Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 13, January 23, 2010


Book Review

Homophobia: An Australian History

edited by Shirleene Robinson
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia:
The Federation Press. 2008. (pbk.). 262 pps.

Click on cover to buy this book from Amazon.com


Reviewed by Professor Scott R. Senjo, JD, Ph.D.
Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, USA

A History of Threats

Ideas about human sexuality change curiously. For example, before 1861 two people who love each other could receive the death penalty in England for having consensual sex in a manner not in compliance with the edicts of the majority (p. 7). If they weren’t executed, they were deemed in need of psycho-surgery to cure them of a neurosis and return them to normal sexuality (p. 151). Same-sex relations were outlawed for a long time, but today, consensual sex between adults in private does not offend the law. The Western World continues to adapt, not always gracefully, to various forms of sexual expression.

The roles of men and women are being questioned. So are their expectations of one another. Areas of social responsibility, family responsibility and individual need are no longer easily defined (p. 173).

Increasingly greater segments of modern society are unwilling to be questioned for wanting to embrace a particular sexual practice based in love, care, and mutual respect for themselves and their partner. That said, however, standards of social conformity change slowly and sexual expression on an individual level does not necessarily translate to what is acceptable socially. Fear can still dominate the examination of sexual diversity, however illogical, unnecessary, or cruel. In the book Homophobia: An Australian History, Shirleene Robinson edits an anthology of 11 articles written by a group of widely published Australian historians on a variety of subjects pertaining to historical trends in sexual expression, constructs of gender, sexual diversity, and homophobia.

Sex and relationships are amorphous topics and this title does justice to them. Sexual relationships may never seem the same after reading this book – they will seem much richer. When contemplating sexual contact, for example, between a traditional husband and wife, the contact may be perceived as normal. After reading this book, however, it becomes clear that whether sex is considered “normal” or deviant depends upon the historical era in which it takes place . “Race, sexuality and gender are socially constructed categories closely related to the type of society in which they operate” (p. 65).

One of the many contributions of this title is the conceptualization of the term “heterosexist” – the idea that heterosexual sex is, for various reasons, considered normal and superior, and that all other sexual practices are inferior.

[People] who are not heterosexual are subject to a range of injustices and disadvantages, which together make up a system of oppression. Heterosexuality is compulsory in nearly all spheres of everyday life” (p. 17).

In the 1960s, heterosexual intercourse was the only form of sexual expression deemed generally healthy and normal by the medical and psychological professions. . . . any form of contact in which sexual gratification was obtained without heterosexual intercourse was a sexual deviation” (p. 151).

Apparently, at times, despite the infinite array of human sexual expression, only one is tolerated. The realm of sexual expression (“The importance of sexual passion and pleasure”, p. 87), by definition, is boundless, limited only by the imagination and tastes of the participant. Basic forms include sex with self, other-sex, same-sex or a combination of the above. Many less common techniques exist which older civilizations such as Eskimo or Indian have known for a thousand years.

More than ever in modern times, segments of Western society live unmarried, “choosing a different road to personal fulfillment” (p. 135), and exercise greater autonomous choice concerning sex. The coercion of heterosexism points toward a failure to comprehend, and hence, to fear the varieties of human sexualityC. When other, non-heterosexual practices are contemplated, they seem to incite inexplicably fury. Is it a lack of understanding which manifests as fury and hatred? Asked differently, why do some sex acts create such discomfort for some? Is it because we all have the ability to imagine sex with the same gender and are frightened by our own imagination?

If homophobia involves fearing in others what subjects fear in themselves, it raises questions of people’s own subjectivity and relationship to homosexual desire. . . . closet lesbians themselves were hardest on other lesbians, perhaps as a way of allaying or diverting suspicion from their own sexuality (p. 93).

Homophobia is more than the irrational fear of gay men, more than the fear that we might be perceived as gay . . . Homophobia is the fear that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, that we are not real men . . . (p. 63).

The irrational fear of certain forms of sexual contact is old and this book neatly chronicles the historiography. It is tightly organized around the Australian experience but is highly applicable to the Western World. Wasting no time, the very first paragraph begins with a 2007 violent attack on “Craig” for being gay: “One of the assailants stepped on his face, breaking his eye socket in three places” (p. 1).

