Blog: Under the Lens

‘Homophobia is killing us’: Heterosexism and gay men’s health

Written by Sarah Chown

There is not much attention paid to the differences between the meaning of the words homophobia and heterosexism. However, upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the distinction is more than just semantics: the choice of either word shapes how the issue of gay oppression is understood and thus our approach to developing solutions.

One scholar to advance this argument is Jeffrey P. Aguinaldo, who contends that ‘homophobia is killing [gay men]’: by focusing on individual acts of homophobia and treating gay people who have ‘internalized homophobia’, there is less attention to the every day impacts of living in a world that privileges and normalizes heterosexuality.

In mainstream Canadian society, heterosexuality is still presented as the norm in policy, law, media and classrooms. These norms create an invisible system known as heterosexism that overlooks queer identities, relationships and values. Aguinaldo argues that focusing on individual instances and feelings of homophobia (for example, homophobic language used in every day social media see -http://nohomophobes.com/#!/today) overlooks the systems that create and perpetuate homophobia in the first place. While it is important to address these instances of homophobia, we must also think about building societies that value, normalize and celebrate queer identities and relationships from the outset.

The term homophobia was first used in the 1960s to describe heterosexual people who are uncomfortable around homosexuals (Kitzinger, 2001) and was meant to pejoratively label those who are uncomfortable and fearful of same-sex desire and relationships (Bryant, 2008). People and actions that express an anti-gay sentiment (like those in the www.nohomophobes.org tracker) are homophobic.

Despite the origins of the term homophobia as a label for heterosexual people, it is now also used by health practitioners and researchers to describe gay men who (understandably) internalize the anti-gay attitudes of society. Gay men are said to have internalised homophobia, which encompasses feelings of insecurity, guilt, shame, depression, fear of one’s sexuality, rejection, as well as self-destructive behaviours and hiding parts of oneself from others to avoid these feelings.

Homophobia and internalised homophobia focus on an individual’s attitude, behaviour or feelings about homosexuality. These two terms are used much more often in the gay men’s health literature than the term heterosexism, which draws attention to the systemic ways heterosexuality is privileged (Aguinaldo, 2008). Aguinaldo argues that using the language of homophobia fosters the idea that gay oppression results from acts of homophobic individuals, that it is an individual experience and overlooks the systemic ways homophobia is taught and perpetuated.

Aguinaldo makes the argument that when gay oppression is framed in the language of homophobia, proposed solutions are aimed at individuals: responding to individual homophobic acts, reaching out to gay men who experience these acts, and supporting gay men in overcoming internalised homophobia. This includes therapy services, in which gay men can speak with therapists, counselors, peer support workers. These types of solutions can help gay men to develop more positive feelings about their sexuality and address ‘self-destructive behaviours’ and challenges on the topics of relationships, safe sex, bereavement, general emotional issues and to identify sources of stress and possible coping strategies. Through therapy, gay men can learn how to develop healthy friendships and other relationships, gain self-acceptance, protect themselves from homophobia and learn how to discuss their sexuality with the people in their lives. While this approach may provide many benefits to individuals, it falls short of creating lasting social change.

While psychological support may be an important service for some gay men, an individual therapy approach does not address the social and political conditions that foster general negative feelings about homosexuality to begin with and negatively impact gay men’s encounters with institutions, relationships, sexual safety and even getting appropriate health care. Essentially, these therapies give people ways of coping with the heterosexism they encounter in their lives and its impact on their experiences, but do nothing to change the pervasive heterosexism that produces it.

“The problem is not gay men or their response to oppression. The problem is heterosexism and those who benefit from it.” (Aguinaldo, 2008)

Aguinaldo argues that using the word heterosexism draws attention to the institutions, systems and everyday interactions that politically, socially and economically favour heterosexuality and as a result, marginalize same-sex identities, relationships and desire. When heterosexism is acknowledged, individual homophobia is seen as the result of systems that maintain the idea that gay people are somehow less deserving of respect, rights and acceptance. If we focus only on finding and fixing individuals who are homophobic, we leave intact the every day experiences that lead to homophobia in the first place.

Aguinaldo shows us that thinking about gay oppression in individual terms “replaces political explanations (in terms of structural, economic and institutional oppression) with personal explanations (in terms of the dark workings of the psyche, the mysterious functioning of the subconscious)” (Kitzinger, 1996 in Aguinaldo, p. 90). These differences matter in terms of how we work towards supporting and affirming the health of gay men, and others who are not heterosexual.

“By formulating gay oppression as a psychological phenomenon, the literature constructs gay oppressors as sick individuals who supposedly deviate from an assumed egalitarian society.” (Kitzinger, 1996)

Gay men may experience forms of oppression beyond heterosexism based on masculinity, race, class, migration experiences and ability both within and beyond gay communities. Aguinaldo offers a fundamental piece of writing that challenges us as practitioners, researchers and advocates to both meet individual needs and disrupt and challenge the heterosexism and other forms of oppression that contribute to health inequities amongst gay men.

Further Readings:

Aguinaldo, Jeffrey. P. (2008). The social construction of gay oppression as a determinant of gay men's health. Critical Public Health, 18(1), 87-96. Abstract available online at: http://www.pulsus.com/cahr2008/abs/050.htm.

Meyer, Ilan H. (1995). Minority Stress and Mental Health in Gay Men. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 36 (March), 38-56. Available online at: http://cpmcnet.columbia.edu/dept/healthandsociety/events/ms/year4/pdf/sh...

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