First published by Open Democracy, 29th July 2015
It’s 2014 and I’m in a quiet bar with my then-girlfriend. We’re enjoying our evening, being affectionate towards each other, and playing pool. I’m pretty terrible at it (having virtually no hand-eye coordination), and an older man steps in, uninvited, to show me how to take a shot. He touches my waist and makes sexual comments to me, right in front of my ex-girlfriend, as though she isn’t there. To him, she is invisible, and not recognised as my partner. We both leave, feeling disgusted.
Homophobia and misogyny, just like racism and misogyny, are inextricably linked. They feed into each other, like the ancient image of ‘ouroboros’, a snake eating its own tail.
Women in same-sex relationships may not be treated with the same overt hostility as gay men, but this is usually only when they present themselves as femme (or traditionally feminine in appearance). For femme women in same-sex relationships, the blend of homophobia and misogyny they are subjected to is often based on men believing that the relationship exists for their sexual gratification.
The idea that lesbians are a source of sexual entertainment for men is exacerbated by the hugely inaccurate portrayal of lesbian sex in mainstream pornography, usually aimed at male consumers and often involving a male performer who enters to ‘finish’ the scene. The pornification of lesbian relationships is mirrored in pop culture offerings such as the 2014 music video for ‘Can’t Remember to Forget You’ with Rihanna and Shakira, where the two artists writhe around together, eyeing the camera and making it clear that their attraction to one another is pure performance, for the purpose of selling records.
This is connected to the reality that many lesbian couples do not feel safe in bars or clubs, as they are routinely treated as a sideshow and receive unwanted attention and comments like ‘can I get in on that?’ or ‘I can join in if you want a threesome’. Eleanor Margolis, who writes for New Statesman, says “I’ve been told by men that I’m ‘too pretty to be a lesbian’, which is obviously both homophobic and misogynistic. Then, sometimes they go on to say the usual stuff, ‘you haven’t met the right guy. I could turn you…’”.
Misogyny is defined quite literally as a hatred of women, and this includes a hatred of anyone perceived to be ‘like a woman’, explaining much of the homophobic aggression towards non-straight men. Homosexual men have long suffered homophobic abuse because they do not conform to heterosexual male norms, including pursuing women. Homophobia is entirely underpinned and propped up by patriarchy, and our patriarchal society encourages the policing of the boundaries of what it means to be a ‘real man’ and behave in a truly ‘male’ way.
Interestingly, LGBT women who identify as ‘butch’ or present themselves in a more ‘masculine’ way, are treated with fear and contempt for trying to encroach on traditionally male territory and not conforming to normative ideals of female beauty. This kind of homophobia is very similar to the sexism that heterosexual women face when attempting to carve out a place in a world that is still dominated by men.
Now, this is where it gets tricky. The LGBT community does not exist in a vacuum. LGBT people still have to live in a patriarchal society, and unfortunately, the values of that society are often played out within the community. One of the side effects of misogyny-fuelled homophobia is that some gay men have attempted to distance themselves from their heterosexual counterparts as much as possible, by exaggerating their lack of interest in women.
This can manifest itself through the use of sexist slurs and through misogynistic comments about women’s bodies and appearances. Celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton has made his career out of criticizing the clothes, weight and lifestyle choices of female celebrities and slut-shaming them in a way that is clearly misogynistic.
As Patrick Strudwick wrote for the Guardian in 2014: “it is commonplace for women’s appearances to be analysed in brutish detail, in part through jealousy of presumed sexual power. As a movement we have ignored women, individually and structurally.” Strudwick goes on to describe how the popular US reality programme Ru Paul’s Drag Race includes the word ‘fishy’ in many of its episodes, to describe drag queens who look more naturally feminine.
According to the Drag Race Dictionary, “the term is a reference to the scent of a woman’s vagina, which is colloquially likened to the smell of fish”. Strudwick notes that “I have heard this vile denigration ever since I stepped into the gay scene in 1993 – ‘fish’, ‘tuna’, and any number of terrible words for female genitalia, often accompanied by vomiting gestures.”
Another issue that has been raised in this debate is how some gay men feel entitled to touch women’s bodies without their consent, simply because they are not sexually interested in women. In an open letter, Preston Mitchumn writes “we cannot touch a woman without her permission. We are not the exception and her permission to us is not implied. We, too, can promote rape culture. We do not get a “pass” to touch her hair or her body or her clothes. We do not have an automatic right to critique her weight or texture of hair. We are still men and women will always deserve our respect. For those of us who consider ourselves feminists, we cannot constantly promote feminism and women’s ownership, then be bent out of shape when she decides that she does not want to be subjected to touching, feeling, or unwanted contact.”
