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Homophobia and HIV Risk: What's Family Got to Do With It? Part One

June 9, 2011

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Table of Contents


It's a familiar and haunting refrain: People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) are systematically rejected by their families. And given the norms of many cultures, staying connected to your family is expected. But to maintain these familial bonds, LGBT folks usually don't have the most empowering options. They can either hide their sexual identity from their loved ones by pretending to be heterosexual; or be open with their sexual orientation and endure dismissiveness and disrespect. In some instances, they may choose to cut ties to their family altogether and create new families within queer-affirming communities.

In all these scenarios, not only is the onus on the LGBTQ family member to endure hardship, discomfort and isolation; but there is no accountability placed on the family for their own ill behavior. Moreover, there is no faith put in that fact that perhaps the family members can change or heal from their own biases.

This familial homophobia and rejection not only deeply impact LGBT people's mental health, but their overall health -- especially their sexual health. Data collected by the Family Acceptance Project highlights clear connections between family rejection and risky behavior. Lifetime suicide attempt rates for LGBTQ folks from highly rejecting families are 8 times as high as for those reared in "low-rejection" families; and LGBTQ youth from highly rejecting families are more than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and to be at high risk for HIV and other STDs.

If we're to talk seriously about an HIV prevention "cocktail" that will be sustainable and effective in curbing HIV rates among queer and transgender youth, we need to alter the emotional and material realities that can lead LGBTQ youth to engage in risky behavior. This cannot be done without talking about homophobia within families, how it renders youth vulnerable to HIV infection, and what can be done to stop it. In this two-part roundtable discussion, we will begin to do just that.

Participating in this discussion are: Sarah Schulman, longtime activist, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York and author of Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences; Darnell L. Moore, Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University, and Project Manager for the forthcoming Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement in Newark, N.J.; and Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D., Director of HMI To Go: Newark, a program of the New York-based Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI).

Defining the Problem

Olivia Ford: First, let's clarify language, and what we're talking about when we refer to "familial homophobia." Sarah, would you start us off? What prompted you, in the title and contents of your book, to identify homophobia within families as its own particular brand of discrimination, rather than lumping it in generally with institutional or interpersonal discrimination?

Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman, Professor of English, City University of New York and author of Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences

Sarah Schulman: The family is the place where all people first experience homophobia. It's where queer people first are victimized by it, and it's where straight people first learn that they can maneuver it to increase their status. So the family is very key in the development of an anti-homophobic society.

What I found so interesting was, all these years, I would travel the world; and even though what homosexuality is, or how queer people identify, changes in every cultural context, the one thing that was always the same was that queer people were being demeaned and diminished inside their families. This seemed to be universal. It was so understood as an experience that you could get on the bus, sit next to a gay person, make some comment about your family, and they would totally understand what you were talking about. And yet it had no name; we all called it it. It seemed to be the most pervasive, painful, fundamental experience of homophobia, and yet it had never been named.

So I decided that I was going to write a book which, in fact, is the very first book analyzing homophobia in the family and what its consequences are on the individual and on the society. In order to do that I had to come up with a name for it, so I just started calling it familial homophobia.

Darnell Moore: In fact, in some ways, familial homophobia is institutional homophobia. Family is an institution, the first institution that individuals are socialized into, and where they receive the codes and norms that govern behavior. Sarah, you've introduce something to us that expands the way we think about institutional homophobia, by helping us to think about family as one of those institutions.

Darnell L. Moore

Darnell L. Moore, Visiting Scholar, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University, and Project Manager, Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement

One of the things that I've encountered when working with queer youth, and with queer adults, is that there's a lot of trauma connected to these individuals' experiences in their families. I was trained as a clinical counselor to work with folks and tell them: "Just leave your family alone." For many there are causal implications that govern the way those types of decisions are made, but it sets the stage for the way that individuals then interact with the world.

It's an important key to consider as it relates to the work that we do -- particularly the work that I do, with queer youth.

Sarah Schulman: You know, for years and years, queer people were told, "Forget about your family. Go out and make your own family." But I really think that that's an inadequate response. People need their families. And when queer people are driven out of their families, the families are not touched; it's the queer person who pays the emotional price.

