by Erik Meddles
Growing up queer involves growing up with fear. These fears can and do vary depending on one’s nationality, social status, cultural group, and individual personality. But fear is always there. The vast majority of queer people hide their identities for at least some part of their lives for a variety of different concerns. People fear that they will not be accepted by their friends and family. They fear that they will be subject to taunting, teasing, and slurs based upon popular stereotypes. They fear what will happen to their previous identities if they attach themselves to groups that have developed their own dominant cultures. These fears are not relegated to those who have yet to come out. Violence against queers is still a very real danger in most parts of the world, by no means excluding the decidedly more progressive “West.” The torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, a young man targeted for his sexuality, in Wyoming in 1998 is but one of the best known cases of violence against homosexuals in the United States. In many other countries homosexuality is illegal, punishable by fines, incarceration, public forms of humiliation, and execution. Queers fear other forms of legal discrimination throughout the world, notably in the realm of family rights and economic status. Homosexual marriage and the adoption of children by homosexual couples is not recognized in most parts of the world and sexual orientation is one of the few categories of discrimination not protected by labor laws in many U.S. states. Even those most steeled against concerns for themselves are certainly fearful of the way these legal discriminations can affect their loved ones, whether through workplace discrimination, the denial of hospital visitation rights, or the discrimination that their children might inherit for having a queer parent. Fear is part of queer life.
Yet fear is not the unique possession of queer people subject to discrimination. The term used for discrimination against queers is homophobia. Deriving from the Greek word phóbos, the term describes hatred and aversion but also intense fear. In fact, most other modern uses of the term phobia derive from a psychological understanding of intense (and sometimes irrational) fears, such as claustrophobia (a fear of confined spaces) or agoraphobia (a fear of the outside world). This dominant psychological connotation on our language makes the choice of the term homophobia appear to be an odd one. And yet at the heart of this ambiguity between hatred and fear lies clarity; hate and fear are linked, they feed each other, and they provoke each other.
A gay character on the web series The Outs states the apparent contradiction well when he says “You know, homophobia gets a bad rap, but what it means is people being afraid of homos. And I know I would feel a lot safer walking home alone at night in Charlotte, North Carolina if more people were afraid of me.” While in the grips of one’s own fears it is difficult to see how he or she could provoke fear in someone else. Yet queer relationships, actions, and comportments can be anxiety inducing for many heterosexual people throughout the world. One of the main reasons for this is that queer behavior stands outside of the traditional, binary divide between genders. Most human cultures make gender distinctions between members of the two sexes and relegate them to well defined roles that prescribe set occupations, modes of dress, leisure preferences, mental capacities, language usage, vocal quality, etc. These roles, while distinct in different cultures, can be rigid and viewed as an essential aspect of group formation and identity. But queer behavior, often by the nature of its existence, draws this strict binary in to question. If men are supposed to be naturally assertive or aggressive to their passive partner, how can a gay couple hope to have both partners meet that ideal? Since a strict gender binary does not allow them to do so, one is forced to loosen the binary to include them, eliminate the binary, or exclude them. Since this gender construction creates a sense of order and comfort, challenges to that order can be disquieting for some.
Another major way that queer behavior provokes fear is its treatment by major religions. Practitioners of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all been historically hostile to queers, citing their religious texts and the guidance of spiritual leaders as a rationale for their opposition. Even those faithful people who claim to have no personal dislike for queers often maintain that they cannot support homosexuality because their religion forbids it and views it as a shameful form of human activity. Still others believe that, although perpetrated by queers, the perceived transgressions against religion includes them (and all of society) in the ultimate divine judgment of these acts. The host of the television show The 700 Club, Pat Robertson has even gone to the lengths of claiming that the practice of homosexuality in the United States (along with other perceived social ills) served as the basis for divine punishment via the September 11th terrorist attacks. The zealot’s distaste for queers grows in to a fear of them which in turn may be extended to hatred. This hatred can lead down a path of dehumanization of, and violence against, queers. Surely the path to violence is rare and extreme, but the extreme is always possible when living with extreme emotions such as fear and hate.
Queers, as a group, are not responsible for inciting these fears and they should not be held to higher moral standards as representatives of their community in order to assuage these fears. Queers are human beings and are just as perfect and flawed as a group as any other group of humans is capable of being. Understanding the way that homophobia is constructed and recognizing that it is rooted in fear, however, is an essential step in confronting this hatred. Certainly hatred towards queers is irrational and flawed as a position, but so have all forms of discrimination throughout history. The phantasms of fear echo through hatred of groups throughout history. Medieval Christians feared that Jews were responsible for poisoning communal drinking wells, 19th Century Europeans feared the economic expansion of Asians as the arrival of the “yellow peril,” frontiersmen and women filled journals with their anxieties of the “savagery” of Native Americans, and 20th century men feared what would happen if they opened the electoral franchise to supposedly emotional and irrational women. In all of these instances reactionary policies were drafted in order to maintain the binaries of their time (racial and gendered) and arguments from the Bible were used to resist seeing past superficial differences for the shared humanity within. And in all of these instances discrimination has ceased to be dominant only when love has been encouraged over fear. Interracial marriage continues to grow in the United States and women are more visible in positions of power than they have ever been in the past.
The more that we openly love and respect those who are different from us the harder it is to maintain the misguided binaries that keep us a part. For the scant few times that the Bible supposedly castigates homosexuality, or women, or blacks, or Jews it evokes love ten times more. Love strengthens us against fear when we are in our most desperate moments, and it can be used to dissolve anger and fear to outsiders. Queers today use love and pride as a way of resisting the fear that comes with living in the society that we live in today, and it shields and comforts us. Our response to homophobia should change to fit this understanding. When confronted with a homophobic statement we should ask, “What are you afraid of?” because this fear is at the heart of the homophobe’s anger and aggression. Homophobes will likely deny being afraid of anything in the moment, but if for one instance they seriously reflect on their anger they may realize how much fear is a part of their lives as well.
Erik Meddles (25) is a Colorado native who graduated from Regis University in 2010 with a BA in French and History. He received his MA in French Studies from New York University in 2011 and is currently enrolled in a joint PhD program with New York University between French Studies and History. He is primarily interested in the histories of empires, race, and communal identity formation.
 I choose to use the term queer as an all-encompassing grouping of all members of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community.
 The Human Rights Campaign has good resources for tracking rights for the LGBTQ community. The following link lists the legislation in existence in each US state to prevent hate crimes, http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/state-laws-policies.
 The recent documentary Fish Out of Water interviews theological scholars and practicing preachers regarding the instances in the Bible that mention homosexuality and questions the interpretation of a negative perception of homosexuality within. Fish Out of Water. DVD. Directed by Ky Dickens. Chicago, IL: Yellow Wing Productions, 2009.