Friday, October 22, 2004

Homophobia, Heterosexism, Intolerance and Religion

So, a friend of the Pope’s earmarked to be the Secretary for the European Commission said that he considered homosexual conduct a sin. For this he is said to be a “homophobe” and all sorts of trendy politicians in Europe - - green and not so green, are flocking to denounce him and try to ensure that he not be on the future Commission.

The man in question, Mr. Rocco Buttiglione, apparently was careful to state, when he gave that interview, that his beliefs about homosexual conduct need not determine his policies in relation to homosexual conduct as a crime. No matter, he has been termed a “homophobe” and even, on today’s French Culture radio broadcast, a “sexist” because of another outrageous view he has put about - - namely that women should have the freedom to stay at home with their children if they wish! Imagine.

During the marriage challenge cases in Canada over the last few years it was commonplace for the lawyers hired on behalf of same-sex marriage activists to refer to opposing viewpoints as either “homophobic” or “heterosexist.” As the lawyers on the other side of these cases we had to try and understand what this language meant.

In an affidavit prepared for the Interfaith Coalition for Marriage, a group I and other lawyers represented as co-counsel in several provinces, Professor Dan Cere of McGill University gave a bit of history about these terms. A history many people would find interesting. The whole affidavit is available on the website of Dr. Cere’s organization at McGill (see below) but I would like to record, here, the relevant paragraphs on the terms “homophobia” and “heterosexism” from paras. 24 – 35 of Dr. Cere’s affidavit.


24. The word ‘homophobia’ first appeared in print in 1969 in Homosexual, a national newsweekly in the United States. It was coined by American psychologist George Weinberg. Weinberg used homophobia to label heterosexuals' dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals as well as homosexuals' self-loathing. In his 1972 study, Society and the Healthy Homosexual, Weinberg developed the concept of ‘homophobia’ at some length. He argued that homophobia was an entrenched feature of American as well as Western culture. He claimed that in world views infected by homophobia “homosexuality itself is considered a problem.” A characteristic feature of homophobic world-views is an “unwarranted distress over homosexuality.” (Weinberg 1972, 4). Given this very loose construction of “homophobia” and the question-begging nature of what is meant by “unwarranted”, it is likely that if by “unwarranted” Weinberg means, “concerned about the implications of homosexual and lesbian conduct” then most major religious traditions would have to be considered “homophobic.” This kind of rhetoric is hardly helpful in terms of the kind of distinctions necessary within civil society. It stigmatizes religious communities and seeks to destroy the credibility of religious thought which has been, and remains, a fundamentally important source in building the concepts that guide and govern society. This relationship between religion and religious principles and contemporary liberal societies has been widely recognized by many contemporary political philosophers (including Jean Bethke Elshtain, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor).

25. The meaning of the term homophobia was also extended to include “internalized homophobia”—“the conscious or subconscious adoption and acceptance of negative feelings and attitudes about homosexuals or homosexuality by homosexual men and lesbians.” Internalized homophobia is evidenced in a variety of ways including denial or discomfort with being a homosexual, low self-esteem, and depression. The concept of “internalized homophobia” is often employed to suggest a direct causal link between the levels of psychological or emotional pain or distress among homosexual and lesbians and the ‘culture of homophobia’ maintained by heterosexuals.

26. A variety of strategies for measuring homophobia have been devised. Hudson and Ricketts have developed the “Index of Homophobia” in order to identity variations between “high grade homophobics” and “low grade homophobics.” (Hudson and Ricketts 1980). However, there is considerable debate about the reliability and validity of these instruments. Some researchers argue that heterosexuals' ‘anti-homosexual’ attitudes cannot reasonably be considered to be a phobia in the clinical sense. The limited data available suggest that many heterosexuals who may express hostility toward homosexual and lesbian behavior do not manifest the typical physiological reactions to homosexuality that are associated with phobias. (Shields, S. A., & Harriman, R. E. 1984)

27. A third component in the evolving discourse on homophobia was the development of the concept of “heterosexism.” Patricia Beattie Jung and Ralph E. Smith describe heterosexism as a system of reasoned prejudice that maintains that heterosexuality “is the measure by which all other sexual orientations are judged” (Beattie Jung and Smith 1993, 13-14). Heterosexism expresses itself in “heteronormativity” which attributes some form of superiority or privilege to “heterosexuality.” William Countryman defines heterosexism as a view that perceives heterosexuality to be a “key to our social morality.” (Countryman 2000, 171). According to Margrit Eichler, “The heterosexist bias is treating the heterosexual family as ‘natural’, thereby denying family status to lesbian and gay families.” (Family Shifts, 9).

28. Heterosexist ideologies, according to this view, are a form of social bias. The “pervasiveness of heterosexism and homophobia in our culture” is considered to be a “given.” (Susan Ehrlich, par.11). For social constructionists, these global biases deeply structure our definition of marriage. On this view, heterosexism supports the belief that heterosexuality or heterosexual bonding do have some kind of unique or special place in human life and, therefore, can make a case for recognition in public policy and law. Heterosexism expresses itself in the exclusion of homosexual persons and bonds from key public policies and procedures. This exclusion of same-sex bonds from the institution of marriage is, by definition, ‘heterosexist” (i.e. according to this definition of heterosexism).

