The Narcissism of Today’s Homophobia

SLATE | Feb. 3, 2014 

Rapper Macklemore took heat from both the left and right for singing his pro-gay anthem, “Same Love,” at the Grammys last month. Now, in the latest challenge to the wrongly besieged musician, Christian rapper Bizzle has released an anti-gay version of the song stressing biblical rationales for stigmatizing gay people.

In an era when even Glenn Beck favors gay equality, it’s become almost bold to publicly oppose it. Which makes full-throttled expressions of homophobia like the Bizzle riff an excellent opportunity to unpack just what’s going on in the minds of America’s shrinking but persistent anti-gay population.

Bizzle’s rap contains all the usual anti-gay bugaboos: gays are uncontrollably lusty; they’re like pedophiles; they violate God’s rules and summon his wrath; they trounce my religious freedom to persecute them; and now they’re becoming violent—oh, but by the way, while I hate their sin, I love them and just pray they’ll become straight like me. Indeed, what’s most marked about today’s homophobia is what a clear expression of narcissism it is, along with how unrigorous its rationalizations are. Homophobic people seem unable to see past themselves, to transcend their most rudimentary emotions and arrive at a place that’s often reachable only if we apply a modicum of reason—often spurred by empathy—to challenge old mental habits.

Instead, homophobes assume that the only natural way of being, for everyone, is straight like them. The late philosopher and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl once wrote that those with narcissistic prejudice “cannot tolerate the idea that there exist people not like them.” It’s a telling diagnosis, given how freely anti-gay thought characterizes gay people (as opposed to anti-gay people) as narcissistic—presumably an artifact of the Freudian notion that homosexuality stems from a developmental block in the path from self-love to love of others. Borrowing another concept from psychoanalysis, homophobes may be especially likely to project their own narcissism onto others as a way to deflect taking responsibility for their own issues.

Bizzle’s lyrics are a textbook case of homophobic narcissism. He suggests same-sex desire is a “syndrome” and a “defect,” and he compares it to pedophilia, retardation, and extramarital sex (a rich accusation, since Bizzle opposes allowing gay sex to ever occur within a marriage). But since gayness doesn’t harm or disable anyone, viewing it as a syndrome really means this: Anyone who doesn’t like what I like is abnormal and defective; being just like me is the only acceptable model.

The fixation of some straight people on the sex acts of gay people is another incarnation of homophobic narcissism. In complaining that some advocates compare the gay rights struggle to the black rights struggle, Bizzle, who is African-American, reduces gay identity to sexual practices, taking umbrage at those who “compare your sexual habits to my skin.” This conceptualization of homosexuality as all about the sex has a long history in America. From the more staid homophobia of conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, who once objected to a stranger mentioning that he was gay because she had no interest in knowing “what he wishes to do with his genitals” toDuck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s befuddlement that any man could prefer an anus to a vagina (“She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying?”), anti-gay people are unable to contemplate something they themselves haven’t felt: genuine same-sex love. So they conclude that gay people must be distorted by lust. Bizzle’s inability to see any legitimate parallels in the freedom struggles of gays and blacks—like any analogy, the comparisons don’t rely on claiming that the two experiences are literally the same or even equivalent, just that they share certain key characteristics—seems partly a result of this insistence on boiling down gay identity to a sex act. It also reflects the narcissist’s limited capacity for empathy—an exercise in stepping out of the self to imagine the feelings of others.

Today’s homophobes have increasingly taken to deploying two other devices which are reflected in Bizzle’s alternate “Same Love,” both of which further exemplify the limits of narcissistic thinking. The first is a projection of moral relativism onto gays that no gay person is really asking for. “Imagine a world where no one kept their desires in,” he raps, where “something was called right simply ’cause we desired it.” In the homophobic imagination, gay desire is, for gay people, the only foundation for what is right, and for what our rights should be. The thinking seems to be that if you don’t share my moral views, the ones rooted in the Bible, there is no other possible moral system besides “anything goes”—not a moral system at all.

This thinking is also reflected in a multi-state legal brief filed last week, which claims that allowing same-sex marriage means anything and everything goes: “If public affirmation of anyone and everyone’s personal love and commitment is the single purpose of civil marriage,” reads the brief to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which was signed by 11 attorneys general, “a limitless number of rights claims could be set up that evacuate the term ‘marriage’ of any meaning.” But gay advocates are not asking for any and all relationships to be validated as marriages, just same-sex ones that otherwise meet state criteria. And gay people don’t claim equal rights based on our desire to have gay sex; we claim equal rights based on the argument that there is no good reason to treat us any differently from straight people, that granting such rights harms no one and helps millions. The reduction of gay identity to sexual desire, and the refusal or inability to think rigorously about the basis of right and wrong beyond a provincial attachment to religious dogma, have blinded many to the use of simple reason. My point is not that we should embrace moral relativism by accepting everyone’s “moral truth”; to the contrary, my point is that the argument for gay equality does not rest on blindly tolerating multiple moralities, but on the ability to transcend your own comforting assumptions to make room for new ones when reason so dictates. And as I’ve argued before, for too many, homosexuality remains the one thing Americans consistently claim is immoral without ever giving a reason why.

Finally, the other device homophobes employ is to cast their discrimination as an issue of religious freedom. Bizzle complains that gays are not only insisting on “switching the definition” of marriage but “want it done by a Christian in a church he worships in.” The latest reaction to a string of gay rights victories, which sometimes force homophobes to stop discriminating against gay people, is to seek carve-outs from the law—the kind of special rights the right wing has long accused gays of demanding. This weekend came news that Oregon voters may face a ballot initiative over whether to let wedding providers (not actual churches) refuse to serve gay couples due to “conscience,” something that’s likely blatantly unconstitutional. If society passes laws that I don’t like, the thinking goes, they shouldn’t apply to me, because I’m above the law.

It’s true that the gay rights movement has long advocated tolerance of difference, and rightly so. But tolerating difference isn’t about anything-goes moral relativism or letting everyone follow only the laws they like. That’s anarchy. It’s about transcending narcissism—and injecting empathy and reason in its place.

Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire and a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, is writing a book called The Anti-Gay Mind.