So I started to think about other examples historically where there was profound abuse within the family structure -- so bad that it would determine people's futures -- in which the society at large decided to intervene. I realized the best model was really domestic violence and child abuse. These are paradigms that have really been transformed in the last few decades. I grew up in New York City, I was born in the '50s, and it used to be that if you heard your neighbor beating up his wife, you wouldn't intervene. Now people know they are supposed to call the police. Now they know the police are supposed to intervene. We have a value that certain kinds of abuse transcend the privacy of the family, and that the society has to intervene.

I would like to see familial homophobia be put into that category, so that queer people are not alone. Right now, we're usually alone in our families. We have no one to turn to. But if there's a social ethic that familial homophobia is so pathological that as a society we have the responsibility to intervene, then neighbors, coworkers, teachers, ministers, other relatives, will start to feel that it's their social responsibility to interrupt the homophobia.

Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D.

Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D., Director of HMI To Go: Newark, Hetrick-Martin Institute

Kara Olidge: I think it's important to be a little cautious about making generalizations about every family that has this experience with homophobia I strongly agree that many people have had very traumatic experiences within their families -- particularly people who have been isolated there. However, there have been instances where we've worked with families and found that the parents have gone through a particular type of pain themselves, that's rooted in the context of, for example, institutionalized racism, as certain stereotypes have ascribed on certain bodies.

This is work that we have to deepen, because as we look at the fact that familial homophobia is institutionalized, we also have to look at how it intersects with other forms of institutionalized discrimination. When we do the work, we almost have to approach families the way we approach youth: with wraparound services. Working with families that way, we can get at how familial homophobia intersects with other issues that are really heavy factors in families' lives.

I often hear parents talk about the pain of not seeing their child. One parent or a sibling may be going through that; so perhaps other family members feel the same way. It's important to look at the entire landscape if we want to really address the issue.

Sarah Schulman: I totally agree with you. I think most people are homophobic because they think they're supposed to be. If they got the message that they're not supposed to be, most people will change. Not everyone -- there will always be people who are pathologically homophobic. But if people get the message from their aunt, their minister, their next door neighbor, their teacher, and what they see on television -- that homophobia is a social problem -- a lot of people's behaviors would change.

"Right now, all of the stigma is on homosexuality. And I think we have to shift the focus, and say homosexuality is not the subject; the subject is homophobia. Homophobia destroys families. Homophobia causes violence. Homophobia is antisocial."
-- Sarah Schulman

But I think the main thing is, right now, all of the stigma is on homosexuality. And I think we have to shift the focus, and say homosexuality is not the subject; the subject is homophobia. Homophobia destroys families. Homophobia causes violence. Homophobia is antisocial. This is what we as a society need to focus on transforming.

Darnell Moore: I always try to think about how to bring these issues into context. I'm thinking about my own family. I grew up in Camden, New Jersey, in what might typically be described as an African-American working and, possibly, jobless poor family, in an environment that's often assumed to be non-progressive.

While there were definitely instances of prejudice, mostly through words, my family -- despite how certainly families are read in certain class and economic spaces, and certain raced spaces -- is an example of one that was very open and accepting. I remember bringing home a trans friend of mine when I was in high school. I didn't even understand the transformation that my friend was going through, and my family said nothing. So, in a different way, a family is a seat and a bed, also, for healing, as much as it is for the trauma that's produced.

Another thing: My understanding of the word homophobia is that it speaks to the pathos that exists within a person that's disconnected from social constructions and systems; instead, I would use the term heterosexism in talking about the ways we're taught to think. We're taught to be prejudiced against one other; and I think homophobia, in some ways, takes the onus off us to own how discriminatory knowledges are passed, and the ways we enact them on bodies, and in our systems and practices. I'd like to push this usage of heterosexism as a means to lift that notion up and make it visible.

Sarah Schulman: My understanding historically of those terms is that they have really different meanings: heterosexism means seeing the heterosexual reality as the objective, neutral reality; and homophobia is being actively anti-gay.

But I agree with you: Homophobia is a problematic word. When I was writing this book, I was thinking about that word and I was thinking about all the times people have been homophobic to me. I was thinking about the expressions on their faces, and I realized that they were never, ever afraid. There was a certain kind of a joy in homophobia, like there is in all kinds of supremacy ideology.

Have you seen those photos of a black man being lynched, and the white people underneath his hanging body are laughing and smiling and picnicking? We know that there's a certain kind of person who enjoys and gets pleasure from being cruel, because it elevates their sense of themselves. And so, in a way, homophobia is more of a pleasure system than it is a phobia. So I agree; it's not the right word.

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