29. James T. Sears ‘retrospective’ on the 25-year evolution of these concepts celebrates the success of this project. He points out that the concepts of homophobia and heterosexism have been well integrated into social science literature. Their impact have been felt both on policy makers as well as the judiciary: Sears concludes that “homophobia has evolved from a psychologist’s construct to a marcher’s chant.” (Sears 1997, 15-16)

30. However, the discourse on homophobia and heterosexism has many problematic features. First, this is still relatively new. There is a problem with consistency in the use of the terms as technical constructs. The term homophobia can be employed in the restricted sense of irrational hatred or fear of homosexual persons. It can also be used in the more global sense of the cultural and political privileging of heterosexuality. Even its proponents point to the fact that this is still largely unchartered terrain that needs more research and debate (Sears and Williams). These diverse constructs (homophobia, heterosexism, heteronormativity) have not been subject to the vigorous academic debate necessary to fully assess the claims and implications of this discourse. Furthermore the academic discourse is closely tied to an advocacy position. Much of the current social science discourse on these terms is generated by those who are active in the fight for homosexual and lesbian rights.

31. Secondly, the inner logic of this discourse compels us to conclude that all discourse about the essentially heterosexual nature of human life and the critical role of heterosexual bonding is morally tainted. The terms homophobia and heterosexism have been directly linked to racism and anti-Semitism (Blumenfield 1997 131-40). This explicit linkage implies those who speak to the central role of heterosexuality and heterosexual bonding in human life are essentially no different from 19th advocates of slavery, 20th century Nazi apologists for anti-Semitism, or contemporary proponents of white supremacy. The mere attempt to argue for the critical significance of heterosexuality and heterosexual bonding is, by definition, morally suspect.

32. The question of human sexuality and marriage is fundamental to religious traditions such as Catholicism. Given the broad sweep of these newly constructed “isms” how can religious traditions such as Catholicism evade being stereotyped as “homophobic” or “heterosexist”? If “internalized homophobia” is taken seriously, how can these traditions avoid being held directly responsibly and liable for the emotional pain and depression of homosexuals in their communities? These loosely constructed stereotypes are highly controversial. They have the effect of systematically stigmatizing religious traditions and fracturing civil discourse.

33. Third, the discourse on homophobia typically tends to overlook the crucial moral distinction between the person and the act. The Catholic Church rejects any “unjust discrimination” against homosexuals (Catechism of the Catholic Church art. 2358). However, non-discrimination does not imply that the particular actions, claims, or policy demands of homosexuals always need to be recognized and affirmed. In the same way, non-discrimination against persons of different racial, religious, or ethnic communities does not necessitate public affirmation of the particular beliefs, policies, or practices that their communities may embrace.

34. In particular, a non-discriminatory stance towards homosexuals does not mean that society has to treat homosexual bonding in the same way as it treats heterosexual bonding. The institution of marriage does not privilege heterosexuals in themselves. It does privilege a particular form of heterosexual bonding. In fact, society and religions do not treat all forms of heterosexual bonding in the same way—they do not recognize incestuous relationships, adult-child relationships, polygamy, prostitution or short-term sexual liaisons as included in the category of marriage. Many forms of heterosexual bonding and heterosexual conduct fall outside of both legal and religious definitions of marriage. (Family, Marriage, and “De Facto” Unions, 2000).

35. Current constructions of the discourse on homophobia and heterosexism tend to be circular in their logic: a) homophobia/heterosexism is wrong since it privileges heterosexuals and heterosexual practices and denigrates homosexuals and homosexual practices; b) marriage privileges heterosexual bonding; therefore, c) the exclusion of homosexual bonds from marriage is wrong. Thus, according to Patricia Beattie Jung and Ralph E. Smith, reconfiguring marriage is key to “dismantling heterosexism” (Jung & Smith, 1993, ch.6). This kind of circular logic arbitrarily cuts off any serious debate about the substantive differences between homosexual and heterosexual bonding and stigmatizes any affirmation of the critical place of heterosexual bonding in the human social ecology as inherently heterosexist.

There you have it. An analysis of why the language of “homophobia” and “heterosexism” was designed to push an agenda and cloud analysis and why it eventually and necessarily attacks traditional religious conceptions.

The full affidavit, well worth reading and circulating widely, is found on Dr. Cere’s Institute’s website at:

One wonders whether the current hysteria, freely throwing about the term “homophobe” pushed to a fever pitch by the almost always one-sided media, will continue to a conclusion that sees Mr. Buttiglione ousted from the job for which he has been nominated.

Perhaps another conclusion is possible: people will realize, as one commentator said this morning on French radio, that this is just another example of “political correctness” gone mad. Whatever the conclusion, the international power of the same-sex lobby is now clear for all to see and its ability to coalesce power across traditionally opposed political lines is an astonishing thing to witness. The term “homophobia” has now become international.

The commentator on French radio this morning said another interesting thing: she referred to the “affaire Buttiglione” as a new “war against religion.” She is right of course. If Buttiglione simply stated the common and virtually universal religious position that homosexual conduct is wrong (or, in the older language, “sinful”) and if that statement amounts to homophobia and is inconsistent with the new principles of human rights, as those opposed to Buttiglione argue, then religions themselves must be, by the logic of the argument, also viewed as opponents of the new human rights.

That is the really big issue lurking not far below the surface but almost nobody is noticing it. Those of us who have become sceptical about “the new human rights” as an ideological and increasingly anti-religious movement, know what the new human rights will do with these “class enemies” don’t we?

To the wall with them all! This is the real danger of the new sexual fundamentalists. They have no place left for respecting those with whom they disagree. Buttiglione can state that he can “hate the sin and love the sinner” but the new zealots cannot do this. Having no distinction between their sense of themselves and what they wish to act upon, they cannot accept an “act” “person” distinction when others espouse it. They demand acceptance without any distinctions. They are, at the deepest level, intolerant.

Neo-bolshevism looks pretty much the same whether marching under “class” or “same-sex” banners don’t you think? Time alone will tell whether it goes the same way and how many “class enemies” will be sacrificed along the way.

Iain T. Benson ©