What is Homophobia — Really?

A blogger in the U.K recently published a post titled, Is There a Cure for Homophobia?  I’ve given a lot of thought to heated anti-gay rhetoric, to what many call “homophobia.” My wife and I have wondered aloud, and often, “Where does all that heat come from?  What do they care whether gays and lesbians get married or not?”

To see how “homophobia” is used on the web, I googled several phrases.  “Stamp out Homophobia” gave me 26,200 hits.  “Homophobia is a Social Disease” came up with 41,600 hits.  But the slogan, “Wipe out Homophobia” brought up a whopping 838,000 hits.  If we are going to actually “wipe out” homophobia, however, we need to have a better idea of what it is.

Pathologizing the Opponent

The first thing we need to understand is that the label “homophobia” is an example of “pathologizing” one’s opponents.  We hear it when an ideology is compared to mental illness, or to gangrene, or to cancer.  For many purposes the label “homophobia” is useful and legitimate.  Pathologizing labels are rhetorically effective and emotionally satisfying, but don’t help us understand what’s really going on.

Let me reiterate: the label “homophobia” is excellent shorthand, especially when used by people who themselves were pathologized for decades for being gay and lesbian. These people were officially pathologized by the APA, and vulnerable to involuntary commitment, electro-shock, convulsive treatment, and even frontal lobotomies.  Gays and lesbians who are in the middle of coping with damaging, incessant attacks are focused on the business of life and survival.  In short, understanding the mechanics of oppression is not at the top of everyone’s to-do list.

What is Homophobia–Really?


“Homophobia” is not a literal “phobia,” but is an umbrella term that describes a number of interrelated phenomena which combine to form anti-gay sentiment.  The phenomena that make up homophobia can be divided into roughly three categories.

The first category of factors that make up homophobia are those that are the most individual. The second category consists of those elements that are deliberate and calculating.  The third category are elements in that middle area where the idiosyncrasies of individuals meet up with the conscious manipulation of those individuals in actual groups, where the universal (“natural”) processes of group dynamics take place.

There are at least five factors in the category one, factors specific to individuals. They are, in no particular order: 1) actual phobias, 2) experiences of childhood molestation, 3) an intense need for increased status,  4) latent same-sex attractions, and 5) marital temptations of heterosexual males.

I. Individual Factors

1. Recognized Phobias

Bona fide phobias would include coprophobia/scataphobia (excrement), mysophobia (germs), hypothermosis (sweat), etc. Related to these are people who resemble Monk and Felix Unger, cultural icons of OCD “clean freaks.”  (No offense is intended here.)  On a popular level, but not a clinical level, the intense revulsion some people experience when thinking about gay sex could easily be understood as a variation of recognized phobias.

This is no justification for oppression rooted in the psychological quirks of the oppressor.  This is simply to say that if we are going to “cure homophobia,” we need to understand “the disease.”  Generally speaking, what goes on in one’s home is not the domain of the law.  Education is key here, but the number of “homophobic” persons  who have bona fide phobias is probably probably small.  But one person with a genuine phobia will speak with persuasive intensity, which is a powerful factor in group dynamics, e.g., at the congregational level.

2. Childhood Molestation

Another highly idiosyncratic factor is the experience of childhood, same-sex molestation.  Note that I am not saying molestation causes homosexuality.  What “causes” people to be gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, is not the topic here.  I am saying that same-sex molestation can contribute to an individual’s hostility toward gays and lesbians.  Our universal habit of making generalizations based on our experiences is one reason why some individuals assume that all gays and lesbians are pedophiles. Gathering accurate statistics on this factor of homophobia is obviously difficult, but again, research and education will help dispel misconceptions like these.

By way of example, a fundamentalist evangelist whom I will call Donald Brown (not his real name) posted a brief account of such experiences on a stridently fundamentalist website.

When I was a child I was molested by a male relative. He made a choice to sin. Some would say, he was born that way. He can’t help that he was attracted to an 8 year old child. That is a cop out. He made a sinner’s choice.

When I was a freshman in a [fundamentalist] university, I was attacked by a homosexual room mate after I broke my arm and he figured I would be defenseless. He kept his homosexuality a secret until he thought he had an advantage. I thank the Lord that I was able to protect myself from him. He made a sinner’s choice.

Oh, did I mention he was a ministerial student?

Of course, situations like this are subjective, so what actually transpired between Brown and his room mate cannot be conclusively determined.  Nevertheless, this is how he remembers it and how he describes it to others.  He acknowledges how his experiences intensify his discussions of homosexuality. Later on, in a different thread, Brown wrote the following, referring to me several times.

