Is Homophobia The Same As Racism/Sexism?
By George Yancey, Assistant Professor
The University of North Texas
Editor's Note: Adapted from a speech delivered at the North Texas Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality on February 24, 200l.
If there is only one thing that you remember from this morning's talk it is this: it is a mistake to see the varieties of discrimination in our society, whether it is sexism, racism, class distinctions, or homophobia, as identical. By seeing them as identical we create problems. In the world of academia there is a big push to see all discrimination problems as exactly the same. Intellectually that does not make sense.
For example, at the University of Texas at Austin, I had a roommate who took a race relations class. He was white. For some reason the professor brought in a young gay male who stated that he knew what it was like to be black because he was homosexual. I assume that he would probably argue that he knows what it is like to be a woman as well. That is problematic for me because I do not think he knows what it is like to be an African-American or a woman. Likewise, I do not know what it is like to be gay. It is easy to think that racism is just like sexism, homophobia, and classism. That is an easy way to think about the problems of discrimination. Then we do not have to think about the distinctions in those persons due to whatever unique characteristics he/she possesses. In academia people are taking the easy way out. What is easy politically can be intellectually dishonest.
Here is a story to show how people use this intellectual comparison to say things that make no sense whatsoever. I am studying multiracial churches. There is a church in Chicago that is 40% white, 30% black, and 30% Hispanic. These people have figured out something about racial issues. Now I do not know what their position is on gender, but when it comes to racial issues, they are doing more than most of us. How many of us are in churches that are as racially diverse? One day a group of protesters appeared, because they were going to have a speaker who was going to talk about homosexuality as being sinful. The protesters chanted, "Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay, Born-again Bigots go away." I wonder how many of those protesters have organizations that are 40% white, 30% black and 30% Hispanic, and if so, are these the organizations where they develop their friendships and social networks. Perhaps this church can be critiqued for other reasons, but racism was not one of them. The protesters had the mindset that if you are homophobic you are racist, sexist, and other generalizations. That is just intellectually simplistic. Life does not work that way.
I want to challenge you today, and hopefully give you some resources, so that when you encounter this mindset, you can begin to think more carefully about the unique problems a person may face. This is much better than assuming, "I am a woman, I know what a black person faces" or "I am an African-American so I know what a woman faces." The main thing I want to address deals with the gay rights movement that promotes the notion that homophobia is the same as racism and sexism.
I would argue that racism and sexism are much closer to each other than to homophobia. But even then, it is a mistake to think that sexism is identical to racism.
There has been the assumption that if we deal with sexism, then we automatically deal with racism and vice versa. What I will do today is give you two examples to show that this is not the case. If we make the assumption that "I understand sexism thus I understand racism," or vice versa, then we wind up thinking that we are ministering to someone, when in fact we are not meeting their needs.
For example, look at the issue of sexual harassment, an issue that men of color do not necessarily understand any better than white men do. As a man, I can intellectually understand the problems of sexual harassment and I can try to empathize. But I cannot fully comprehend what sexual harassment means to women because sexuality means something different to men than it does for women.
Once in a class we were trying to define sexual harassment. One student asked, "What is the big deal?" To him, if a female superior wanted to pat him on the butt, what is the problem? He missed the whole point. The point is that sexual harassment is not just an uncomfortable feeling, it is also a threat. It is a threat to one's sexuality much more so for a woman than it is for a man. There are cases where men are sexually harassed, but it occurs more often to women than it does to men.
On average men are physically larger than women, and so for women there is a physical threat. Men also tend to have more social power. The way men express their sexuality is often more intimidating. Women tend to express their sexuality in ways that are not threatening to men, whereas if a man is not careful the way he expresses his sexuality is very threatening to women. So you can have a workplace where men and women are both expressing their sexuality, but women are intimated because of this difference.
There is no evidence that men of color are any more sensitive to the issues of sexual harassment than white men. In fact, I have been doing research which assesses certain gender attitudes of men of different races. What I find is that on some gender attitudes whites are more progressive, and on others that are less progressive. But there is no general trend that shows that men of color, because they understand racism, understand sexism better than white men.
We all know some of the problems that President Clinton has had with women in the workplace. There was also a black congressman a few years ago named Mel Reynolds who had the same problem. In fact he went to jail, as the women he was involved with were sixteen years old. This black congressman probably understood racism, but obviously did not understand the sexual dynamics of the workplace or else he would not have made that mistake.
Just because a man understands racism does not mean that he understands sexism. It is a mistake to think that if we deal with racism, we also have dealt with sexism. The reverse is true as well. Just because we deal with sexism does not mean we have dealt with racism.
