, were women. We align ourselves with women from very early ages. We escape black eyes from boys by avoiding gym classes and the smoking pits. Instead, we find our friendships while hiding in back yards playing make believe with the girls.

Don Miller (proud not to be "anonymous")

What utter claptrap. This fellow lives in a parallel self-absorbed universe. Politically motivated, self-centered gender confusion has no place on this supposed academic blog.