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.


aviewfromacarpark said...

Excellent and fascinating article, Sian, with particular resonance for me, with obvious reasons. It is tragic how gender behavioural stereotypes permeate almost without exclusion – even in my (our) relatively open-minded and alternative family set up, I suffered repeatedly as a ’sensitive’ child and later as a teenager, regularly having my sensitivity and emotional state criticised as not a ’manly’ attribute, and therefore something which should be quashed. In many ways, your being a girl in our situation was something of a grace to you, your emotional expression was something which was befitting of your gender. I grew up from an early age with a distinct sense of shame at my gender, coupled with over-compensating pressures to conform to certain tropes of said gender.
Homophobia and gender stereotypes are found nowhere more confusedly and confoundingly powerful amongst pre-adolescent and teenage males, the fear of sexuality, the pressures of conformity are overwhelming. Whilst my peers set about reinforcing these walls, I made every effort as a teenage to flaunt them, experimenting with visual challenges and mocking through gender-bending, the wearing of makeup and purposeful, pastichey effeminacy. However, in retrospect, this efforts were somewhat misguided and overenthusiastic, although doubtlessly useful in my own development and deflection of the attacks based primarily around my family setup. To be seen as feminine or female was a degradation of one’s manliness in an unformed and confused adolescent social sector, to be seen as one who appears not to care about this and positively uses it to one’s advantage was unthinkable. I do not expect to be celebrated for what I endured and what I did (and I absolutely never will be), but I believe my perspective on this issue is a unique and important one, having experienced the symptoms of what you are talking about in regards to sexism and homophobia and expectations of gender stereotypes in children from almost absolutely everybody I encountered growing up. I, for one, am proud of the fact I did not succumb to the pressure of gender comformity, and continue to resist such forces.

Elly said...

I liked this article Sian.

I think Cordelia Fine's work, and that of Lise Elliott is particularly important in challenging gender norms. I know I moan on about 'feminism' and you have mentioned Fine here so this is not aimed at you, but considering how important her research is, I really really think that feminists have not promoted it or discussed it or shared it nearly enough. They should be screaming it from the rooftops!

As for homophobia in sport. It is a complex one. I don't think it will ever be totally eradicated. Men's sport is possibly a way of expressing homosexual desire in itself, so if anyone is to 'come out' eg in football or rugby, they would all have to come out, not as gay maybe, but as well, just a little bit gay...

sian and crooked rib said...

"gender stereotypes are found nowhere more confusedly and confoundingly powerful amongst pre-adolescent and teenage males, the fear of sexuality, the pressures of conformity are overwhelming."

i like your comment ben and appreciate it, but this is a bit of a statement made from your male perspective. i don't know what teen boys go through, but adolescence is a pretty intense time for women too! girls have to deal with huge pressures to conform to gender stereotypes, their sexuality is treated as a big, scary, disturbing and dangerous thing by figures of authority, unless they conform to a cartoon-ish nuts mag sexuality. i think the pressures teen girls are under now are even worse than when we were at school, as they learn about how their bodies need to fit a pre-defined mould and they become detached from their real and vital sexuality and desire by learning that sex is a performance (see deb tolman research in levy's book). it isn't a competition between who has the more confusing adolescence!

and my emotional expression was something which was befitting to my gender? surely you are stereotyping there? which part of my emotional expression?! what is the befitting female response and what is the befitting male response? surely the whole point of smashing gender stereotypes is going beyond these statements.

school was shit for you and your refusal to conform to the gender stereotypes celebrated by the numpties we went to school with is a clear example of my point about how being female is degrading and so for a boy to be like a girl is to be degraded. but this again refers back to the point about how teen girls are viewed in adolescence and adulthood - as lesser.

i know you always tell me not to tell you how you experienced our childhood but within our own immediate family i don't think your sensitivity was criticised as un-manly. outside immediate family maybe, i don't know. but this is not the place to start arguing about la famille!

sian and crooked rib said...

PS - man, backwell was shit wasn't it? i don't know how you did it. those kids were so desperate to prove their heterosexuality through blatant sexism and homophobia. it was a microcosm of the whole issue i'm talking about.

Elly - have you read kosofsky sedgewick on homosociality? reminded me of what you say re sport.

aviewfromacarpark said...

"gender stereotypes are found nowhere more confusedly and confoundingly powerful amongst pre-adolescent and teenage males, the fear of sexuality, the pressures of conformity are overwhelming."

You slightly misunderstood a few of my points, I was agreeing with you on this one. Perhaps I should have said 'the enforcement of gender stereotypes...' and 'the fear of alternative sexualities'

"and my emotional expression was something which was befitting to my gender?" - again, perhaps I was not clear. This is, and never has been my personal viewpoint, I was merely referencing the status quo, the stereotype which exists. I certainly don't see it as a particulary female attribute, but I also don't see it as anything remotely negative, either. I would like to see British culture in general become more emotional expressive, and I sense that this is one area in which we have gained leaps and bounds over the past 50 years. Interesting defensive response, anyway!
In regards to my 'sensitivity' being criticised within the home, unfortunately, it repeatedly was, with me being told to 'toughen up' and 'man up' etc repeatedly. But as you said, this perhaps isn't the place, and I expect nobody would be interested anyway in my perspectives!

sian and crooked rib said...

ok cool, it just sounded like you were saying that adolescence was more confusing for boys when i was saying that both sexes are put under enormous pressure to conform to stereotypes of masculinity/femininity and heterosexuality.

sian and crooked rib said...

and no, lets not get in to a 'i think mum said this...you think mum said that' debate here.
because we never get anywhere constructive on that one.

annifrangipani said...

Yay for frequent blogs from you. Really enjoy reading them.


loren wuzzo said...

well firstly, blue for boys and pink for girls is a VERY new thing.

Way into the 1920s, Pink was a boy colour and blue was a girl colour. Red was the most masculine colour thus pink, being a diluted shade, was adequate for boys.
Blue (and green) was the colour for girls as it was seen as a very neutral, natural shade. The colours most occurrent in nature. If anything blue and green for girls was MORE sexist.

p.s, I wish you didn't use your sexuality and your mothers sexuality as an example as it comes across as TOO cliche and 'standard' that you have such opinions and views. Sorry.