How many of you know that if you are walking down the street and a car is driving past you at 30 miles per hour, as the people in the car lock their door you can hear the doors locking? I know that because I hear it all the time. I hear car doors locking. I hear it a little less now. I have a few gray hairs so people are probably thinking; "He is probably not that dangerous. He probably cannot run that fast and chase us down now." Often when I was five years younger I heard car doors lock as I was walking.
One time when I was teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio I was walking by a car dressed like a student-not in gangster colors. I looked young enough to be a student. Yet car doors were locking. I remember stopping at a store and walking towards it. I heard car doors lock. I looked around and there was an old guy in a car. I kept on walking and the car doors unlocked. So we know why the car doors locked-because I was there.
I have asked this question to students in my race relations class (I tend to have racially diverse classes): How many people have heard car doors lock as you pass? With one exception all the people who raise their hands are black males. The only exception is that once a Puerto Rican woman raised her hand as well. I have yet to have a white person raise his or her hand.
Am I making too much of this? Should I not acknowledge that those people are bigots and not let it bother me? I should just move on with my life. Yet African-Americans understand that this practice is connected to a larger issue in our society. We have heard of racial profiling. The fear that people have of African-Americans is greater than the fear they have of European-Americans and this prompts police officers to stop blacks more often than they stop whites. I believe that the Rodney King beating happened to some extent because he was a black male and there was an increased fear of a black male. Black men notice that sometimes when we go into elevators, white women hold their purses tighter. We note that sometimes people look at us nervously. There is a fear directed at us that is related to some of the problems we face. For example, black males serve longer prison sentences and are greater victims of police brutality.
I do not think that white women really understand this. I love my wife, Sherelyn. We have been together almost six years. I have heard from her some of her issues of gender. None of them make me think that any of her issues include people fearing her. People fear me. They fear me without even knowing me. That is something I have to overcome. Just because you understand sexism does not mean that you understand racism. Women and people of color have different issues.
Having laid this groundwork I want to now focus on the issue of homosexuality. I did not want to bring up this issue until we understood the general principle. That principle is that we have to be very careful about grouping different issues together, as if they are the same. But this tendency is really obvious when we come to homosexuality.
I would argue that there are three reasons why homophobia is different from racism and sexism. These three reasons include ways in which racism and sexism have commonalties.
The first reason is physical sight. I am sure when some of you met me, one of the things that probably came to your mind was, "He is black." Automatically you know that I am an African-American. In other words, if I want to hide the fact that I am an African-American from you then I have done a poor job. Now there are other things in your mind as well, such as, "He is tall" or "He is a man." Likewise, I look at you and to some degree I think, "You are white," or "You are a woman."
Race is an important factor. I have no choice about being black. Whenever you meet me, whatever preconceptions you have about blacks, I have to deal with them. It is obviously not the same with homosexuality. If a person is gay or lesbian, you can meet them, you can work with them, you can go to school with them, and yet not know they are homosexual. It is their choice to tell you or not.
Some activists say that this is part of the problem-that homosexuals have to deny their sexuality. Well I guess I am not that sympathetic since as a Christian there are times when I cannot be as forthcoming with my spirituality. For example, I have to be careful in a public school setting or in academia. Sometimes you just cannot say what you want to say. As far as being black or a woman, you have no choice. People are going to react to you and you have got to deal with their attitudes.
Now I can choose to hide things from you that might devalue your opinion of me. I am a fan of the San Diego Chargers. I don't have to share that with you. I can simply watch them lose again and no one has to know that I support a team that went 1-15 last year! This is much different from being devalued because you are black. If I do not want to be teased for being a fan of the worst football team in America I can hide that fact. But there is no hiding my heritage-it is in my skin.
I face stereotypes people hold because I am an African-American. People will cling to stereotypes even when it works against them. When I was in graduate school I played intramural basketball for the Baptist Student Union. We were decent as a team. I had a roommate who played high school basketball and another player who was really good. Most of the other players did not have a great deal of experience, but they had athletic ability. One day we played an all-black team. I watched them warm-up. I thought that they were good, but I felt we could beat them.
When the game began, they immediately overpowered us. I could not figure out why until I noticed that the players who did not have much experience were not playing well. They were not used to playing against blacks. They were intimidated by the fact that we were playing a black team, even though that team was not very good. I called a timeout and told the team, "Look I know they are black but they are not that good." It did not work. They beat us anyway.
My teammates stereotypical view of blacks hurt us. If we had not believed that all blacks are better basketball players, we probably would have won that game. We act on stereotypes even when they work against us.
Why would you not want to work with a woman if she is the best person for the job? We sometimes stereotype women as inept workers, even when it injures the woman and hurts the person stereotyping.
