On Homophobia, Complexities of Language, and Degrees of Dissention

I got into a bit of a debate this past weekend on BtB over an issue that is, in my opinion, very complex and very touchy to a lot of people (myself included), and in the course of that debate, because of the nature of debate, the direction of the conversation was sort of forced by the way things unfolded. While I don’t have anything against that (that is how debate works) there are a lot of things rattling around in my head still, despite it being a week later, that I really just wanted to decompress, and maybe, in the process clear up a few things. That issue was homophobia, and when someone is considered to be homophobic.

alanis morissette

First and foremost, I want to make a point; words in the English language can simultaneously have multiple meanings, and they often do. Irony, in the eyes of the generation who grew up with Alanis Morissette, and Irony to a scholar of classical Greek literature are entirely different things. So who is right? Well, the scholar, technically, is correct, and the song is technically wrong (who would have thought; it figures…). However, just because the definition in the song isn’t academically correct, doesn’t mean it has no value. There is an intrinsic value in definitions of words as they are used within a society. I listened to a fascinating Ted Talk by John McWhorter the other day which touched on this as well; it talked to the concept of “LOL”, and how, in most instances, LOL no longer requires that one be laughing. Instead, it’s transformed into an empathetic response “I know how that is, I understand how you feel, it’s happened to me too, or I can imagine it. I support you.”.  We unconsciously store many meanings to many different words, and we interchange the meaning based on the context frequently. Ask any kid what LOL means, and they will tell you “Laugh Out Loud” or “Laughing Out Loud” or “I’m Laughing Out Loud”. Then ask if they have to actually be laughing; they will look at you like you are from Mars for a moment, because they don’t even have to think about it when they use it; it’s not a conscious thing.

This week on BtB, we ran into this. Except we ran into it in the form of an unresolvable debate where people were so in tune with a particular form of usage of a word, that when the academic definition was used, it was refuted, and further arguments on the validity of the Academic definition were also refuted (and of course, since all arguments have two sides, one can also say that people were bringing forward the academic definition to weaken an argument on the true meaning of the word). Now, before anyone jumps down my throat and says that itsn’t what happened; please keep in mind that I am writing this in hindsight, based on observation, and it is not the argument I was making at the time. Quite frankly, I hadn’t explored the topic enough prior to this to realize how drastic of a split there was in the commonly held definitions of the word, and so my arguments were based on my own beliefs on the subject, which I hadn’t realized were at all controversial.


Which, in turn brings up another point. Motivation. I have a vested interest in maintaining certain relationships in my life. I have a vested interest in keeping them stable, and respectful. Other people have a vested interest in disrupting certain relationships in their life, in the effort to remove people who aren’t 100% supportive of them, or to force those people into adopting other viewpoints. In both cases there are risks, and people’s personalities and the sort of relationships they are challenging, and what someone values all come into play. I believe that both stances are absolutely valid. You can, and some people do, live your life without compromising on things you feel strongly about. That is ok, it’s even admirable sometimes, and there is an acceptance, to a degree, for that in our social structure. However, in doing so, you shape certain aspects of your life. One can not simultaneously rebel against injustice without any compromise and hold a position where one is required to compromise at the same time. One usually must chose one or the other. It’s not a matter of being true to one’s self or not, or respecting one’s self or not… it’s a matter of choosing the path of one’s life, and deciding what is most important. To some people, full and total acceptance is most important, and that’s perfectly fine. To me, it’s not. I am ok with people having different beliefs than I do on this subject (and many other subjects). I can respect people who believe many things, even things in direct conflict of what I believe, as long as those people do so in a certain format. When one dissents in a respectful, academic manner, then I can respect them back.

