“Homophobia is the fear that another man will treat you like you treat women” is a saying I’ve heard many times that I want to pick apart.
(Length: 800 words)
The saying is a common caption for this comic, and it’s used in many memes and images.
I’ve seen the line attributed to author and blogger Andrew Sullivan (e.g. here), usually linking to a story on his blog about a high-school boy who expressed disgust at homosexuality and then admitted it was because “he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him”, which made his teacher say “so think about that the next time you hit on a girl”. His actual blog post doesn’t include the saying so I don’t know if Sullivan actually used it, but certainly the saying is associated with that story.
(The saying seems to be based originally on a passage from the 2006 book Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army by Kayla Williams, where she says that “since most heterosexual men are homophobic and sexist, most straight guys figure gay men will treat them the way they themselves treat women- that is, like sex objects”. I haven’t read her book so I won’t comment on the military context in particular, only the more general societal context that I see the saying used in.)
This saying is actually pretty strange. The primary messages seems to be that the way “men treat women” is bad and unacceptable (it has undertones of “see, straight men, this is what we have to go through!”). But at the same time it also says that if straight men object to, or are fearful of, being treated that way by gay men, they’re homophobic—which means they’re in the wrong, since I doubt they mean homophobia as a positive thing. The only way both of these make sense at the same time is if this “treatment” (whatever we’re talking about) is acceptable coming from a gay man but not coming from a straight man.
What happens if we’re consistent about whether this treatment is acceptable? If it is acceptable then a straight man is unjustified (and probably homophobic) to feel wronged or mistreated when gay men do it to him—but he’s also not in the wrong when he does it to women. If this treatment isn’t acceptable then he shouldn’t do it to women, but he’s entirely justified (and not homophobic!) if he feels wronged when gay men do it to him. If we’re consistent on whether it’s right or wrong, we can’t say “it’s wrong to treat women that way” and “it’s wrong to object to gay men treating you that way, you homophobe”. (The only other point to be made is that he’s a hypocrite if he does it to women but objects to having it done to him, and that’s a legitimate point. This couldn’t apply to the story because it doesn’t mention anything about how the high school boy has acted toward women. This could apply to the comic because the man portrayed there is being a hypocrite, although it’s not clear that his actions would be seen as acceptable if he was consistent and either (1) stopped doing it to women so he could still get mad at gay men, or (2) stopped getting mad at gay men but kept doing it to women.)
Of course whether the treatment is acceptable depends on what we’re actually talking about: checking someone out (like in the comic), hitting on someone (like in Sullivan’s story), or asking for a phone number all sound fine to me (though they can be inappropriate in certain contexts, like an employee-customer or employee-employer dynamic), while groping someone, not taking “no” for an answer, or cat-calling (all less common than the first set of actions, by the way) don’t.
This saying is revealing about how we see male sexuality. Many people (both men and women) feel offended, insulted, or grossed out when men check them out (or flirt with them, ask for a number, etc.). When this offence is felt in response to a gay man’s sexuality, we (or at least many people) have identified it as wrong and homophobic. But when it’s felt in response to a straight man’s sexuality, there’s rarely any objection. Along these lines, the saying should perhaps be “homophobia is what happens when men get grossed out by gay male sexuality in the same way women (often) do for straight male sexuality”. That’s obviously a simplification (men being grossed out by male sexuality isn’t the only reason for homophobia, especially because women can be homophobic too), but I think it’s on to something.