From the comfort of my armchair in Washington and no longer inhabiting the ivory towers of academia, I had no idea what a shitstorm of debate, both in Ireland and in the social sciences, I was wading into with my blog post commenting on 'Pantigate' and use of the word homophobia. A slightly edited version of it appeared as a column in last Friday's Irish Times.
It certainly provoked mixed responses:
@Cripipper @IrishTimes One of the finest contributions yet to this whole debate. Brilliantly written and argued
— Mark Paul (@MarkPaulTimes) February 7, 2014
|(my mum on the Irish Times comment section, using the pseudonym 'Labhaoise O'Donovan')|
I don't think I persuaded many by my argument, as each side in the debate is fairly entrenched, but I still feel that it is the one that would have been accepted by the High Court (which was the legal advice that RTÉ also received). In some respects by paying out, RTÉ has saved the the gay rights activist community from a loss in Court that would have affirmed that to be against gay marriage is not to be homophobic per se.
But in the past week, the debate has further broadened and has led me to ask, why do we even use the term 'homophobia' at all?
Society has moved on greatly since the phrase was coined, in a period when gays were indeed feared and hated. This is, of course, not to deny that there are people who still genuinely loathe homosexuals. Gay bashers and men and women still in the closet who repress their own sexuality (often one and the same) exist in every community. And as Rory O'Neill has eloquently expressed, in the heart of every gay man there exists a dark recess of self-loathing - homophobia - created by the social norms that make us feel we do not quite fit in.
On these terms then, to a greater or lesser extent, everybody in society is homophobic because everybody accepts that the starting point for discussion is that to be straight is 'normal' and society is structured to reflect that. Anything that deviates from that is 'abnormal' (my much cleverer big brother would call this pervasive heteronormativity). And whether they themselves are motivated by homophobia or not, those who oppose marriage equality or other equal rights for gays and lesbians do cause harm. They feed the self-loathing, shame and fear that exists at one time or another inside every gay man and woman or questioning teenager, which comes from the realisation that you are, through no choice of your own, abnormal.
Indeed, while writing this post I was overpowered by emotion on imagining what my 16-year old self would have said to the idea that I would write a column in a national newspaper in Ireland discussing my civil partnership and the issue of gay marriage.
And then I was forced to wonder would I ever have even written it if my father had still been alive.
So all that is to say that I do not believe that those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians do not do harm. It may even be the case that the homophobia that is problematic is not the one that motivates those opposed to marriage equality, but is the one which is fed by their opposition. This in itself shows the redundancy of the word.
And when we connect that again to the gay marriage debate, we are still left with the problem of motive: even if we accept that everyone is homophobic, that still does not define their motive when it comes to a particular issue. The term confuses more than it enlightens.
Furthermore, the debate in Ireland about same-sex marriage is conducted under the influence of the American experience, where marriage equality has been achieved in a large number of states not through legislative or popular initiative, but via the legal fiction of judges discovering rights that previously existed but which were yet unrecognized. In Ireland we can dispense with this: there is nothing wrong in the Irish context with acknowledging that same-sex marriage involves the (welcome) creation of new rights, instead of pretending that right has existed since the ratification of the Constitution.
It appears to be that when each side in the debate talks about the connection between homophobia and the right of gays to marry, they often have in their minds totally different concepts.
The social sciences have recognised for some time the limitations of the word, and have instead started substituting it with 'heterosexism', 'homonegativity', and 'sexual stigma'. It is clear though that none of these is a term that fully encapsulates what is meant, and they are certainly not going to catch on in popular parlance. The one that comes closest to conveying what is meant in modern society is 'homoprejudice', but that sounds too much like a film in which Mr. Darcy and George Wickham gallop off into the sunset together to be of much use either.
What we need is a word that is the functional equivalent of racist and sexist (which is not to say that the definitions of these are universally agreed upon). We need a neologism, a new word, whose meaning is 'someone who is prejudiced or believes it is acceptable to discriminate against individuals or groups of people on account of their sexual orientation; someone who believes that others share similar views'.
The word needs to be catchy, easy to understand, and won't require people to scramble looking for a dictionary the first time they hear it.
That word is 'gayist'.
Now you may think that it will be too easily mixed up with 'gayest' to be of any use, but context and grammar will tell you everything you need to know, and there should be little room for confusion.
For example, “Chris Connolly is the gayest person I know” clearly has a very different meaning to “Breda O'Brien is the most gayist person I know.”
But if Rory O'Neill had said either of those things on television, Ireland wouldn't be having the debate that it is now.