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Number 1: Spring 2008

Homophobia is the Patient

Mary Lynne Ellis

In ‘anxiety hysteria,’ according to Freud, phobias function as ‘defensive structures’ against anxiety, which involve endless ‘precautions, inhibitions, or prohibitions’ (1909b: 117). He initially theorizes anxiety as arising in relation to an ‘internal threat’ to the ego, such as libidinal or destructive impulses, rage, or shame. Freud later revises this to emphasize the significance of an ‘external’ threat (1926d:126) and, in particular, the threat of castration. He retracts his previous assumption that anxiety arises from repressed libido and argues that anxiety has its source in the attitude of the ego. It is the anxious ego which initiates repression.

In his analysis of the case of Little Hans’s phobia of horses Freud highlights how Hans’s phobia is formed through a condensation of unconscious thoughts relating to his Oedipal conflict, namely his sadistic sexual desire towards his mother and his hostile and rivalrous feelings towards his father. As Butler (1997) points out, Freud’s theorizing of the Oedipus complex assumes that heterosexuality has already been accomplished. It presupposes that which it claims to explain. Freud strongly asserts in his reflections on Little Hans’s development that homosexuality arises from a fixation at the point of transition between auto-eroticism and ‘object-love’. Freud’s theorizing of phobias is therefore rooted in an assumption which is, itself, homophobic. To apply Freud’s analysis of phobias in groups two and three to homophobia is untenable.

If the homophobia on which Freud’s theorizing is predicated is normalized and not regarded as a symptom, can homophobias be usefully considered as belonging to Freud’s first category of phobias, exemplified by the fear of snakes? Fears such as this, however, obviously do arise in some cultures (although not all, as Freud claims), and are regarded as socially acceptable or comprehensible within a particular cultural frame or belief system. They are therefore, similarly to homophobia, not treated as ‘symptoms’.

Homophobes and Character Types

In an interesting move, Young-Bruehl, in her book Anatomy of Prejudice, offers an analysis of homophobia in which she specifies three different homophobic character types, namely obsessional, hysterical, and narcissistic. Although these categories are derived from psychoanalytic theory, Young-Bruehl stresses that she does not view people who are prejudiced as any more pathological than any others. Rather, she claims to present descriptions of the different relationships these groups appear to have to homosexuals.