This is a touchy subject for me. I was molested by a male cousin when I was eight years old. I also successfully fended off an attempted rape by a homosexual roommate in college.  So this subject hits a raw nerve with me and I sometimes get a little heavy handed in my dealings with people like him.

I am so appalled by his “interpretation” of the word’s of my Lord and Savior that I get a little overwrought.

Experiences like Brown’s certainly affect people, whose raw nerves cause them to be heavy-handed.  On this topic they can be touchy, appalled, and overwrought. and literally cannot have a calm, cool discussion of the topic.  If you’ve wondered about the source of the unreasoning heat in some anti-gay rhetoric, here you have it, at least for some understandably vocal few. Brown’s experience of unwanted sexual advances is virtually identical to those of women who have experienced molestation, rape, or attempted rape.

All animals make such generalizations as a matter of survival. I suspect that for most of us, our deepest animosities are rooted in bad experiences, which is no great revelation.

3. Need for Status

It’s a truism that people need some group of people to look down on, and I believe that need is universal.  We all have groups of people to whom we feel superior.  Many factors exacerbate this need: job difficulties and family problems, low economic status and self-esteem, etc.  The degree to which individuals suffer from such stressors affect how much they need whipping boys for their personal frustrations.

Entire regions and generations can be tainted by bitterness whose causes go back hundreds of years.  Some people discuss the need of poor whites in the southeastern U.S. to look down on their black neighbors, and how they fought tooth and nail to preserve segregation.  This racist impulse, not confined to the deep South, continues to the present day, and is an excellent reminder that the struggle for equality will never be permanently “solved,” once and for all, through either legislation or education.  Equality for all people is a perennial mission in our society.

4. Latent Same-Sex Attractions

There is no way to know the actual numbers of people who express anti-homosexual feelings because they are fighting off same-sex attractions.  For some, this is a favorite explanation for anti-gay sentiment, and there’s no doubt that, for some individuals, SSA’s are a factor.  The combination of our gaydar and their vitriol can often be a good indicator for specific individuals.

5. Marital Temptations

Some straight men adhere to traditional standards of sexual behavior, are committed to preserving their marriages, and do not want to wound their wives through infidelity.  The degree of difficulty can be due to premarital sexual promiscuity, and to an individual’s sheer testosterone level.  For some men, this can be an intense struggle.

I have heard men say, “My desire for another woman is also natural, it’s how I was born, too. If I say gay relationships are okay, then why shouldn’t I commit adultery myself?” I heard this from my brother, and from former Christian radio personality Paul McGuire.   For such men, endorsing marriage equality is to endorse sexual sin, and is a “slippery slope” compromise.  They’re afraid that such compromise could lead them, personally, to cheat on their wives and cause the subsequent pain, bitterness, and divorce that flow from unfaithfulness.   I don’t consider this to be sound logic, but when discussing sex it’s virtually impossible to be strictly “logical.”

II. Deliberate Strategy-Making

Arbiters of Public Opinion

At the other end of the spectrum are what some call the arbiters of public opinion.  These people frequently inhabit the “think tanks” where strategies are formulated, arguments crafted, and talking points generated for distribution down the propaganda food chain.  Some of the more well-known think tanks include the American Family Association, the Christian Coalition of America, the Rutherford Institute, Concerned Women of America (CWA), Truth in Action Ministries, Eagle Forum, Traditional Values Coalition, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). In addition to these, there are groups that produce “scholarly” papers for others to cite, including the Family Research Council, National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).  A few of the more well-known millionaire funders of these think tanks, as well as political campaign donors, include Howard Ahmanson, Jr. (heir to the Home Savings and Loan fortune) , and Holly, Jeffrey, and Joseph Coors (three heirs to the Coors beer fortune). (For additional information, click here, Political Research Associates.)

More well-known than the think tanks and the financial supporters are the public faces of the arbiters of public opinion.  The names are familiar (Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Tim LaHaye, etc.).  According to them, everything we hold near and dear, our children, our families, our personal health, our freedom of religion, our entire way of life–everything good is threatened by the “radical homosexual agenda.”

One of the public faces in the top echelon of strategic thinking is James Dobson, although his influence has been diminished by the Focus on the Family board of directors, which eased him out of the organization in February, 2009. (click here)

Dobson, a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University here in San Diego, has been sounding the alarm over the “definition of marriage” for over fifteen years.  I have blogged about his propaganda in several posts.  Nevertheless, one of the most irresponsible and alarming of these propaganda lines came from James Dobson in 1998.

