Who’s the bully here, anyway?


A week or so ago, I gave a noontime talk at a local college titled “Major Milestones in LGBTQ Research,” which is based on my book, Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research. In my talk (and in my book), I show how psychological research informs LGBTQ human rights policy decisions, and that, in turn, policy changes influence societal attitudes. When Evelyn Hooker, for example, conducted research in the 1950s demonstrating no differences in psychological adjustment between gay men and heterosexual men, the vast majority of people in the U.S. believed homosexuality to be a disease, a disorder, and an unconscionable sin. In 1973, had the removal of the “homosexuality” diagnosis from the DSM been put to a popular vote, the diagnosis probably would have remained intact. When it comes to civil rights, the populace tends to vote for the status quo. On the other hand, when policymakers enact change, public attitudes typically follow – so now, in 2012, the majority of Americans don’t believe that homosexuality should be labeled as a psychological disorder. Even though Barry Goldwater was famed for saying, “You can’t legislate morality,” the pattern regarding LGBTQ rights, interestingly, suggests otherwise.

What I didn’t point out in my talk, however, is that whenever progressive change takes place, particularly when public attitudes begin to shift, a backlash often follows. A backlash, essentially, is an angry, antagonistic, and sometimes violent reaction to a significant social or political shift. Susan Faludi’s 1991 bestselling book Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women is a powerful example of the right-wing backlash against feminist change. A backlash is an angry, fearful attempt to return to and preserve the status quo. And even though I hadn’t planned to talk about backlashes in my presentation, an opportunity presented itself to me.

Towards the end of the question-and-answer portion of my presentation, one of the organizers of the event stood up and announced that a group of individuals had come into the lecture hall, distributed pamphlets that were printed on bright pink paper, and then quickly left the scene. The pamphlet was titled, “What does the Bible REALLY say about Same-Sex Marriage?” which contained various condemnations of homosexuality. The organizer wanted to make clear that this pamphlet was not part of the talk, and that it was not endorsed or distributed by the college. Up until then, I was completely unaware of the fact that a group of interlopers snuck in, distributed the pamphlets, and then ditched the scene – “hit and run” style, delivering the message and then bailing before someone held them accountable. Several people were quite upset, not surprisingly. And several hours later, e-mails were flying throughout cyberspace, questioning how we could take action against such forms of homophobia, especially when it occurs in such a passive-aggressive way.

Instinctively, I knew that the best action to take was no action. However, I didn’t immediately connect the dots as to why – until I realized that the organization that distributed this pamphlet was using a “baiting” strategy, if you will. They wanted to get us angry, and to bring that anger out of the closet and into the open. And if that happened, how would LGBTQ activists and allies be portrayed?  

We’re angry.

We’re reactive.

We’re Christian-haters.

We’re bullies.

And we’re trying to strip away the fundamental right to free speech – and freedom of religion.

This “new backlash,” as one UK blogger puts it, is powerfully effective. Paint LGBTQ activists as the reactionaries, and you’ve got an effective silencer.

Psychoanalytic psychologists have a name for this. It’s called projective identification, and it’s commonly seen in people with borderline personality disorder.  It’s a two-person defensive process where Person A gets rid of their own intolerable feelings and conflicts by projecting them onto Person B, and then subtly manipulating the situation so that Person B actually experiences those feelings and conflicts. It’s a crazy-making experience, in that the person left holding the bag of feelings (which weren’t even theirs to begin with) often has a sense of “what just happened here?!?”  In this case, the anti-gay group committed a stealth act of bullying, probably hoping that it would incite anger and reactivity among LGBTQ people – providing a golden opportunity to cast them as the real bullies. And they’re not, really – LGBTQ people would just be carrying the bag of bully-ness that originally belonged to the anti-gay group.

Very sneaky, you might say. But incredibly powerful.

I strongly believe that taking action against all forms of homophobia is critical in order to advance LGBTQ civil rights and acceptance. And, paradoxically,  sometimes choosing not to act is the most powerful action you can possibly take.

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5 Comments

Filed under covert homophobia, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, overt homophobia, psychological research, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Who’s the bully here, anyway?

  1. Sally Pitman

    This made be think immediately of the quoteation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” This has come to mean that when one becomes defensive and strongly denies something, people may then believe the opposite to be true.

  2. Good point about bullying. Also, what a lame group – they throw some flyers around and leave? Glad they didn’t do more, but if they really feel strongly about their convictions, then why couldn’t they find a way to express that eloquently and respectfully? ‘Cause that’s what they’re lacking – conviction.

  3. I think they’ve got the conviction – however, they’re probably using an intimidation tactic. It’s scary to know that there’s a serious homophobe in your midst, but not to know who exactly it is. That in addition to trying to push our buttons.

  4. Olweus has defined bullying like this:
    “when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words or in other ways”.

    In the context you describe, the leaflet folks seem to fit this definition. But, my preferred definition would include something about a power differential between the bully and the bullied. Your posting seems to get at this by questioning if by reacting to the incident we may actually be giving up our power, thus increasing the valence of their acts. You also describe the act as passive-aggressive. That description continues to snag me; I would like to hear more about your thinking here.

    Okay. Now for my own more reactive response to “what the Bible really says about gay marriage”: Who cares? “You are going to hell!”: Show me precisely where that is. Our flurry of worry about what religious scripts say about anything continues to amaze me. When I was a boy I remember watching Peter Pan on TV and being told we must clap to keep Tinkerbell alive. I cried and cried as I clapped to do so. But I don’t need to clap to keep alive the nasty interpretations that people make about the creation stories and communal mythology of a distant people. Let my silence while living a big life put Tinkerbell to rest.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gary. This form of bullying reminds me of relational aggression that’s so common among preadolescent and adolescent girls. It’s passive-aggressive, it’s stealth, it’s challenging to detect, and it allows the perpetrator to maintain her “good girl” status. She doesn’t look like an aggressor, yet she’s powerfully tearing her victim to shreds. I think the pamphlet incident bears some similarity. What’s interesting about the research on relational aggression is that the perpetrator often lacks “real” power, and so she has to resort to more insidious forms of power-grabbing. In some ways, the fact that “bullying” in this instance showed up as a stealth pamphlet-distributing operation, rather than an overt act of aggression, is a sign that acceptance of LGBTQ people is actually moving forward. Because it’s less acceptable to show overt forms of homophobia, they had to go the covert route.

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