To label those people as being phobic, is to label them as irrational, to reject their rational arguments, to reject their respect, and to say “I do not accept that we disagree”. I can do that; at times I do. (I take issue with people who reject vaccinations for their children, and subject their children to life threatening illness, and weaken the bubble of protection that a mostly vaccinated public affords to those who have compromised immune systems, for example) But, on this issue, I understand that it’s a very big thing for people to make a change. I understand that when people are respectful of me, that when people don’t outright reject me, they are taking a risk. They are stepping away from a group which is also looking at this as an all or nothing argument. They are turning their back on the “safe” option, and taking a risk for me. A risk they don’t have to take, a risk that quite frankly, they usually haven’t been pushed into. If someone, who has no reason other than their own conscious, or their own respect for me, is willing to take a step like that, then I am absolutely willing to meet them half way. Not only because I respect them for taking that step, but because I understand that change takes time. Change takes generations of time, usually. Those people who are in that grey area right now, are the people who’s children won’t grow up being taught to hate. By the next generation, those children will have brought to us a more understanding world. By the generation after that, maybe those people will be 100% understanding.

But if I reject someone who is standing there, trying to meet me half way. If I turn my back and say “that’s not enough”, are they more willing to keep standing there with their hand out waiting, or are they more likely to regress back to where they came from, or are they more likely to move forward? It’s my opinion that those people are more likely to move backwards, than to move forwards. I think in rejecting someone who is at least trying, you are more likely to cause a regression than progress as a whole. However, that’s not to say that the world doesn’t need people who are rebelling, who are saying that it’s not enough; because we do need those people. We need them to be loud, and strong, and proud, and to step forward and to keep pushing at the edge, because if they do not, it becomes easy for us to slip into complacency and say that what we have is good enough. We need both types of people. We need the people who are willing to compromise, and we need the people who are not. We need the people who are bold and willing to fight, and those who can overlook a disagreement. It takes a different kind of courage to take each stance, and a different kind of person. It is not easy to fight for what you believe in. However, it is also not easy to not fight, when the situation calls for diplomacy.

So, while I absolutely do see a case for the word homophobia be applied to anyone who dissents in any form (if one looks at the word as simply being a catch all for dissension, that is) I do not think that definition is the most valuable to me in my situation, and so it isn’t the one I’m most likely to use, nor the one I’m most likely to think of. That doesn’t mean that I’m nit-picking at the meaning of words for the sake of an argument; it means that society doesn’t agree on a definition, and that society doesn’t feel that it can talk about that meaning. Which is a different issue in and of itself. If a word is so charged and so controversial that debate on it’s definition is not possible, then it goes to follow, that debate on the subject is going to often be riddled with misunderstanding.

I think, of all the arguments pointed back at me, the one I had the hardest time with, was one which basically said that as a lesbian, I shouldn’t be defending people who dissagree, and drew a parallel to hating racism while defending racists. I have a hard time with it for a number of reasons, but mostly because they aren’t entirely wrong at the end, and when I read it, a part of me wanted to step up on a chair and yell back that yes, of course I realize that. How could I not realize that? Of course I realize it’s damaging, of course I realize it’s unhealthy to me. Do you have any idea how hard it is not to fight? Because it is hard. Because I do have to work at it. Because entertaining other people’s points of view when I vehemently disagree requires patience and work, and it does scar me. But I do it because I believe in a future when people won’t have to, and that means accepting, today, what people can offer today, when they are trying their best. It means silently showing that I am normal, and rational, and worth of other people’s respect, even though they vehemently disagree with me. It means sometimes upsetting people who I absolutely respect because I am compromising where they are not. And it’s hard. And it hurts. And it often terrifies me. But it’s life, and it’s messy, and complicated, and I don’t have all the answers, and I have to be ok with that. At the end of the day, I am who I am, and while I can change what I believe, and how I act, and whom I interact with, I cannot change the core of who I am, so I must accept it, and I must be strong enough in my conviction, that even when other people can not accept it, my faith in myself cannot waver.

That said, the wonder of it all, is that those people who I was debating with, do not have to agree with me. In a way, I’m glad they don’t, because it shows how fierce their dedication is, and like I said before, the world needs people with that sort of passion.

I stopped arguing the points on BtB, because I realized that I really didn’t want to win the argument, that it wasn’t a debate that could be resolved, and even if it is… I think it’s better not to be.

I’d apologize for this being so long and so far off track of what normally write, except, I’m not particularly sorry for having said it. So I hope, you will pardon my rambling. I’ll be back to frilly posts quite soon; and I apologize for the quiet here lately; I’ve been really worn out.

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