Homophobia and sexism

I remember the first time I read Suzanne Pharr’s book Homophobia: A weapon of sexism. It was back in the early 1990s and I was an undergraduate taking a class called “Philosophy of sexuality.” It was one of those moments when an argument instantly made sense to me. Basically, the argument is that homophobia serves not only to ensure privilege for heterosexuals but it also keeps men and women “in their places” by making them afraid of being labeled as sexual outcasts. Hence the power of the taunt “fag” among boys in schoolyards. Such taunts are certainly used to keep boys conforming to norms of masculinity and they work on the rest of us by encouraging us to stick to our carefully scripted gender roles, which are linked to gendered institutions which privilege men over women.

Why bring this up today? Because I read a post on Slate that revived this argument to explain why opposition to same-sex marriage might not be grounded in homophobia, but instead might be grounded in a fear that “traditional gender roles” have been terribly undermined and need to be restored.

Richard Thompson Ford, in the Slate piece, argues that the resistance to changing gender roles is largely about symbolism and psychological attachment to clearly delineated gendered roles like “bride,” “groom,” “husband,” and “wife.” Those symbolic and psychological attachments are there, sure, but to focus on them misses the larger issue: that is institutional power and privilege, not just for heterosexuals, but for men. “Husband” and “wife” are not just psychological constructs, they are real social expectations. To change them is to change the built-in inequality that they depend on. Once marriage roles are no longer linked to gender roles, questions of division of labor and power that translate into time and money are open for renegotiation on a grand scale. If two men, married and raising a family, can manage the housework, take care of a child, and bring in the income all without a “wife,” then there is no reason that a man and a woman, married and raising a family, can’t divide up the same labor equally instead of falling back on a gendered division of labor that puts much of the responsibility for child and household care on the wife, making it difficult for her to pursue her career with equal focus as her husband pursues his and thus undermining her own economic power and independence.

Of course I hope that you support same-sex marriage because sexual orientation should not be a source of privilege or disadvantage. But even if you don’t support it for that reason, support it because same-sex marriage is a step toward gender equality.

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