Quiz question! What does heterophobia have in common with Manti Teo’s girlfriend, Keyser Soze, Brontosauruses and “Having It All?”
Answer: None of these things exist.
A debate about the existence of heterophobia — spotted in the wild by scared hunters as it foraged for homosexual berries — has been at the heart of a recent controversy on Tumblr.
In recent months, the heterophobia tag on Tumblr has turned into a space where heterosexual users can decry “mean homosexuals” who make them feel bad for being homophobic. Instead of looking at criticism as a moment of reflection and a learning opportunity, these folks would rather pull out the privilege card — and the term “privilege shaming” has actually been coined.
Yes, folks. People are now shaming people for shaming them for being narrow-minded, bigoted bags of phalluses. This is what happens on the internet. To think, some people just look at porn.
To describe anti-anti-gay behavior, homophobes are using the term “heterophobia” to show those angry queers the error of their ways, and one post in particular has been circling the interwebs like a buzzard looking for rotting meat. It claims that “heterophobia is just as bad as homophobia.” I won’t link to it here, because that’s hits, so you should read this response instead. Isn’t that better?
If you’re upset about people just making up words now, a) don’t go on Tumblr, ever and b) the term isn’t new. According to Dr. Ray Noonan, the misnomer “heterophobia” was coined in the 80’s and first graced the academic page in 1990 as a way to describe the feelings of distrust that queer people sometimes feel toward a society where they are marginalized and systemically abused. It’s not bigotry in the way we think about homophobia. It’s fear; it’s angst; it’s paranoia. It’s that emotion you feel when a group of bros are walking down the street late at night, and you’re unsure of whether you should be scared. It’s learning to expect the worst from a society you think hates you.
However, this version is not the same thing. The term elsewhere gained parlance as a way to discredit the growing equality movement and call their campaign for equal rights “reverse discrimination.” For homophobes, it’s not heterosexuals that are the problem, but the gay agenda who sees a problem where one does not exist. Queer people simply hate straight people. Hate is hate, y’all — except that it’s not the same thing at all.
Eminem used this argument on his 2000 album, The Marshall Mathers LP. The record itself, like much of Slim Shady’s early career, is stunningly homophobic — for which Eminem was much criticized by queer listeners. (Remember the Elton John mea culpa performance? That was fun.) On “Criminal,” Eminem responded to his gay critics in the way only an immature, misogynistic wifebeater can — by putting the onus on them. Em informed us, on this “critically acclaimed” track:
“My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/That’ll stab you in the head/Whether you’re a fag or lez/Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest/Pants or dress - hate fags? The answer’s “yes”/Homophobic? Nah, you’re just heterophobic.”
Since then, Eminem has come a long way on bigotry, but at the time, the song helped “bring back” heterophobia as a word that people use and a nice “Get Out of Bigotry Free” Card. The term allows queer people to be dismissed for having an opinion, and the idea has hung around in popular culture, from preachers who use it to sanctify God’s law to Cee-Lo Green blaming a female critic for not liking his show. Green responded to the negative review by saying: “I’m guessing ur gay? And my masculinity offended u? Well f—k u!”
This rationale is similar to the one that Daniel Tosh infamously displayed last year by verbally assaulting a female attendee at his show. In his act, Tosh claimed that all rape jokes were funny because “rape is hilarious,” and one woman called him out for it. Tosh then replied: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” Rather than taking responsibility for his comedy and the message it sends to women, Tosh blamed the victims.
“Heterophobia” seeks to do the same thing as a rhetorical tool, but the problem is that it makes no sense. Even at a linguistic level, it means the opposite of what its heterosexual user thinks it means. “Hetero” means difference and “phobia” translates to fear, equaling “fear of difference” when you put them together. So, technically, heterosexuals are engaging in the exact kind of activity that they are attempting to shed light on. Call out fail, guys. You can do better.
On top of being etymologically nonsensical, inciting heterophobia (to quote my friend, Yasmin Nair) is the “most outrageous, insensitive, doltish, demeaning argument ever.” To use the term at any time in any context ever makes you Glenn Beck levels of ignorant, stupid and awful. It’s a disservice to linguistics, all argumentation ever (sorry, Socrates) and any dignity you have as a human being. Anyone who ever, ever believes that heterophobia and homophobia are even remotely equivalent should neuter themselves with a rusty paper clip, lest future generations mutate more clustercusses of stupidity.