How do we explain the lack of moral outrage — or courage — from anyone in Washington, D.C., or on the local level? . . . Few dare step in front of the gay and lesbian juggernaut for fear of being labeled “homophobic,” “hateful” or “politically incorrect.”

This is high strategy:  knowing people’s frustrations and deliberately manipulating them, channeling them through a growing network of middle-men: conservative pastors and denominational leaders.  Some pastors who have apparently heeded Dobson’s exhortation to express their moral outrage against homosexuals include Steven Anderson (AZ), Phillip Kayser (NE), Curtis Knapp (KS), Charles Worley (NC), each of whom recommended harsh treatment, including enclosure in extermination camps and execution per Leviticus (click here).

Most people live with unexpressed anger, the unresolved tensions and frustrations alluded to earlier.  Others simply delight in making outrageous statements.  Take, for example, W.A. Criswell’s abusive comments to moderate Southern Baptist delegates at their 1991 convention:  “Go shovel gravel.  Sell popcorn.  Work in a dime store.  Don’t contaminate the Word of God.”  If this is how they talk to their fellow Baptists, it’s no wonder that they speak so abusively to the rest of us.

What the top people do in the anti-gay crusade is manufacture a channel for people’s ordinary frustration and meanness and then focus it toward a concrete goal: smother the aspirations of gay and lesbian Americans to be equal citizens of these United States.  James Dobson takes various sins (wrath, outbursts of anger, etc.) and reframes them as virtues.  Dobson’s complaint about the lack of “moral outrage” is his official okay to unleash your frustrations, anger, and outrage on a prescribed target.

Mel White, author of Stranger at the Gate, was ghost-writer for Jerry Falwell’s autobiography.  In a very telling story, he describes Falwell’s response when Falwell’s car was thronged by gay protesters.  White writes,

“Jerry grinned and said to me, ‘Thank God for these gay demonstrators. If I didn’t have them, I’d have to invent them. They give me all the publicity I need.'” 

Jerry Falwell’s lasting achievement, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, was built on the hostility and fear of Falwell’s audience toward the gay and lesbian.  He stoked the flames of anti-gay sentiment with statements like “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” He then provided his audience with a financial channel to express to God and the world their “sincere” opposition to sin.

It just doesn’t pay to pass up a good opportunity.  Falwell recognized this.  Political strategists also recognize a good opportunity, and when one doesn’t present itself, they manufacture one.  Ballot measures on “hot button” issues are crafted and offered to the people in order to maximize voter turnout.   Frequently called “wedge issues,” they include marriage equality and gay adoption.

What we call “homophobia” is artificial.  It was created by a host of powerful people, wealthy and not so wealthy, who built on pre-existing stereotypes and a general antipathy toward homosexuals.  Pre-existing anti-semitism in Germany was utilized in the lead-up to the “final solution,” similar to how pre-existing anti-homosexual sentiment in the U.S. is being utilized in a campaign for increased political and economic power.

III.  Group Dynamics in the Congregation: Where Strategy Manipulates the Individual 

So imagine this.  You’re in a church where you’ve always been taught that homosexuality is a very dark sin.  It’s all the more mysterious because you’ve never met a homosexual, and have no idea what they’re like, except from what people say and how they joke about them. In your adult Sunday school class you again hear that homosexuality is a choice.  The radio preachers tell you the gays and lesbians are going to hell, and dire consequences will result if they’re allowed to gain any “special rights.”

There’s a man in your church who spoke very emotionally about how “queers have to recruit” since they can’t reproduce on their own.  Then there’s the woman who grimaced and complained that homosexuals are “filthy.”  And there’s the gentle man who got uncharacteristically animated when asserting that a righteous God cannot stand to be in the presence of an abomination.

And every year your pastor preaches his homosexuality sermon, in which he talks about Romans 1, Exodus, marriage, civilization, clothes unspotted by the flesh, Sodom and Gomorrah, “Adam and Steve,” Hollywood, “Ellen Degenerate,” and abominations.  And last year he preached on amending the state constitution.

At this point a host of phenomena are already in high gear: groupthink, conformity, group cohesion, the need to belong, self-serving biases, peer pressure,  ignoring non-confirming evidence, etc., to a point that approaches willfull gullibility.  Of course my comments border on name-calling, but to understand the grip of “homophobia” we must acknowledge these factors at both the congregational level and the denominational level.


Homophobia consists at three levels.  The first level are the idiosyncracies and quirks that motivate and energize particular individuals.  The second level is the deliberate formulation of strategies designed to guide the energies of millions of people toward a predetermined goal: suppressing the aspirations of gay and lesbian citizens for equality.  The third level is where people’s frustrations and idiosyncracies are predictably channeled into anti-gay rhetoric, bullying at every level of society, including the political process.

