A friend of mine is the senior minister for a church that follows the principles of Science of Mind. She always begins her services with this statement: “Every action is a call for love or an expression of love. No exceptions.”
No exceptions. None? No exceptions?
If that’s the case, then what is homophobia? Or racism? Or sexism, or any other form of oppression? Isn’t homophobia a form of fear-based hate, discomfort, and disgust? Wouldn’t this be the exception? It certainly would be interesting to reframe homophobia as a call for love (or, as hard as this might be to swallow, an expression of love), rather than as an expression of hate and disgust. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, this idea is what I’d like to explore in this week’s blog post.
Gregory Herek, a social psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has conducted an impressive body of research on sexual prejudice and stigma. In one area of his work, Herek explores the functions that anti-gay attitudes serve, theorizing that sexual prejudice must have a significant payoff for the person who holds these attitudes – particularly if the person hasn’t ever had any experiences or interactions with LGBTQ people. The payoff that Herek identifies is self-affirmation – by establishing ourselves as a certain kind of person, and then distancing ourselves from (or even attacking) people who represent the kind of person we’re not (or don’t want to be), we reinforce our self-esteem and self-worth. In other words, we step on others in order to stand taller. To use the language of Science of Mind, it’s a call for love from others and an expression of love towards ourselves – primitive as these mechanisms may be.
Let’s get a little more specific. Sometimes homophobia serves what Herek refers to as a value-expressive function. All of us hold values that are tied strongly to the kind of person we think we are. If I am a devout follower of Christianity, and if I believe that following the teachings of the Bible is associated with being a good, moral, upstanding person, then believing that homosexuality is an abomination serves a value-expressive function. It reinforces the “I am a good Christian” identity.
Sometimes homophobia actually connects people to one another, serving what Herek calles a social-expressive function. If a person’s family holds homophobic attitudes, challenging those beliefs could rock the boat and potentially weaken those family ties. However, harboring sexual prejudice might be an avenue for that person to experience acceptance, approval, or love from their family. This can also happen within a person’s peer group, church, or other source of valued personal connections. Given that humans are innately social creatures, and that we thrive through our connections with others, this social-expressive function of homophobia can be extremely powerful. Being socially ostracized has painful consequences.
When a person is using homophobia as a defensive function, that person is likely engaging in a last-ditch effort to preserve any shred of self-esteem he or she may have. Defensive homophobia reduces painful feelings (such as anxiety) that are triggered by gay people or homosexuality. For example, in the 1999 film American Beauty, retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts is an angry, blatant homophobe, subjecting his son to a beating after accusing him of being gay – only to reveal later in the film his own same-sex attractions, and the shame and disgust he feels about his homosexuality. For Col. Fitts, homophobia clearly served a defensive function – it allowed him to hold onto the idea of himself as a strong, masculine military man, distancing himself from painful, uncomfortable feelings that conflicted with that identity.
So, on a very basic, primitive level, homophobia may well be a call for love or an expression of love. It can reinforce values that are intrinsic to our identities, it can connect us with other like-minded people, and it can protect our fragile sense of self from painful emotions. But sometimes our love comes from a truly respectful, loving, and altruistic place, and sometimes it comes from a place of self-preservation and fear. And fear-based thinking and behaviors often causes tremendous damage to others.
This Valentine’s Day, whatever your sexual identity or relationship status, and whomever your loved ones may be, I urge all of us to examine our motives behind our calls for love and expressions of love. Am I motivated by self-respect and respect for others, or am I motivated by self-preservation? Are my loving acts truly loving, or do they incur negative consequences towards others?