Heterophobia, as straight people “define it,” is a queer person making you check your privilege. Heterophobia is walking into a space that you don’t own and realizing that your rules might not apply here, and that you have to be mindful of your use of pronouns, chosen name and/or consent. Heterophobia is someone telling you that you need to be a better ally and pushing you to be more accountable and mindful in your relationships to others. Heterophobia isn’t a phobia at all but a part of life, realizing that you don’t know everything and that you have learning and growing to do.
If forcing straight people not to erase my bisexuality and be respectful of my gender and the identities of those around me makes me a heterophobe, then sign me up for heterophobia. I’m the biggest heterophobe the world has ever seen. I will march down the street waving my flag of heterophobia. I won’t stop until my heterophobia is recognized as being valid. I will not rest until we don’t call it heterophobia anymore. We can just call it demanding respect.
I’ll tell you what heterophobia isn’t. Heterophobia is not equivalent to a systemic norm that bullies queer youth and tells them they aren’t good enough to live. Heterophobia didn’t push me down on the playground or throw my backpack in the garbage. Heterophobia didn’t whisper behind my back or make me feel like no one would ever be friends with me, if they knew who I really was. Heterophobia didn’t ignore me when I came out or ruin my relationship with my father or scream “Hey, there’s the f*g!” in my high school hallway. Heterophobia didn’t tell me I didn’t belong in church. Heterophobia didn’t tell me that God wanted me dead.
Because it doesn’t exist. It’s the tool of those want to believe that God is right but are too afraid to say it themselves. It’s the tool of cowards who would rather feel vindicated in their hatred than recognize it for what it is. It’s the tool of those who would rather keep the system the way it is, or refuse to recognize there’s a system at all, than work to change it. Heterophobia says you are wrong and irrational for critiquing the system. Heterophobia says that good queers don’t question their second class status, because their worth is conferred on them by agreeing with straight people. Heterophobia says that good queers stay quiet. Heterophobia says you shouldn’t fight back.
If there’s any good that’s come out of this, it’s that Tumblr users banded together to drown out the Tumblr homophobes by reclaiming the term and taking it back from anyone who even remotely believes the term to be valid. A Tumblr user who goes by the catchy name of “Shut the F*ck Up Straight People” proposed that followers “write a post (or numerous posts) about heterophobia. Like, why it’s not a thing or why it’s amazing or why you are one or anything you like, really.”
In response, Tumblr has seen hundreds of users flood the dashboard with posts turning the table on the term, showing how hollow and meaningless the idea is. Here’s a list of my personal favorite submissions:
1. From PunkCub: “You don’t go homo or bi or trans to hell. The expression is ‘going straight to hell.’ Wake up America.”
2. From PurpleBeards: “With all the oppression and heterophobia that’s been occurring recently, I feel it would really help if I tell them to their face that I for one am very open-minded and have no problem at all with them being straight. In fact, I know quite a few straight people, and I’ve never once had a problem with it. I’ve been to some straight weddings too, I don’t totally agree with it but I’ll support their rights all the same. I’m a gay ally.”
3. From CookingPyro: “Once someone pointed out a straight to me, but it was actually a pair of impeccably ironed slacks. One time, I tried starting a Straight-Straight Alliance club at my school to lure out the heteros, but all I got was a one piece swimsuit, a croissant, and a picture of Ben Stiller.”
4. From HowlsofExecution: “So, heterophobia isn’t a thing. Like, does everyone remember that time that show got boycotted and people were outraged over because a heterosexual couple kissed?! No? You don’t remember that? Oh, right. That’s because it never happened.”
5. From Cleromancy: “Making heterophobia jokes may not advance ‘The Cause,’ but it sure as heck makes me feel better about the institutionalized oppression that I gotta deal with every day. So, how many heteros does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
We can’t erase homophobia or mend decades of systemic oppression in one Tumblr post, but it feels a lot better when we fight back together.
Nico Lang blogs about LGBTQ life in Chicago. You can follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on Facebook.