by Leah Waldron
My father has a lifelong phobia of cockroaches. When he sees a cockroach, it scares him so much that he has to leave the room. He doesn’t want to kill the offensive insect so much as he wants to be in a place where they do not exist. At night, he dreams of a cockroach-free world (or has nightmares in which they are taking over). Similarly, a close friend of mine has a phobia of bees. In the summer, she stays indoors for fear that she will come across one and it will hurt her. She knows, logically, that this is a ridiculous fear. She’s not allergic to bees, and her one childhood encounter with a bee was bad, but not necessarily traumatic. Despite this, she stays indoors.
If an individual can illogically fear something that they know is truly harmless, why isn’t the extreme fear of homosexuals a medically-recognized phobia? And what is it that homophobes really fear? In April, 2012, a study published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” tried to answer the latter question. Scientists at the University of Rochester discovered that homophobia was not a fear of being harmed by a homosexual, but of the individual’s—the homophobe’s—own latent homosexuality. This fear of rejection and ostracization, which all gays and lesbians have experienced at one point or another, is so strong that it can even lead to suicide.
So why is something so intensely terrifying—one’s own sexual orientation—not considered a phobia? Why is it, instead, a buzz word for an individual who simply hates gays?
To answer this, I turned to the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Edition 4), which classifies a “phobia” as a type of anxiety disorder in which “the affected individual displays a marked and enduring fear of specific situations or objects. Individuals with specific phobias experience extreme fear as soon as they encounter a defined situation or object, a phobic stimulus.”
But a phobia cannot be determined by the presence of fear, alone. You also need to extreme avoidance. Otherwise, phobias would be much more commonplace. For example, a fear of enclosed spaces or circus clowns, while pretty reasonable, is not a phobia unless you actively avoid them. This means that you don’t go spelunking in caves and you stay the hell away from circuses. But where do you hide if you’re afraid of your own sexual orientation? Unfortunately, homophobes handle their latent homosexuality by doing the opposite—making sure that homosexuals fear them, instead of the other way around.
So where do we go from here? Fortunately, prognosis for traditional phobias is positive, although the severity of one’s case will determine how “curable” the disorder is. The most popular method of treatment is to encounter the scary object or situation (i.e., coming face-to-face with a gay person), but in our society, that doesn’t seem to be working. The more scared they are of us, the more we fear them, and the cycle continues.
If the psychological community adopts “homophobia” as a legitimate phobia, maybe we can figure out a better solution.