Homosexual Designation as a Cause of Homophobia

In contemporary American society, cheek-kissing between men is mostly taboo; in the Southern Cone countries (especially Argentina and Uruguay), it’s unremarkable. This raises larger questions about the affection that society allows men to show. Intimacy often brings up associations with homosexuality in North America and northern Europe, and so many people interpret the relationship between David and Jonathan in the Bible – and likewise, in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, the relationship between Gene and Finny – as a homosexual relationship. Such automatic designations, I maintain, are homophobic.

Ironically, this homophobia, this antiseptic aversion to revealing emotional desire in words or in physical gestures, is occasioned by the rise of homosexuality as an identity, accelerated in the 19th century. I will be blunt: I don’t believe in the real existence of homosexuality. By this I don’t mean, of course, that I disbelieve reports of men having sex with other men, or of Roman Catholic priests molesting young boys. I mean that homosexuality is a social construct, one that has not always been.

We can see the constructedness of homosexuality in how differently Greek and Roman society viewed pederasty and adult male sex. In The Clouds, Aristophanes as he lampoons Sophistry associates it with buggery, under the assumption that buggery’s something dishonourable; in Plato’s Phaedrus, in contrast, involved discussions develop out of a milieu of pederasty:

The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge – discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others.

Notwithstanding how we view sexual indecency through a biblical lens, whether between adult males or between an adult male and an adolescent male, a man wasn’t suddenly a different kind of being because of this kind of sexual act. In Elizabethan society, similarly, despite the biblical injunctions against a male-male sex (Lev 18.22; 20.13), ‘pederasty deployed male youths alongside women as surfaces upon which an erotic or libidinal aim could inscribe mobilities of power’.[1] The terms in which physical beauty is described in Twelfth Night apply equally well to women and to children, the point being that neither are (fully developed as) men.[2] Since pederastic sex in these societies was seen as something different from sex between adult males, the designation homosexual is anachronistic.

Not all pederasts are gay, in other words, though their actions too are forbidden by Scripture. What Scripture says is that neither μαλακοὶ (‘effeminates’, i.e. morally weak, loose people who submit their bodies to unnatural lewdness) nor ἀρσενοκοῖται (‘male-bedders’, i.e. sodomites) will inherit the Kingdom of God (see the Language Log). And this is Paul’s real point, by the way: it’s actions, not desires, that make people into sodomites and thus exclude them from inheritance. God’s judgements come not from the labels society invents but from his own holy law.

Only with homosexuality constructed as an identity can there be homophobia as such: only with a homosexual identity that’s socially accepted as real – though not necessarily socially approved – does the term homophobia take on a full meaning. When society labels some people as ‘homosexual’, people who don’t self-identify as homosexual either take hypercorrective pains to differentiate themselves or, more insidiously, scapegoat the other. And so, wanting the freedom to make no secret of emotional and physical intimacy, wanting to love deeply without being either accused of or tempted into what Scripture teaches is indecency, I deplore this homophobia.

Kyrie eleison.

Edit: See also Alastair Roberts, ‘Male Intimacy’ (HT: Scott Schultz).


[1] Thomas Alan King, The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750, vol. 1 (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 27.

[2] For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man: Diana’s lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman’s part.


2 responses to “Homosexual Designation as a Cause of Homophobia

  1. Pingback: To An Unknown God » Homosexual Designation as a Cause of Homophobia

  2. Pingback: Homosexual Designation as a Cause of Homophobia | To An Unknown God

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