Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Sexism and homophobia

Some words on intersectionality.

This is a post that has been whirring round my mind for a while now but for one reason or another I just haven’t got round to writing about, although I have written and spoken a lot about homophobia in the past (not forgetting my seminal performance at the anti homophobic bullying police conference aged 17 – oh yeah! And a couple of uni essays…and speaking at the NUJ LGBT conference…and running workshops for school kids…and writing about gay parenting for the guardian…and talking about gay parenting for radio 4…).

The links between sexism and homophobia are vast and manifest and it is important when we look at fighting for gender equality we explore and discuss how sexism is informed and supported by homophobia.

Take an example cited in Natasha Walter’s superb book Living Dolls, where a mother interviewed is concerned about her husband’s attitude to their son, who loves dancing, dressing up and being creative. Her husband sees these things as being intrinsically feminine, and therefore is panicked that his son might ‘turn out’ gay. This is both a sexist and homophobic attitude to take, firstly because we have stereotyped certain behaviours in children as being ‘ok for girls’ and secondly that he sees these characteristics in boys as being symptomatic of homosexuality, which he perceives as “bad”.

There is no room in her husband’s attitude to suggest that creativity and dancing is fine for boys, and fine for girls, and fine for straight or gay boys and girls. The panic that he feels is based on his belief, informed by sexist stereotypes, that his son is feminine, and that feminine behaviour in boys is wrong, and an indicator of his perceived-to-be-wrong sexuality.
What we see here is the marking out of certain hobbies and character traits as only being suitable or ok for boys or girls, based on sexist stereotyping and resulting in homophobic attitudes.

To put it simply, think of the intro to Madonna’s ‘what it feels like for a girl’ where the narrator says ‘because for a boy to be like a girl is degrading. Because you think being a girl is degrading’. The feminine is seen as lesser, so if a boy acts in a feminine way he too is seen as lesser, and in a homophobic culture you see where this leads to. 

Young girls, as anyone knows who reads Pink Stinks, also have gender stereotyping and homophobic attitudes impressed upon them. Raised in a pink bath of Disney Princesses, the alternative tomboy identity that was open to girls of my not-so-long-ago generation has pretty much vanished. Even my friend’s amazing little girl who loves playing outside and being a cheeky monkey still cherishes a love for Disney Princesses, which completely bemuses her mother. Whereas we had George in the Famous Five and Pippi Longstocking, they have Bratz and High School Musical. Tweenies always had games around boys (does anyone remember that board game with the phone where you planned dates?) but as we see an ever-increasing avalanche of pink, fluff, and boy-crazed dialogue, an alternative message for girls is increasingly absent.

Cordelia Fine’s recent book, Delusions of Gender neatly debunks the persistent myths that boys like blue and girls like pink; that it is innate for boys to play with guns and girls to play with dolls. Unfortunately, the bio-deterministic pseudo science that has tried to “prove” innate gender difference is enthusiastically reported by the press, whilst studies that show opposite findings are left ignored. It is these gender stereotypes that are not only fuelling sexism, but emphasise and promote homophobic stereotypes too.

Feminists often talk and explore how hetero women are portrayed in the mainstream media, particularly in lad’s mags and porn. It is important when discussing these issues that we also question and challenge the portrayal of lesbian women. If lad’s mag culture tells us that women are only and always sexually available for men’s consumption, and that their sexuality is based solely on male pleasure; then lesbians share this issue of being portrayed as performing their lesbian sexuality for men’s pleasure. If we want to fight sexualisation and commercial sexual exploitation, then we also need to address how lesbian sexuality is completely erased from our cultural discourse other than when we see it as a performance for men, as opposed to a real and valid sexuality in its own right. (I wrote my 3rd year course essay on this issue in 20th century literature so could go on all day…)

Last week, Melanie Phillips wrote a sickeningly nasty and spiteful article about the ‘gay agenda’ ruling the UK. Her argument, that mentioning gay people in lessons would turn kids gay, is so ridiculous and her anger at the thought of gay people even being mentioned in schools has a supremely negative impact on kids and young people. When I was at school, I read maths problems and reading books that were all about mummy and daddy. My reality of growing up with lesbian parents was never reflected back on me. The same is now true for my friend’s daughter. Her life is silenced in the schoolroom. It is isolating. It makes you feel different, when you are not. It magnifies, and refuses to challenge, institutionalised homophobia. When schools don’t address or talk about homosexuality or homophobia, gay children are more likely to be bullied and experience depression. When these issues are not talked about, little boys who like pink and little girls who like climbing trees are stigmatised for not fitting their gender stereotype, resulting in homophobic bullying that ruins lives – leading in some cases to suicide.

The recent sexist comments made by Keys and Grey can also be seen as being informed by homophobia, as can a lot of macho posturing and sexist behaviour in general. The desire to prove heterosexuality, the sub-conscious need to quash any thoughts that the speaker might not be straight results in the speaker making comments that are offensive to women. The one up-man ship of saying ‘I want to smash that’ – of performing a macho masculinity to a male audience, is a way of proving heterosexuality. This internalised homophobia, the fear of being thought gay, the fear of other men thinking the speaker is gay, plays itself out via being disrespectful to women.

It is a sad, sad thing that we still live in a world where being gay is seen as something so bad that (some) men feel the need to disprove it by proving their heterosexuality with the use of sexist, violent and demeaning language. Where boys who love dancing around the lounge are discouraged from this activity because their parents feel insecure about it. Where girls’s energy is channelled into loving pink, make-up and getting boys rather than creative, sporting or academic pursuits. Where it is ok for Mel Phillips to compare teaching about Alan Turing to child abuse.

My whole life I have been aware of the impact of homophobia. From my mum’s best friend abandoning their friendship when mum started a gay relationship, to attitudes from family, to the education issues mentioned above, to the fear of schoolfriends finding out that my mum was gay. When I was in a lesbian relationship I was spat on as I walked down the street, had abuse shouted at me, had rumours spread about me at school and, in one charming action, had so-called friends call my girlfriend and shout abuse at her down the phone. I had friends who were chucked out by their parents, beaten up and attacked.

Before I became a feminist I was primarily an anti-homophobia campaigner. As mentioned in the first paragraph, I actively campaigned to tackle homophobia as a school student and beyond. As I became more and more feminist, I realised that equality for men and women was nothing if we indulged in heterosexism, did not tackle homophobia or only achieved equality for white, straight, middle class men and women. I believe very strongly that by recognising how gender stereotypes are layered with an accepted or mainstream homophobia can we begin to tackle sexist definitions and labels of gender. If we refuse to explore the intersectionality between how we view gender and sexuality, and how we allow sexist stereotyping to fuel homophobic beliefs, then we will never find true equality.

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