Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Byrne Fone, _Homophobia: A History_

IN QUEER LONDON, Matt Houlbrook inserts quotation marks whenever he uses the word "homophobia," which he rarely does, and at one point refers to "the historically and culturally blind category of 'homophobia'," leaving the impression he finds the concept unhelpful for serious analytical purposes.

He doesn't say why, though. Some critique of the concept is in progress, obviously, which he assumes we know about, but about which I, for one, haven't a clue. Extrapolating a bit from his obiter dicta about the category being historically and culturally blind, I am going to guess that he objects to the idea that some unchanging, essential, transhistorical attitude reappears throughout human history, taking various guises in different eras, but in substance always one and the same.

So I imagine Houlbrook would have reservations about a project titled Homophobia: A History. No, no, no, he might--I imagine--object, we need to understand the particulars of a society at a particular  time, its laws, its institutions, its modes of life, before we can understand what gay men and lesbians of that time and place were up against. We don't have to postulate a transcendent bogey-figure and call it "homophobia."

Byrne Fone acknowledges historical differences; he is clear on the point, for instance, that the repression, exclusion, and punishment of gay men goes from being a campaign against a sin to being a campaign against a vice to being a campaign against an illness as we move from the middle ages into modernity. However, he does at times seem to assume all these campaigns share basic premises at their dank, greasy, unconscious cores. For instance, he prefaces a particularly ugly passage ("inverts are not fit to live with the rest of mankind") from 19th century moral crusader Anthony Comstock by noting Comstock's judgment was one "with which the author of Leviticus, [the apostle] Paul, [St. John] Chrysostom, and [Pope] Gregory [IX] would have concurred." Okay, yes, all five condemned men having sex with men. But since they lived in quite different societies at quite different times, can we really imagine them all nodding sagely as a Victorian postal inspector holds forth?

Fone's history of homophobia begins with a quick look at Greek and Roman antiquity and the relevant texts in the Old and New Testaments, then focuses on western Europe up to the trial of Wilde, then hops the Atlantic and discusses the Americas, mainly the North and mainly the United States, from the arrival of the Europeans up to Stonewall (an epilogue goes up to about 2000, the year the book was published).  The larger part of the book relies heavily on secondary sources, some of them a tad overfamiliar perhaps (K. J. Dover, John Boswell), but when Fone gets to the United States from the founding to the Kinsey Report, he obviously knows the material extremely well and the analysis becomes more original and more illuminating.

Back to that point about a "historically and culturally blind category," though. Is there no such thing as homophobia, then? In his epilogue, Fone writes:

For some, it [homophobia] seems to have the command of a force of nature, to speak from the deep structures of the inner self, and in those psychological or even pathological dimensions, homophobia emerges as a condition, even a disease, of the psyche as well as a disorder of the imagination, the spirit, and the soul.

I may be just carried away by the rhetoric here, but that sounds true, somehow, doesn't it? Like something we've seen manifest itself?

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