Homophobia is the Patient
Mary Lynne Ellis
My aim in this paper is not to attempt to develop a definitive explanation of homophobia, identifying its ‘causes’ and ‘effects’. To do this would be to risk replicating the approaches of those psychoanalytic theories which pathologize lesbianism and homosexuality, and fail to recognize their diversity. I also do not want to imply that homophobia is one thing or one process with one source; it manifests itself and functions in a multiplicity of ways and is more appropriately referred to in its plural form. Through my account of my work with my patient, Teresa, I critically reflect on a number of possible, not necessarily mutually exclusive, interpretations of what might constitute homophobia, or homophobias, drawing on the theories of Freud, Foucault, Butler and Levinas.
Reading Freud’s Homophobia
According to Freud, phobias are not ‘independent pathological process[s]’ (1909b: 115); they can appear as an aspect of many different forms of distress ranging across all the neuroses. He delineates three different groups of phobias:
phobias experienced by so-called ‘normal’ people, such as fear of snakes. Freud claims that fears such as this are a ‘universal human characteristic’ and they are therefore generally not accorded the status of ‘symptoms’ or regarded as particularly troubling or inhibiting (1916 -1917: 399).
phobias of situations which are recognized by most people as entailing some risk, such as train travel, thunderstorms, crowds, enclosed spaces and solitude. Their status as phobias is related to the intensity of anxiety which anticipation of them evokes.
phobias which are, in Freud’s words, ‘beyond our comprehension’, such as animal phobias (1916 -1917: 399).
Some phobias, such as agoraphobia and fear of rail travel, are acquired later in life, while others, such as fear of the dark, of animals, and thunderstorms arise early on. However, all of the phobias relating to the second and third groups are, he argues, closely related to anxiety hysteria.