That’s How Homophobia Works
Hiring a contractor revealed the invisible workings of anti-gay discrimination
In 2007, the husband and I bought a charming townhouse in a 100-year old building in south St. Louis, a part of the City with something of a reputation as a “gayborhood.”
The coffee-shop on the corner? Owned by two gay guys. The one four blocks away? A well-known queer hangout. The guy across the street? Sponsor of a float in the annual pride parade.
More than a little full of ourselves at having “arrived,” we moved in, unpacked, and hung a rainbow flag —along with many of our neighbors.
Sited on a corner, with a west-facing wall, our new place got lots of afternoon light that created a feeling of openness you don’t usually get with zero-lot-line townhouses.
But that nearly-three story west wall was also fully exposed to the weather. Violent thunderstorms in spring; blistering heat in summer; freeze/thaw cycles in winter — all took their toll on century-old brick and mortar.
Pretty soon we found ourselves in need of a tuck-pointer.
For those lucky enough to not have to know, tuck-pointing is the fine art of grinding out the mortar between the bricks and replacing with new — hopefully tinted so it matches the brick and remaining mortar when it dries.
This maintains the structural integrity of a brick wall and helps keep out water and wind. It’s a dirty, messy business usually practiced by rough-handed, working-class guys whose work wardrobe belies the artistry involved in their craft.
In other words, probably not a weekend job for theater-going, middle-class aspiring, professional homos who can afford to buy the kinds of houses that require the services of a tuck-pointer.
Don’t get me wrong: I can pull off butch when I have to — usually for some children’s hospital fundraiser at the local leather bar (we’re givers!)
But I draw the line at working atop forty-foot ladders. Especially without a safety harness. Or a net. Or a leather daddy (to catch me)!
Cue the tuck-pointers.
Despite the economy circling the drain, with construction trades especially hard-hit, it was surprisingly difficult to get a tuck-pointer to give us an estimate. But even for those that would come out, we started noticing a trend.
If we could get them to show up at all, the odds of getting an estimate were 50/50. In subsequent years that trend would be evident with almost every contractor we called: plumbers, roofers, painters, landscapers, etc.
After we noticed, we started musing about the reasons. Were they swamped with business? Lost our contact info? Poor businessmen? Generally disorganized?
Or was it just that they didn’t want to do work for a couple of gay guys?
Understand: there was nothing overt. No one called us “fags” or “homos,” or insinuated we were godless sodomites or child molesters.
In fact, every contractor we interviewed was pleasant enough, if rough around the edges. Not porn-star ‘butch’ — actual, honest-to-goodness manly men, complete with calloused hands, flannel shirts, and plumber’s crack.
Which made their lack of follow-through all the more puzzling.
But that’s how homophobia works.
Well, it’s one of the ways. We tend to imagine homophobia (and sibling forms of discrimination) as discrete acts targeting specific individuals, like hateful slurs spray-painted on a lesbian’s car or beer bottles hurled at gay men outside a bar.
To be fair, these are the acts most commonly reported in the media (when they’re reported at all). They’re visceral, violent, material, and less subject to interpretation. They leave a trace and provide evidence. Their meaning is, and is likely intended to be, anything but vague.
Subtlety isn’t the hate-criminal’s strong suit.
But homophobia also works in more subtle ways.
Although epidemic at the population level, unmistakable acts of homophobia are relatively rare in the lives of individual homosexuals. At least, for adult homosexuals, with the freedom to escape homophobic environments (like oppressive schools) or the means to access more supportive spaces (like “gayborhoods.”)
Much more common is the ever-present possibility that any mundane behavior could be interrupted by verbal or physical violence, with little or no warning. The anticipation of such an eventuality leads to a good deal of self-policing.
That self-policing is an example of what psychologist Claude Steele famously termed “stereotype threat”: when members of socially-marginalized groups manage their behavior to avoid fulfilling negative group stereotypes, even when that stereotype is not overtly present or expressed. The energy required to manage stereotype avoidance represents a form of harm even in the absence of any discriminatory word or act, like a hate crime.
It also recalls the workings of a “panopticon,” which gay French philosopher Michel Foucault described in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) as a physical expression of the workings of power and social control in modern societies. First imagined by Jeremy Bentham in 1791, a “panopticon” is a doughnut-shaped prison that requires fewer guards to control prisoners. The outer and inner walls of prison cells are glass and guards are located in the unlit central tower — meaning guards can observe prisoners but prisoners can’t tell when guards are present. Thus, the panopticon can potentially operate with no guards at all.
Rather than physical punishment delivered at the hands of prison guards, it is the anticipation of punishment — the internalization social control — that governs prisoner behavior. In modern societies, Foucault argued, citizens conform due to internalized expectations for social behavior rather than out of fear of physical punishment for social transgressions. In modern societies, social order is not physically imposed from on high but results from individual self-management and self-control.
Against a backdrop of negative stereotypes, homosexuals behave like prisoners in a “panopticon.” We internalize a sense of being constantly monitored by an oppressive society and behave in ways that avoid fulfilling homophobic stereotypes, while always anticipating mistreatment or discrimination — even when they are not present or expressed.
In this way, homophobia operates similarly to rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, which are enacted upon individuals but which target entire populations, even those members who are never accosted, beaten, or raped.
Even if they’ve never been raped, women are educated about the possibility by friends, parents, teachers, mentors, popular culture, news reports, and rape prevention programs (that teach them that women are responsible for avoiding being raped).
Consequently, they may avoid walking alone in a park, going home with an unknown man, leaving drinks unattended at clubs, etc. Awareness of the possibility of their sexual victimization leads to self-management and behavior modification — by all women, not just rape survivors — in an effort to avoid misogyny’s more violent manifestations.
Acts of explicit violence — verbal attacks, physical assaults, rapes, murders — communicate the superiority of dominant groups and remind every member of a subordinated group about the potential consequences if they “step out of line” or “forget their place.”
In this sense rape, domestic violence, and hate crimes function as forms of collective punishment, whereby every member of a subordinated group is burdened by an awareness of their potential victimization even though only a minority may be physically victimized.
That awareness can function like a lens through which even the most mundane and innocent encounters with members of dominant groups are viewed. For members of subordinated groups, it can be difficult to know whether disparate treatment is the result of explicit bias or simple incompetence, happenstance, poor social skills, or myriad other reasons that have little to do with social power dynamics.
And — it is important to note — members of dominant groups live unburdened by the kinds of uncertainties and second-guessing born of membership in a collectively subordinated group. Instead, they move through life without the psychological baggage of not knowing (for certain) if some accident of birth — some innate characteristic or immutable trait — was the cause of their mistreatment. Or not.
White people never have to wonder if they were stopped by a police officer because they were speeding or because they were “driving while black.” Straight people never have to consider if a contractor refused their business because he was swamped or because they were gay.
Eventually we found a contractor to tuck-point our crumbling wall, and do a whole bunch of other work as well. But the process of hiring a contractor reminded us that owning a house in a “gayborhood” — much less our gender, race, or incomes — did not insulate us from feelings of homophobic discrimination.
And that’s because we brought our oppression with us, internalized after years of living in a society that does not fully recognize, affirm, or celebrate the lives of people like us.
We’ll never know whether all those contractors who chose not to submit bids were homophobic bigots, over-worked, or something else altogether. There’s really no evidence either way. But we’ll always wonder…
Because that’s how homophobia works.
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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.