12/22/2013 09:14 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2014

The H-Word and Why We Need It

Lots of conversation is swirling around Phil Robertson of the popular cable show Duck Dynasty. In a recent GQ interview Robertson put his opposition to homosexuality on record (along with some equally scary comments about race). Pursuant to a public outcry, the A&E network has suspended Robertson. As I'm writing, the future of Duck Dynasty is unclear. Meanwhile, over 1.5 million people have "liked" a new "Stand with Phil Robertson" Facebook page.

I'd like to push the conversation in a different direction, perhaps away from the typical paths worn over by the culture wars. I don't want to attack Phil Robertson, though I disagree with him, and I don't want to address what A&E should or should not do for the sake of principle or ratings. I want to talk about homophobia and why we need to address this concept.

Homophobia isn't a popular word these days. It was coined to describe the deep roots of animosity toward sexual minorities. Homophobia suggests that anti-gay talk derives from an internalized fear, particularly a fear of latent homoeroticism within the self.

We need to think about homophobia, but we need to use the word carefully. If someone says, "I disapprove of homosexuality," it's not helpful to lash out and characterize that speaker as pathological, homophobic. To put it simply, that's not cool. Too often, calling someone a "homophobe" is about as productive as calling someone a "Nazi"; once the term is let loose, the possibility of civil discourse disappears. Thus the term's demise in recent years.

But we need a frank conversation about homophobia -- about the possibility that some outspoken opposition to homosexual behavior is indeed rooted in fear. We've all seen the downfall of several famous anti-gay preachers and politicians whose gay-baiting masked the war they were fighting within themselves. It's not just anecdotal. Several empirical studies suggest that some of the most anti-gay men are prone to same-sex attraction, although the link remains controversial. (For one example, see here.)

I'm not picking on Phil Robertson or trying to read too much into him as an individual, but I think his comments reveal why a frank conversation about homophobia remains important. Watch out, though. The comments that follow will be direct and maybe a little spicy for some appetites.

Robertson's comments indeed reflect homophobic thinking. How do we know? First, no one asked Robertson for his opinion on homosexuality. In the GQ interview he was asked his opinion about sin, and homosexuality was the first thing that came to his mind. Not greed. Not violence. Not adultery -- which is a lot more common than queer sex. Of all the problems that beset human beings, Robertson immediately locked in homosexuality. Why the preoccupation?

Second, Robertson's comments reflect a fixation on male-to-male anal sex. Was he worried about lesbianism? Apparently not. Homophobia tends to fixate on male anal sex. That's where Robertson's comments went. We all know many straight men fantasize about sexual encounters with multiple women. Even watching two women getting it on excites many of us. But Robertson seems fixated on what men do with men. Thus he compares vaginas to anuses. There are a lot of ways to talk about sexuality, even same-sex sex, but homophobia locks in on the male bottom.

Third, a profound misogyny undergirds homophobia. It's not fair to reduce Robertson's character to his comments, and I won't do it here. But his comments are fascinating. Not only did his words reduce homosexuality to male-to-male anal sex, they also reduced a male's basic attraction to women to their vaginas. His comments suggest that attraction, and perhaps even love, is all about bodily orifices.

Maybe I'm saying more than I should. When I think about how I might be attracted to a particular woman, or even women in general, I'm pretty far into my list before I start thinking about orifices. I think a lot of things that I won't share in public, and I also think about a woman's energy, intelligence, and personality -- aspects of a whole person. But Robertson's comments never get beyond the vagina and the anus.

Let's remember: Robertson chose the terms of this conversation, and he might well qualify what he said more carefully if he did another interview today. But his GQ comments are instructive. If a man can't imagine how other gay men might enjoy one another's company, how sexual attraction might involve humor, intellect and taste, or how companionship relates to sexuality, what's really on his mind? We ask those questions, and they lead us right back to the start: homophobia can't get beyond a man's rectum. Indeed, among us straight men, homophobia even inhibits our ability to value and appreciate the women we say we love.

We need an honest conversation about homophobia and how it works. In my opinion a great deal of the opposition to sexual minorities lies right here, in the fear or revulsion many men feel regarding anal sex between men. Where does this revulsion come from, and what does it expose about how we view ourselves and others? Certainly, a fixation on anal sex prevents us from imagining sexual minorities as whole persons, and it reduces their relationships to one sex act in which they may or may not participate. In short, homophobia is dehumanizing. Phil Robertson was asked about sin, and anal sex was the first thing that came to mind. I'm guessing the preoccupation runs broader than one duck hunter.