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Homophobia is a term that is so used – and, I’d argue, often overused – that it has become almost meaningless. You know something is amiss when events as diverse as the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, Barack Obama inviting evangelical best selling author Rick Warren to give the prayer at his inauguration, and six-year olds on the playground saying “that’s so gay” about a classmate’s jacket all get labeled as “homophobic.” Political language is necessary, but really only useful when we use it precisely and accurately understand its historical and social context.
As a term, “homophobia” – from the Greek and the Latin meaning “fear of the same” – is fairly new. Coined by Dr. George Weinberg in 1972 in his book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, the word originally was a clinical term meaning “fear of being trapped in a room with a homosexual.” It quickly fell into common usage to mean an irrational fear of homosexuals or homosexuality. I would argue, as I did in The Pleasure Principle, that given how deeply homosexuality strikes at the heart of how heterosexually the world is now ordered, that homophobia may, indeed, be a very rational fear. But rational or irrational there is little doubt that the myriad actions we label as homophobic are relentlessly and often horrifically everyday occurrences.
Louis-Georges Tin, a professor of literature at the University of Orleans in France, has put together an intriguing five hundred-page document that is as fascinating as it is overwhelming in its breadth and detail. It is also, at time, frustrating because there is so much material here, often covered in a succinct but less than comprehensive manner, that you are often wanting much more after finishing an article. Although titled The Dictionary of Homophobia, the book is more accurately an encyclopedia – in the original Enlightenment understanding of the concept – that brings together a variety of thoughts, knowledge, and ideas to consolidate contemporary viewpoints on a topic. In close to two hundred articles, by nearly as many writers from different cultures and nations, Tin presents a tapestry of how anti-queer sentiments and hatreds have manifested themselves around the world over centuries. The Dictionary is arranged alphabetically by subjects – countries, religions, some proper names, and general subjects such as AIDS or Music and has no index, so looking up exact information is difficult.
This said, approaching The Dictionary of Homophobia is at once exhilarating, daunting, and endlessly fascinating. Take for instance Michael Sibilas’s article on “Criminal.” The piece begins: “In the past, homosexuals almost everywhere were considered criminals, in the real sense of the word; in many countries they still are.” He then goes on to discussing (very) briefly the history of international decriminalization (touching only on a few European countries) and then discusses in some detail how early French and Italian sociologists constructed theories of criminalized sexual deviance. From here he careens to some celebrated murder cases that involved homosexuals and then to a brief examination of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet and the films Rebecca, Rope, and Cruising. He then ends with some thoughts on Oscar Wilde and Guy Hocquengham and concludes that the image of the homosexual as criminal has died out but not completely. The article is fascinating and intriguing but so scattered and idiosyncratic that it is useful only as anecdote, not scholarship.
Other articles are more focused. Pierre-Olivier de Busscher’s piece on “Genetics” is relatively brief but covers some of the history that links gene theory to eugenics and places the current discussion of the “gay gene” in this context. He mentions the important names – Garland Allen, Richard Pillard, J. Michael Bailey – and offers no definitive conclusion, which is proper since there is no scientific or popular consensus on the topic. While not comprehensive the piece will give the casual reader some sense of the topic. Claude Tassin’s piece on “Judaism” on the other hand is a model of deftly organized information. Beginning with Biblical Judaism and then discussing the effects of the Mishnah and Talmud on religious thinking about same-sex relations he then looks at the contemporary complications that emerge when a long history of homophobic religious law crashes head-on with a relatively progressive and liberal humanistic religious tradition. While he avoids slogging through the complications of many contemporary debates within Judaism on the nature and theology of sexual desire – although he does reference the important work of the radical thinker and theorist Daniel Boyarin – he gives the common reader a firm sense of where we have been and how “experts” think about these matters.
But to say that The Dictionary of Homophobia is a “mixed bag” is misleading. The reality is that it is a throwback to an old-fashioned way of collecting and classifying knowledge that brings together information in a systematic manner that is, ironically, not particularly systematic at all. The article by Liliane Kandel and Claudie Lesselier on “Feminism” is corrected labeled “Feminism (France)” since it deals, in some detail, with the interplay between homophobia and acceptance in the French feminist movement. A comparable article on U.S. feminism would have been fascinating (and of interest to American readers) as homegrown feminism here has as many conflicting theories and histories of dealing with homosexuality and gay rights. If you openThe Dictionary of Homophobia not expecting a grand sweep of knowledge or even consistency you will not be as disappointed than if you do.
So what is the ultimate worth of this volume? After reading through all 495 pages and then spending time dipping into it again, the power of the work – even with all of these flaws, or at least caveats – is clear. For a very long period of time, in almost all cultures and countries, homosexual women and men have been treated in as vicious a manner as possible. The sheer accumulation of ghastly thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and actions here is staggering. We live in a world today in which anti-queer hatred still exists but is, depending on culture and country, more and more frowned upon. It is important to document, even in this not very systematic manner, some of this history. The Dictionary of Homophobia does not really give us a useful political language in which to have this larger discussion. As noted above – even the word “homophobia” is inexact and vague; a sentiment not, strictly speaking, political – and in the end this book suffers because of this. As such it is not of particular use for any scientific or academic projects – indeed, the intentionally haphazard nature of the project would horrify most social scientists – but as a document of human cruelty, ignorance, and incalculable harm it is not just a primary source, but a minor monument.
The Dictionary of Homophobia
Translated by Marek Redburn,
with Alice Michaud and Kyle Mathers.
Arsenal Pulp Press / $44.95
Hardcover, 496 pp.