The term homophobia has been the topic of much debate recently after John Waters and patrons of the Iona Institute took legal action against RTE following comments made on the Saturday Night Show by Rory O’Neill, a.k.a. Panti Bliss. However, the debate has solely centred on the appropriateness of its application, little is being said about what homophobia is; not only in terms of its definition but also what it means for the LGBT community.
There are numerous misconceptions being bandied about, the most troublesome of which is that homophobia is strictly an ‘irrational fear of or aversion to homosexuals’. This is because the term contains the word phobia and people inevitably link the term to clinical phobias which are strictly defined as having an irrational fear. We must not make the mistake of thinking that homophobia and clinical phobias are the same, this is simply is not the case, homophobia is far more nuanced and encompassing.
The EU defines homophobia more broadly, and more fittingly: ‘homophobia can be defined as an irrational fear of and aversion to homosexuality and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people based on prejudice and similar to racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism and sexism, whereas homophobia manifests itself in the private and public spheres in different forms, such as hate speech and incitement to discrimination, ridicule and verbal, psychological and physical violence, persecution and murder, discrimination in violation of the principle of equality and unjustified and unreasonable limitations of rights, which are often hidden behind justifications based on public order, religious freedom and the right to conscientious objection’.
It is only reasonable to allow LGBT people the same facility as women and racial minorities to identify issues. To limit the usage of the term homophobia to only the worst cases of prejudice is to disarm LGBT people in the fight against bigotry. This would be a dangerous precedent in a nation where, according to the Child Research Centre in Trinity, 20% of LGBT people under twenty-five have attempted suicide. If we are to help LGBT youth and the wider community we must allow them to discuss the prejudice they face on their own terms.
People, however, balk when they hear the word homophobic, more so than when racist or sexist is uttered. This is because the fight for sex and racial equality is decades old and the words racist and sexist have been in the national discourse for some time. In short, people are used to them. This is not the case with homophobia as the terminology is comparatively new. But the solution is not to shy away from utilising the word, but to have an open and frank discussion about homophobia, how to recognise it, how to prevent it, and how to tackle it.
The most important thing to realise about homophobia is that it is not always obvious. It ranges from the extreme to the subtle, from the psychical to the verbal. It is not always a conscious act; many people can commit homophobic acts without ever realising it. This is because homophobia, much like racism and sexism, is institutionalised, socially engrained. None of us can escape it and all of us can be guilty of it. The only effective method of combatting homophobic tendencies is by listening to LGBT people when they say certain actions are homophobic, not by reacting against the notion, not by refusing to listen to an oppressed community when they inform you that you are contributing to that oppression, and not by acting as if being called homophobic is some great injury upon your person.
Homophobia is a major problem in Ireland; it will not go away by banishing the term homophobic to the upper echelons of abuse. We must allow the LGBT community to express themselves fully when it comes to the prejudice they face. But this expression is all for nought if we do not listen to what is being said. We must listen, take heed and, finally, introspection and self-critique are vital if we are to rid ourselves of homophobic tendencies. Only then can we truly tackle the issue of homophobia in Ireland.