Greetings to all
I am writing this piece on “homophobia” because over the past few weeks I have listened to, and partaken in, various discussions on what it means to be “homophobic”. On each occasion I have stated, and will do so from the outset here, that the word is not appropriate and does not make sense, yet when you state this people start “back back” which is Jamaican for being overly defensive. For example, I was recently contacted by a researcher from a mainstream TV channel to discuss the issues of cross racial adoption, a subject that has been widely discussed over the past weeks on Galaxy Radio (www.ahfiwestation.com) by various presenters including myself. Everything was going swimmingly and the researcher was readily discussing my views on whether white/European families should adopt black/Afrikan/Caribbean or Asian children, from the premise that black/Afrikan/Caribbean or Asian families were not putting themselves forward. At this point I asked them if they had considered the fact that many of the people from these communities are being excluded because of their perceived “homophobia”. Apparently you are asked your views on homosexuality during the adoption process and if you suggest, for any reason cultural, religious or otherwise, that you do not accept this behaviour as “normal” your application is binned. All of a sudden it was a case of “well, you know we are not going to touch such a sensitive area because” blah blah blah, yaddah yaddah yaddah!
I informed them that this is what is wrong with this so called “free” and open society where “everyone” can supposedly express their views as long as they are not promoting anti-human sentiments, to which end I am in total agreement. Yet just to mention a mitigating factor, this perceived “homophobia”, that is central to this particular discussion and sheds light on why so many of these families are excluded from adopting these children, can’t be discussed much less considered broadcast-worthy. I then stated that I touch on this issue in my book Whiteness made Simple: stepping into the grey zone, where I explain how the so-called “grey” areas that people are want to discuss openly and honestly, are often the areas that deal with the mores that underpin black/Afrikan/Caribbean or Asian worldviews. It is aspects of these worldviews that mainstream white society find unconventional and problematic, when measured against their all-over-the-place conventions that are steeped in contradictions. That is why in that book I speak of an incident in 2004 where I wanted to deliver my annual Black History Month lecture, for Lewisham Borough Council, on the manner in which Jamaican Reggae music was being promoted as “murder music” by gay rights activists and submitted the following blurb:
OUTRAGE-‘US’: BOOM BYE BYE TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH! (Submitted 7th July 2004)
In this talk Dr. Lez Henry will focus on the manner in which ideas of race, gender and sexuality are represented in reggae/dancehall music and consider the validity of the charges of homophobia, that are being used to deny Jamaican artistes the right to perform in front of black communities in Britain. All that is asked is that you bring your mind and make sure it is open. Hotep!
I intended to deliver a talk on three points of concern to me within Reggae music: firstly “Shadism” favouring lighter skin tone over darker; secondly Misogyny and lastly “Homophobia” and intended to explain that the latter term is a misnomer. Suffice to say that my talk was banned and I did not realise it was not going ahead until I saw the published Black history Month brochure (August 2004) and my talk was not listed in it. When I enquired by telephone as to why I was not consulted, for whatever reason, I could not speak to the person who made the decision but the next day I received the following email:
Dear Dr Henry (4th August 2004)
Thank you for your copy for the Black History Month brochure that …has shared with me. Your proposed talk “Outrage US Boom Boom Bye Bye to Freedom of Speech” certainly sounds the basis for a topical and Controversial discussion. I have no doubt that your aim is to hold an objective and balanced debate. I am however concerned that the event could give the opportunity for others to use it to promote views and opinions that might cause offence or conflict in some sections of the community. As such an event of the kind proposed would not fit particularly well with the tone that has been established for Black History Month in Lewisham over many years, we would not wish to fund it as part of the programme for this year.
I hope this decision will not deter you from making further contributions to Black History Month this year and the future.
Acting Executive Director of Education & Culture
Dear … (4th august 2004)
I think it is strange that my lecture was pulled without consultation. There has been no dialogue between myself and anyone in a senior position, those who really make the decisions that matter, about the concerns that have been expressed with regards to my proposed talk. Yet the supreme irony is that the way the council have handled the whole affair is exactly why I wanted to have this discussion in the first place. You can state that you are wary about the reactions/actions of ‘others’ in the community, without stating exactly who these ‘others’ are, or more importantly what these concerns are. For to suggest that you know my discussion would be ‘balanced and objective’ and then deny me the opportunity to present it, or even discuss how it could be re-presented so as not to cause ‘offence’ to whoever it is you are concerned about, is disingenuous and patronising to the extreme.