Sex-based phobia seems to know no bounds and each chapter reveals the sad reality. From Chapter Four: “Being abused – and even spat at – [for being gay] outside a cathedral by clergy purporting to act ‘in the name of God’ . . .” (p. 86). From the judicial branch of government, “Judge Barry” denies custody to a mother because she is lesbian, “The language used by the judge constructed lesbian relationships as immoral abnormal and diseased” (p. 99). From the policing profession, a police sergeant lauded one of the department’s successful officers, “Alison”, until the sergeant found out Alison was lesbian, instantly changing the sergeant’s perspective. “While Alison was labeled as sick and mad because she was a lesbian, she was also seen as ‘filthy and obscene’” (p. 93). At women-only schools, teachers panicked anytime two girls became friends: “Dormitories were patrolled at night and days were heavily regimented with little time free from supervision” (p. 102).

Homophobia . . . strikes at hypocrisy. It does not have a political agenda – it’s just a well-written book by a group of well versed historians. This book thoroughly exposes medical, legal, media, political and educational institutions in their inherently unaccepting and abusive outlooks on anyone different from them.

The articles are arranged well and allow for a chronological study from, for example, social views of lesbians in the late 1800s (Chapter Two) to the depiction of the gay community by the media in 2000 (Chapter Nine) with other eras covered in the middle chapters. Amid the analyses, an important question emerges and shouts for attention. What is it about human sexuality that made Australians so uncomfortable with same sex desire? From Chapter Five, “The question is: why? Why was so much time and energy being put into dealing with this problem [of homosexuality] in this period? What was the threat?” (p. 121).

The threats, apparently, are innumerable: the threat to national security (Chapter Five), threats to “hegemonic masculinity” and what it means to be a “real man” (Chapter Three), threat to “things one fought for – home and family” (Introduction), threat to male-female relations and heterosexism (Chapter One), threat to order and morality in the workplace (Chapter Four), to the “primacy of domestic ideology” (Chapter Six), “society’s stability (Chapter Seven) and the threat from “those who were simply seen as different” (Chapter Ten). It seems like it would be easier to list what is not threatened by same-sex desire.
The research techniques behind each chapter are sound, but it almost seems like the editor wants to downplay the methodologies used. Chapter One analyzed only a single survey measure: Do You Think Homosexuality is Immoral? This measure would be nicely correlated with a second measure, such as: How Many Times Per Week Do You Have Sex? Speculating, those who enjoy sex may not hate others for having sex . . . Use of a single measure invited a critique of validity and reliability for the data in the chapter.

The authors are scholars of history but that shouldn’t work against greater use of quantitative data analysis. Both chapters two and nine examine media sources and could make use of various tables summarizing the historical data but have none. Several chapters are an unprecedented, ground-breaking understanding of the literature of gay and lesbian history in Australia, but the reader is never told about the methods used. Chapter Two uses the seldom-employed method of latent content analysis but that methodological tool is never mentioned. The author of Chapter Nine indicates the use of content analysis but reservedly so, quietly relegating the methods to footnote 31 in the notes (p. 215); the use of the 116 criminal cases out of the Queensland Courts from Chapter Three does not utilize the cases in any type of tabular form and neither do the 80 cases from the cohort studied in Chapter Ten. In sum, the book is too high quality to not make better use of social science techniques in the study of homophobia.

This title is amenable to a wide range of audiences. Gays and lesbians in Australia need to brace themselves, but will be infinitely treated to an historical perspective of sexual orientation in their country . I selected it for the university classes I teach in the field of Criminology. I can use it to explain hate crimes and the role of the criminal law in social control: “Arguably, the criminal law has been one of the most insidious systems to regulate expressions of same-sex desire between men” (p. 71).

This title is also prime for Sociology classes which address the social construction of gender roles, compulsion toward social conformity, and the investments which go toward maintaining popular conceptions of what constitutes a “good man” and a “good woman”. Women’s Studies professors may enjoy this title for its reinforcing analysis of heterosexism, patriarchy, and the consequences of “maleness” to men, women, and the world: “[Beginning in the 18 th century] a new gendered order emerged in which masculinity was defined in opposition to femininity and institutionalized in the economy and state” (p. 66).

Instructors in a Department of History will achieve multiple objectives by adopting this title. Students will see another example in history of the horrors of minority oppression and the cowardliness behind the purpose of creating a “deviant” class. On the flipside, history professors who adopt this title can demonstrate how history scholars are disinclined toward quantitative analysis compared to their colleagues in other social sciences such as Political Science and Anthropology.

Lay persons curious about human sexuality will very much enjoy this book. Someone who exercises sexual self-awareness and reads this title will walk away stunned. Homophobia . . . is very well written and researched and the reader is able to achieve a deep understanding of the main topics. How sexuality - something inherently sensitive and remarkable - can be interpreted as repugnant by so many different entities throughout history boggles the mind. Homophobia 's historical analysis of the systematic negativity directed toward human sexuality and culture is literally shocking.

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