If you are a women or a person of color you will face stereotypes because you cannot hide your race or gender. If you are gay or lesbian then you can hide that fact. People do stereotype gays and lesbians, but they have the freedom to hide that fact. If I face teasing and stereotyping because I support the Chargers I can hide that fact. So if you are a person of color or a woman you know that you have to face racism and sexism. You have no choice.
A second way in which racism and sexism is different from homophobia is earning power. In general, a woman makes about 80-90 percent of what a man makes according to the latest statistics. In general, an African-American makes 75 cents for every dollar a European-American makes. For Hispanic-Americans it is a bit higher. On average women and people of color make less money than whites and males. For gays and lesbians this is reverse. On the average, homosexual persons make more money than heterosexuals do. Most, if not all, of the studies on this topic confirm that fact.
When the first movement toward gay rights developed, one issue talked about was whether there should be affirmative action for gays and lesbians. The homosexual lobby has pulled back from this issue because how can you argue for affirmative action when your group is making more money than the average?
If we ever get to the point where women make as much money as men, then affirmative action for women will no longer make much sense. The same is true for racial minorities. There is no affirmative action for Jewish-Americans because they are better educated than most Americans and make as much or more money than most other ethnic groups. So when we talk about economic inequality, we are focusing on race and gender.
We know how important economics is. It determines so much of your life and your opportunities. Obviously we can make a strong argument on behalf of economic equality for women and people of color, for there is systematic economic discrimination against them unknown for gays and lesbians.
I am not implying that individual discrimination does not exist. Of course there are individual cases of discrimination against men and whites. If we do not recognize this, people will begin to discount our attempts to deal with systematic discrimination. Yet, on average in our society you are better off being a man than you are being white. Yes, there are times when gays and lesbians face individual economic discrimination.
But systematically they are not worse off than blacks or women; rather they fair better economically than heterosexuals. This is very important because as terrible as stereotyping and social stigma may be, money is still a powerful force that helps to determine acceptance in our society. As Christians we do not want to be overly materialistic, but it is because of inadequate distribution of resources that we have ghettos, poverty, and single mothers struggling to survive.
We must recognize that poverty is connected to gender and race. This is an important distinction when we contrast racism and sexism with homophobia. There is an economic component that is missing when we discuss issues of sexual preference. There may be individual problems that gays and lesbians face, but they do not face the economic realities that racial minorities and women do.
There is a third way in which homophobia is different from race and gender. The first two are ways are non-controversial. People may argue with my interpretation, but not with the facts. Racial minorities and women clearly are noticeable in a way that gays and lesbians are not. And gays and lesbians are not economically inferior to heterosexuals, women, or people of color.
A third comparison is admittedly controversial, for many people will disagree with my contention. The third way I believe that being a woman or a person of color is different from a homosexual orientation is this: race and gender are innate, while homosexuality has some degree of volition involved.
Notice that I said "some degree of volition." I am not of the school that homosexuality is a pure choice. I do not believe that it is easy to leave the homosexual lifestyle. I recognize that it is difficult to leave the homosexual lifestyle. Sometimes Christians make the mistake of believing that choosing to be gay is like choosing to have spinach instead of broccoli or of seeing one movie instead of another. Clearly that is not true.
However, some argue that gayness is as innate as being black. I do not believe that either. I basically believe that there is a genetic component, but not a determinant to being gay. I think that some individuals are more predisposed to homosexuality than others. I see homosexual acts as sins just as anger is sin. Some people will never lose their temper. Others often blow up in anger. They likely have a stronger genetic predisposition to anger than others do. Does this relieve them of the responsibility of controlling their temper? No, but we cannot expect them to act like those without this predisposition.
I recommend a book by Jeffery Satinover.[i] Some of what I will present comes from his work, although many of these ideas I have discovered elsewhere. Satinover proposes that there is a genetic component to homosexuality, but that genetics is not a determinant. He points out many people have left that lifestyle and are living in a healthy marriage.
It is not impossible to leave that lifestyle. Many have done so. He also makes an interesting analogy between homosexuality and alcoholism. We know that there is a genetic component to alcoholism, but we do not say to alcoholics, "You are born this way so let us make it easier for you to imbibe more drinks." No, rather we try to help such people overcome their "sickness," out of compassion for them. We want them to return to normalcy by overcoming their condition.
One of the problems I have with the argument that homosexuality is determined by genetics is this: I know that as a sociologist sexual attraction is to some degree shaped by society. In certain societies women who are considered attractive are very skinny. In other societies women who are considered attractive are what we would call overweight. Why would there be such a variation between societies? We can argue that the attraction that men have toward women is natural, but then why is there not an ideal type of women that men in all societies find attractive?
I would argue that society to some degree helps to determine what we think is attractive. This is why many sociologists rightly criticize the images of women that we often hold. A few years ago the ideal fashion models were what I would call anorexic. You put a piece of string with some hair on it and that was the model in demand.