I think it is insulting and offensive that a community that has a single month allocated to them to redress the imbalances caused by institutionalised racism and other forms of discrimination, that are endemic to this racist society, have faceless gatekeepers telling them, as taxpayers and members of Lewisham Borough, who can speak to them about the issues that affect their everyday existence. You see you cannot expect me to take seriously any claim about conflict, when it is out of conflict that the whole idea of black history month arose, firstly in the USA and then here. Moreover, it would have been respectful to engage in some form of dialogue about what is at stake in the lecture, as in the outline I stated that I was interested in discussing, Race, Gender and Sexuality in reggae music and yet the only problem was my usage of the word ‘homophobia’. This means that once again people who do not appreciate the seriousness of these issues, as part of the legacy of colonialism in all of its pernicious manifestations, including much that is suggested in reggae music, have denied those who the music affects the most from having a reasoned and informed debate about what is important to us, the black community in Britain. But I suppose this is freedom of speech, for those who generally react without an in depth knowledge of that which they are reacting to. Dr. William Henry (Henry 2007, pp 46-48).
From the above you can see how this labelling process works to exclude the voice of reason because you will notice that the council’s representative did not cite “homophobia” in her email, but the world and its mother knows that is what the concern was about. I state this because we know that the ‘sections of the community’ she was worried about are the homosexuals, but for whatever reason this was not made known. However if this was an isolated case we could give her the benefit of the doubt based on blatant ignorance or cowardice, but the fact is that I am still waiting for a meaningful, reasoned, discussion on what is meant when certain people or communities are branded “homophobic”. For instance there are loads of commentaries by black/Afrikan/Caribbean/Asian academics, journalists and other cultural commentators on the issue of “homophobia” in our communities here and abroad, yet I am still to find one who actually defines what the term means from their perspective. I for one cannot accept that if you do not accept homosexuality as normal you are, by extension, “homophobic” with all of the “ill-logical” trimmings that go with it. Moreover when I was studying and subsequently teaching in a university setting I noticed that any time the issue of homosexuality arose the discussions with homosexuals and their straight sympathisers, became heated and contentious and I was invariably branded “homophobic” for one main reason. This was because I would unequivocally state that whilst I accept (this was not the case with me before I entered that arena) that homosexuality may indeed be normal for some people―if that is what ‘floats your boat’ then ‘float on I say’―for me it is normal to be heterosexual.
Now I think that for most reasonable people this is a reasonable position, yet I would be constantly attacked simply because I would not accept homosexuality as normal behaviour for me as a heterosexual man. More importantly do I have to? During these discussions I never attacked anyone physically or verbally for their beliefs or preferred lifestyle, yet they never seemed to be able to accept my position and would intimate that I am the one who is not normal and “homophobic”. Whatever happened to ‘we can agree to disagree’? Well it seems that in this case it is not so and I would suggest that the word “homophobia” has everyone so spooked that they are afraid to interrogate its usage for fear of being labelled as such. This is understandable as anyone who is semi-conscious knows that when you are publicly branded as “homophobic”, unless you make some kind of grovelling public apology (you know when you apologise and are not sure what you are apologising for) you will not be forgiven. I say branded because as they say ‘throw enough dirt and some will stick’ and I certainly have got plenty of ‘stick’ for being steadfast in my views on this matter, and as I have stated elsewhere there is a qualitative difference between ‘the freedom of speech’ and the ‘freedom to speak’. Consequently, those of us who do not advocate hatred in any way shape or form against homosexuals, are legislated against for our heterosexual non acceptance of homosexuality as normal for us and subsequently branded as “homophobes” with no room for a meaningful discussion.
Hence I just want someone, anyone, to tell me what the word actually means to them and more importantly why are so many people afraid to even have this discussion, publicly? I know that within certain circles they have had such discussions for years but how many people whose lives are impacted by this form of negative labelling are aware of them? I cannot recall a single instance on any mainstream TV or Radio network in the UK where the actual meaning of the term is discussed. It is invariably taken as given that we all understand the meaning of “homophobia” and as such we just proceed and perpetuate this form of reified “knowing.”
Words and their subsequent usage have serious social, cultural, political and psychological consequences and as such, for me, it is crucial that I know in the first instance, what a word means. According to the online Oxford Dictionary homo means “same” or “of or belonging to the genus Homo” and phobia means “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.” Note the word “irrational” is used as the real qualifier here as it suggests that one follows a line of reason that has no basis in the “rational” and is therefore untenable when placed under scientific scrutiny; whereas “extreme” or “aversion” are base reactions that can be grounded in a concrete experience. Let us now consider, using this same system of logical reason, the word “homophobia” to determine what it means.
The online Oxford Dictionary defines “homophobia” as “an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people.” Just backtrack and read that definition again and then rejoin me… So according to this definition we merely fill that nebulous “something” with a “thing” in this instance “homosexuality and homosexual people” and we’re good to go. Well you may be, but I am not! I cannot understand how my views on what is normal for me as a heterosexual male; a man who has sex with a woman, all of a sudden makes me “homophobic”―read as―‘extreme’ ‘irrational’ or ‘averse’ to the homosexuality that is normal to men who have sex with men or women who have sex with women. I therefore await clarification or further enlightenment on this matter because it seems that a meaningful, cross cultural/racial/political/religious dialogue on “homophobia” is not allowed, even though being branded as “homophobic” hurts so many people in myriad ways.