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Fear and Loathing: Unpacking Homophobia


“I’m not scared of gay people, I just think they are immoral (deviant/unnatural/etc.)”

It is the rare LGBTQ+ individual who has not heard some version of this sentiment addressed directly to them or to others. The speaker of such sentiments is usually taking issue with being called “phobic,” as their conscious experience is not fear per se but usually some kind of disgust. They may have a valid point, but their assertion reveals a much deeper truth that they would probably prefer not to face.


Both fear and disgust are powerful human emotions that arose evolutionarily as ways to protect humans from different kinds of dangers. But science has shown that the two are, indeed, different in a several fundamental ways. It is important to understand these differences in order to address their effects rationally. It is an immensely complex topic that I cannot do full justice to here, but I will try to pull out the most relevant findings so far, so bear with me.


In general, fear is more of a defensive response to an imminent threat of some kind, where disgust is more of a revulsion response against some kind of perceived contamination. They can feel similar to the one experiencing these emotions, but in fact they are based in two different branches of what is known as the “autonomic” nervous system. Our sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is tied closely to fear (e.g., the “fight or flight” response or the innate fears of snakes or spiders), and the parasympathetic branch to disgust (especially in reactions to learned disgust-evoking entities). So when Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) in the finale of the second season of The White Lotus begs “Please, these gays are trying to kill me!”, she is referring to the imminent attempt of these people (who happen to be gay) to end her life. Her sympathetic nervous system’s fear response is in full bloom, but not because of the sexual orientation of her potential murderers. She is not disgusted by them: She is existentially scared of them.


Contrast that to, say, the intentions of the Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who bluntly states that LGBTQ+ people are inherently immoral, disgusting, depraved, etc. Perkins and his ilk specifically try to convince their followers of this “fact” by inducing the emotion of disgust through focusing on diseases, the “confusion” of traditional gender roles, the failures of past civilizations, “grooming” habits, etc. It is a subversive and dishonest approach. It is also an effective one in evoking the emotion of disgust parading as morality. This is also the primary rationale behind so-called “conversion therapies,” which are actually just aversion therapies wrapped up in a morally and biologically questionable package.


Perhaps the most critical difference between the strong emotions of disgust and fear is that the experiences that evoke them are largely innate in terms of fear, but almost always learned in the case of disgust. And one does not have to dig very far to see the source of that learning for most people who claim to be disgusted.


Fortunately, falsehoods that are learned about LGBTQ+ people can be unlearned, but that requires a continuous willingness on our part to directly confront these false learnings in a way that invites the believer to rationally grow out of what they have been taught, and gives them a safe space in which to do so. As is true of all the progress we have made so far towards full acceptance, visibility is key, honesty is necessary, and compassion is mandatory. Even when our own strong emotions demand otherwise.


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