The Roots of Homophobia

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This blog post is second in a series written by our summer LGBT Project legal interns.  The other posts are “LGBT Human Rights Gone Global” “Calling It ‘Marriage’ Isn’t the End of the Story“, and “Changing the Culture of Bullying“.

As James Gilliam blogged last month, Tehachapi middle schooler Seth Walsh was the subject of severe bullying from the time he came out as gay in the sixth grade until his suicide two years later. The Departments of Justice and Education launched an investigation into the circumstances that led to Seth’s suicide, and part of my work as a summer law clerk at the ACLU/SC has been to analyze the results of that investigation. The DoJ and DoE found that his bullies targeted Seth due to his nonconformity to male gender stereotypes. Seth’s bullies, who were predominately if not exclusively male, made fun of his female friendships and stereotypically feminine mannerisms, speech, and clothing. They routinely called him a “girl” and a “sissy.” They would ask Seth, “do you sit down” to use the restroom, suggested that Seth should “get surgery” to become female, and referred to him as the “girlfriend” of other students. Significantly, Title IX of the Education Amendments of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex or gender in public school programs and activities. Because his tormentors specifically used gendered slurs, Seth Walsh’s case fell under the purview of Title IX. The report concludesthat,

the Student suffered sexual and gender-based harassment by his peers, including harassment based on his nonconformity with gender stereotypes; that the harassment was sufficiently severe, pervasive, and persistent to interfere with his educational opportunities; and that despite having notice of the harassment, the District did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond to it.

If not for the gendered nature of insults like ‘girl’, ‘sissy’, ‘girlfriend’, the Departments of Justice and Education would not have been able to invoke Title IX. As Seth’s tormentors demonstrated, homophobia is frequently rooted in sexism. Homophobia and sexism both stem from the rigid gender hierarchy that exists in our culture. Society not only defines how males and females should behave, it also tells us that masculinity is better than femininity. Individuals who have an especially rigid adherence to gender roles frequently see LGBT folks as transgressors violating the tacit rules of the gender hierarchy. Prejudice against gay men reflects the fact that homophobia is often motivated by societal denigration of femininity. When bullies use terms such as “girl” or “sissy” to bully or harass another person, they are attempting to put the victim in their place as feminine and, therefore, lesser. To Seth’s tormentors, Seth’s adoption of stereotypically feminine behaviors was seen as a kind of betrayal, an upending of the idea that to be at the top of the hierarchy, one must be male, masculine, and heterosexual. Understanding and deconstructing the gender hierarchy is crucial to ending the type of verbal and physical bullying that Seth was forced to endure. Through Seth’s heartbreaking experiences that we can begin to see the destructive effects of a gender hierarchy on gay people, women, and also on those individuals who feel so invested in the gender hierarchy that they must turn to harassment and violence to maintain order. Jasmine Wetherell is a rising 3L at UCLA School of Law and a summer legal intern at the LGBT project of the ACLU of Southern California. This fall, Jasmine will serve as Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Women’s Law Journal and Chief Articles Editor of the Journal of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law. Last summer, Jasmine worked as a legal intern at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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