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Loren A. Olson, M.D. Headshot

Do We Need to Rethink the 'Homophobic' Label?

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While I was working on my book, "Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight," I received a very angry email about my being gay from a man named "George." I challenged the things he said about me, responding, "You don't know me."

George wrote back, "Oh, but I do know you. You have identified yourself as a homosexual, an immoralist. Nothing binds your conscience. Morality is just a matter of taste."

The best way to confront such prejudice is usually to become a real person to the other person and develop a relationship with them. I made some attempts to find some area of common ground. George could never respond to anything I wrote back to him other than to condemn me.

Some would say George is homophobic. I am not a fan of the word "homophobia." Gay men and women struggled for years and years to free ourselves from being diagnosed as pathological deviants. I see little value in attempting to pathologize those who oppose us by labeling them all homophobic.

Prejudice is based on the "Law of Small Numbers": What is true for one must be true for all. Like George, the rules of "in-groups" and "out-groups" dictate that those on one side attempt to define those on the other by applying stereotypical descriptions while never seeking information that dis-confirms their beliefs.

Do we as gay men and women move discourse forward by labeling those who oppose us "homophobes"?

Contrast what George wrote with this review of "Finally Out," written by a conservative, married, heterosexual, evangelical Christian minister: "['Finally Out'] gave me a deeper understanding of homosexual men. While I may not agree with some of Olson's decisions or actions, I've been in his head now. My heart goes out to him and I think this book would be valuable for any person who finds homosexual acts to be sinful."

Relationships are based on developing an empathic understanding of the other person.

I suppose one could argue that George was homophobic since a phobia is an intense but unrealistic fear of something that interferes with the ability to socialize, work, or go about one's life. George's fear was clearly unrealistic since it was related to characteristics he'd assigned to me rather than things he actually knew about me as a person.

Is George representative of all who oppose homosexuality? Don't we -- those of us in the gay community or our allies -- do precisely the same thing when we paint all who oppose us with the same brush by calling them all homophobic? When we do, we fall into the same trap of the "Law of Small Numbers": We treat our opposition as if they are all alike, irrationally afraid of us, and therefore hating us.

I much prefer the term "homo-naïve." I don't think that my mother and step-father had ever known anyone who was openly gay until I came out to them at 40. They knew nothing about what it meant to be gay. Although they considered my homosexual behavior sinful, like the Christian minister mentioned previously, they were open to accepting me and understanding me.

We must recognize the great diversity of the community of people who oppose homosexuality.

Justin Spring, in his book about the life of Samuel Steward, "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade," wrote, "Each generation of writers reinvents its perception of sexuality through novels, poetry, and autobiographical writing, and in the process rebels against the perceptions and experiences of the generation before."

The responsibility for changing perceptions of the LGBT community must not be left only to those who write about it.

The Institute of Medicine released an important report in April called "Identifying Disconcerting Gaps in LGBT Research and Healthcare." The report emphasizes that the world is not divided into two populations, heterosexual and non-heterosexual. Non-heterosexuals consist of a multitude of sub-populations. In order for research to be meaningful and to make it generalizable to a larger population, each of these sub-populations must be examined as distinctive.

My interest has been on mature men who have sex with men (MSM) but who do not wish to be identified as gay. This group of men is largely hidden and has been studied very little, but I have found that even this sub-population is quite diverse. One research question I believe needs to be addressed: "Is there a higher rate of suicide in this population than there is in the general population?" My hypothesis is that the rate is higher.

This MSM sub-population is much larger than most people know. Most insist they are not gay, instead choosing labels like "bi," "questioning," "curious" or in fact, "heterosexual". If being gay is an identity rather than a description of attractions or behaviors, in the strictest sense, they are not gay. Frequently those in the LGBT community say, "They're gay, just not authentic or gay enough."

A study was recently published in the journal, Pediatrics. The study found that even when controlling for other risks of suicide (depression, binge drinking, peer victimization and abuse by an adult), a negative social environment was associated with increased suicide attempts and that a positive social environment reduced the risks of suicide attempts. In other words, social risks contributed far more to attempts of suicide than individual risk factors in an adolescent population.

Researchers are beginning to pay attention to the study of bullying of gender non-conforming and early self-identifying gay adolescents, and appropriately so. Bullying is another consequence of the application of the "Law of Small Numbers"; gender non-forming adolescents are assigned characteristics and targeted by some of those in the majority population

Little is known about the MSM sub-population who have significant risks factors for suicide: hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, and alcohol and drug problems. In addition, they frequently do not practice safe sex according to reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Discrimination against MSM is much more subtle than it is for gay adolescents but no less hostile. The process of coming out for mature gay men can be enormously complicated because of the complex networks of relationships formed while passing as heterosexual.

A recent report by Francis and Mialon of Tulane University called "Tolerance and HIV" found evidence that societal tolerance for gays may slow down the spread of the Aids virus and may do so by inducing gay men to substitute underground, risky sexual behaviors for safer sex and may encourage them to "come out."

It is becoming apparent that a positive social environment toward LGBT individuals is a significant public health issue.

In my interviews about "Finally Out," I have been questioned several times about my opposition to the word "homophobia." I have been asked, "Shouldn't LGBT be angry about the ways they are being treated?" Of course, we should. But we should be angry about principles, policies and hypocrisies.

Calling those who see LGBT individuals as deviant or sinful "homophobic" diminishes us and our arguments. It also fails to recognize that there are those people, like the minister I mentioned previously, whose attitudes and beliefs can be changed. Perhaps we cannot expect to be accepted by the "homophobic" community until we accept them even though we may disagree with some of their decisions and actions.

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