What does this mean? Is it a big a leap to think that if we are influenced by social norms as to who heterosexuals find physically attractive, we are also led to believe that some people of the same sex are also attractive. It amazes me that some of the same sociologists who rightly point out how society influences our desires for the opposite sex, also argue that biology completely determines whether we are attracted to the same sex.
A second problem I have with the argument that homosexuality is totally innate is the evidence that is provided by people who were once gay and then become heterosexual. Likewise the notion of bisexuality does not seen to fit with the idea that homosexuality is innate and cannot be changed. There are gays who now are living a heterosexual lifestyle with a wife and children. They are no longer gay. This does seem impossible if homosexuality is innate.
Everything I know about those who make that transformation, suggests to me that it is a very difficult one. Yet the fact that such a transformation can and does happen suggests that there is a cultural and volitional component to homosexuality.
I am born with the characteristics that society uses to determine that I am black. I cannot change those characteristics no matter how hard I try. I will always be black. I have never met an "ex-black." Thus I cannot become "white" in the way that a homosexual might be able to become heterosexual. Likewise a woman can only "become" a man after rather extensive surgery and drugs. She cannot become a man through therapy and non-intrusive measures. It is not something she can do on her own. She is truly born a woman and that designation is innate.I have yet to hear a good genetic determinist argument explaining how people can be bisexual.
Finally, notice that since I have not used a scriptural argument, you may assume a naturalistic framework (because if the Bible is incorrect then we are left with an evolutionary presupposition). This is important because often Christians are debating with people who operate out of a materialistic worldview. The theory of evolution assumes that we are able to pass our genes on to the next generation. For example, long ago a man who was fast and strong would be able to kill the animals needed to feed his family and thus his family would survive as well as his genes. This would make his offspring bigger, stronger, and faster. This is a major premise of evolution and of the notion of a natural selection.
The question I propose is this: how can homosexuality be a quality that aids the survival of the human race in an evolutionary sense? By their own definition, homosexuals are unable to pass their genes on to their kids. There are some that become gay after having kids, and there are medical procedures now where you can have children without heterosexual sex, but these occurrences are uncommon. The vast majority of gays and lesbians have no biological children.
So logically what should happen over time, if homosexuality is based upon genetics, is the loss of the homosexual gene. Under an evolutionary framework gays would be a smaller and smaller population until they were non-existent. The persistence of gays indicate that there must be social conditions and volitional choices that people are making that enables this population to remain in human societies.
The best argument I have heard came from a lesbian friend of mine in graduate school. She argued that societies often become overpopulated and this overpopulation threatens the existence of the society. Thus, having a certain number of homosexuals in the society helped to stave off the extinction of that society. I did not buy this argument. That may help a culture to survive, but that theory does not explain how an individual could pass on his or her genes. If homosexuality is entirely genetically based, then in a few generations we will not have people who are genetically gay.
The belief that homosexuality is not entirely genetic does not mean we should not have sympathy and to be sensitive to gays. It also does not mean that we should just look at gays and ask them to just "snap out" of their gayness. Homosexuality does not work that way. Yet, the notion that one is "born gay" does not hold up to real scrutiny.
Unfortunately much of the scientific work in "gay studies" is not open to divergent views. Arguments like mine do not often get published. If homosexuality is not purely innate, then it must also be a lifestyle. This means that there is an element of volition in the orientation. It means that there is a morality issue in homosexual behavior that is not present for women and minorities. It is not sinful to be a woman or black. But I believe that the scriptures teach that homosexual acts are sinful. So we have to take this into consideration when we compare homophobia to racism and sexism.
Thus, we are compelled to make these distinctions between homophobia and racism and sexism. We do not make these distinctions to be overly judgmental, but rather to be sensitive that there are different needs and challenges in homosexuality. For example, I believe that we must work on the issue of acceptance, as well as oppose homosexual actions. One of the reasons people become homosexuals is because they have faced a lack of acceptance in their lives. Thus we need to ask how we can accept gays and lesbians as persons, even if we disagree with their lifestyle.
Yes, there are problems within the church on understanding and loving the homosexual. One of the best experiences I have had was with a church in Austin, Texas. This congregation repented of the sins they had committed against gays and lesbians-the sin of rejecting them as persons and treating their sin as if it were the worst sin of all.
We do not do gays and lesbians a favor when we blur the lines between homophobia and racism and sexism. We also lose our focus on what racism and sexism really is. Let us not think that because we face discrimination, we know what it is like to face other types of discrimination. Let us also be honest and not let others distort the real issues by blurring the lines between race, gender, and homosexuality.
 Satinover, Jeffery. Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1996).