There’s also a racial element to consider here, relating to the recent debate about white gay men appropriating black female culture. Sierra Mannie’s piece for TIME magazine shows the hurt and anger of black women who feel that gay white men are perpetuating harmful stereotypes and caricatures of female blackness. This can also be related to the idea of ‘diva worshipping’ in mainstream white gay culture, and how it merely objectifies women in a different way. This is particularly problematic when race is part of the equation, for example when women like Beyonce and Grace Jones are fetishized as icons, in a way that obscures their complex humanity.
However, when actor Rose McGowan claimed that gay men are “more misogynistic” than their straight counterparts in 2014, she faced a sizeable backlash and later apologised for her comments. Many pointed out that gay men are not and cannot be more misogynistic than straight men, because they are not the men participating in rape, human trafficking, domestic abuse, or other instances of violence against women, a view shared by LGBT political campaigner Peter Tatchell.
My intention in raising these issues is not to shame or stereotype gay men, nor deny the continued discriminations and inequalities they face. The point is rather to explore how the toxic values of patriarchy are adopted and enacted, often without us realising it, and even when patriarchy harms us in turn. In order to truly eradicate homophobia, men, women and everyone who identifies differently in the LGBT community must come together to oppose sexism.
Until there is gender equality, we can’t live in a world free of homophobia, and this is why Patrick Strudwick writes that he is “a feminist first and a gay rights activist second – second because there is no emancipation for gay people without the universal liberation of women”.
The intersection of homophobia and misogyny also includes the objectification and non-consensual sexualisation of LGBT people by other members of the LGBT community. This can be done by anyone, regardless of their gender presentation. In her book ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’, writer Ariel Levy explores the San Francisco lesbian scene and the way that ‘bois’ behave in sexist ways towards femme-presenting lesbians. She describes the internalization of patriarchal values by the ‘bois’ who speak about and treat the women they are attracted to in a similar way to how sexist heterosexual men would behave.
It’s also worth noting that the look of mainstream androgyny has gravitated towards masculinity. A cursory Google search for the term ‘androgynous’ will throw up a page filled with images of slender, white people with short hair wearing traditionally masculine clothes like suits and braces and trilby hats.
This ties into the notion that being male is ‘standard’, while being female is ‘other’. Femme-presenting people are often required to reaffirm or explain their sexual identities to both members of the LGBT community and heterosexual peers, because they look too ‘feminine’ to be immediately recognised and accepted as non-straight.
The intersection of homophobia and misogyny is also characterized by exclusion. The gender binary by its very nature is exclusionary, as it seeks to place people in two distinct categories. When this is enacted within the LGBT community, it involves the exclusion of trans people in gay and lesbian spaces, transphobic slurs and the use of the word ‘tranny’.
Trans people are equally valid members of the LGBT community, and while gay men and women have won significant victories in terms of representation and acceptance, trans people (particularly trans women of colour) are routinely victimized and subjected to hate crimes and violence.
Those who identify as bisexual or pansexual, such as myself, also experience exclusion from the LGBT community. I didn’t join an LGBT society at university, because I didn’t feel I would be considered ‘gay enough’. Unhelpful myths propagated about bisexual-identifying individuals include the idea that they are ‘greedy’ or ‘haven’t made up their minds’, which were explored in the recent hashtag #GrowingUpBi.
The imperfections of the LGBT community are not the ‘fault’ of any one group of people. The problems simply mirror our sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic society, where the voices of cisgender white men are prioritised. In every situation, it’s important that we are attuned to where power lies from an intersectional perspective.
Although it may be uncomfortable to assess your own privilege, we must recognise that many members of the LGBT community are victims of double or triple marginalization, in terms of their gender or race. If you are not female or transgender or a person of colour, consider how you can protect and promote the interests of those who are traditionally denied the privileges of whiteness, maleness or feeling comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth.
We can only defeat homophobia if we recognise how it is linked to other structural forms of oppression, and if we behave in an inclusive, supportive way. Without the unity of LGBT-identified people, and without championing intersectional and trans-inclusive feminism, homophobia cannot be consigned to the wastebasket of dubious history.