As I said, Diane and I often wondered, “Where does all that anti-gay heat come from?  What to they care whether gays and lesbians marry or not?”  We were baffled for a long time.  For many years I gave myself to understanding where the heat came from.  The venom and vituperation just didn’t make sense.  I think I have a better handle on it now, although I can still be stopped dead in my tracks and shake my head in amazement.

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Dobson Rhetoric, Homophobia, Homosexuality, Marriage, Point Loma Nazarene University, Propaganda, Religion, Rushdoony. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What is Homophobia — Really?

  1. Duncan Beach says:

    I’m personally thinking that no Hell imagined by mere mankind can possibly be hot or cruel enough for the likes of Jerry Who Fell Well or the Wrong Reverend Chuck Worley. UnChristian, you say? I refer you to Fell Well’s comments in the limosine. I had occasion to talk to the man in person a couple of times, and I can tell you flat out he is exactly the kind of hypocrite Jesus railed against in the bible. As to little Jimmy Dobson (I won’t call him ‘Dr.’ Doctors HEAL) He went from being someone helpful to being someone detrimental when finances revealed to him that helping didn’t pay off.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Duncan, I’m interested in hearing about your encounters with Falwell.


      • Duncan Beach says:

        The first time, I was attending one of his…revivals? lectures? tirades? as part of a church group, and got to ask him a single question, which was…Do those who believe in Jesus go to heaven, even if they don’t go to church or donate to church causes? His answer was completely not what I expected. He stated that if the person didn’t go to church or donate to HIS causes, that they were going to go to Hell.

        The second time, I asked what happened to people who were gay. He told me that they’d wind up in Hell, too, even if they went to church, never acted on their feelings, believed in Jesus, AND donated to his causes, because “D&D is just Witchcraft”. He did say that he remembered our last encounter, and hoped that it had proved instructional.


      • Ron Goetz says:

        Unbelievable, just unbelievable.

        Was that “D&D”– Dungeons and Dragons?


      • Duncan Beach says:

        Yes, Ron, That’s exactly what it was. I’ve play frp games (mostly NOT D&D, tho) for decades. A friend got me into it. I have to tell you, in the more than 30 years I’ve been playing, I’ve never once seen anyone trying to ‘act out’ the casting of a fantasy role-playing game spell for real, nor have I ever had a co-player or player in one of the hundreds of games I’ve attended even attempt suicide. Most of the people I’ve played with call themselves Christians – and resent the ‘born-agains’ and their attempts to ostracize us.


      • Ron Goetz says:

        (shakes head and smiles)

        I missed out on D&D, but I was a Utopia devotee for several years. Talk about addictions!


  2. Thanks for your careful and thoughtful clarity in exploring this topic, Ron.


  3. Ron Goetz says:

    Dana LaRocca left this message on Facebook:

    I think “homophobia” was first coined by Dr. Gregory K. Lehne. If I understand it correctly, it originally referred to the stigmatization of effeminacy in gay male culture, among other things.

    See (Lehne, G. (1976). Homophobia among men. In D. S. David & R.Brannon (Eds.)

    For the scholarly minded, here’s a good resource: http://biasca.biz/app/​download/6646772004/​2.+Sexual+Prejudice.,Discri​mination+52425743.pdf

    Thanks, Dana!


  4. Very good explanation. I do believe we over use the word homophobia, but there are people who are genuinely afraid of us and there are people who use fear-mongering tactics concerning our “behavior.” There are people who say that we are responsible for hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. They say that we are all pedophiles out to get their children. They say we are out to convert children to our “lifestyle.” They say that gay marriage will DESTROY the institution of marriage. They say that we will be the DOWNFALL of society. They believe that we are the sole reason for AIDS and that AIDS spontaneously occurs from anal sex; some even believe they can catch it from us casually. These are all signs of legitimate fear and fear-mongering. Homophobia is real.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Absolutely correct, Beau. The propaganda and lies are the major element of homophobia. These lies are exactly what you’ve called them — fear-mongering. I didn’t discuss the propaganda element as much as other factors because I’ve covered it a lot in my posts about Dobson.

      Propaganda is crafted for a reason–to galvanize people to concrete actions, or to justify government action. The concrete actions we see include bullying, violence, and murder.

      Homophobia is real. When I said homophobia was artificial, I meant that it was an “artifice,” something people have created. But just because a gun is a human creation, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t kill. I’m going to need to revise that part.


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