What shall we make of that diagnosis? It’s not necessarily wrong. Given our long and complex histories of sexual taboo, psychological explanations for gays aggressing others as gays are certainly plausible enough.
Throughout much of the media, however, ‘internalised homophobia’ is recited not to enhance the public’s insight into the politics, but to write politics out of the analysis altogether. If the killer was gay himself, it seems, then maybe his crime wasn’t really about politics.
Far from surpassing the age-old medical model of non-normative heterosexualities as disease (memorably documented by Foucault) that response keeps the pathological paradigm alive and kicking. Who needs a demo? Just find the right clinic.
Why do we continue to view sexual contexts as the opposite of political ones?
From Marx to Beauvoir
The notion of reflexive repression—that is, self-repression internalised within subordinated groups—is by no means unique to gender or sexual identities.
Classical Marxism is unthinkable without the concept of subordinated groups assimilated into their own active oppression, notably the 19th century industrial proletariat. That insight persists through Marxism’s affiliated concepts of ideological superstructure, false consciousness, and political-economic hegemony.
Critical race theory, too, documents ethnic minorities absorbed into their own perpetuation of the racism that harms them. And feminism, famously Simone de Beauvoir’s, crucially critiques the various ways in which women end up being participants—‘complicit’—in patriarchy.
But two striking differences emerge.
First, unlike ‘internalised homophobia’, those other insights into reflexive repression remain largely the preserve of academics. They may occasionally creep onto the pages of the Guardian or the New York Review of Books, but are far from being media commonplaces.
Second, those other models are not invoked to defuse political understandings. They exist for no other reason than to broaden our appreciation of their associated politics.
‘The woman’s part’
We credit Foucault with the insight that the post-Enlightenment psychologising of sexualities signified a massive de-politicising of them. Yet we credit Fanon with the reminder that psychology and politics cannot be shorn apart. And we remember feminism’s abiding exhortation that ‘the personal is political’.
What would it look like, then, if we were to explain violence within or against other groups using that same model of psychological reflexivity—that is, of violence against the Other construed as violence against the detestable within ourselves? (Decades after Lacan, Lévinas, and Derrida, it certainly can’t be called a new idea.)
‘[T]here’s no motion / That tends to vice in man, but I affirm / It is the woman’s part’. Thus exclaims Posthumus, one of Shakespeare’s many false-cuckolds, in Cymbeline. He is about to command his wife’s murder after fatuously believing lies about her infidelity.
Posthumus’s wrath against her turns to rage against all women: ‘be it lying, note it, / The woman’s; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers; / Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers’. And that murderous impulse against all women becomes, in turn, a murderous impulse against ‘the woman’s part’ in himself.
Just like ‘internalised homophobia’? Yet, outside the academy, popular discourses conceptualise male violence against women without that additionally reflexive element which they spontaneously attribute to homophobic violence. Rarely do the media present male violence against women as a violence against the woman within the man. Suddenly that’s a specialised scholarly discourse, and not the kind of commonplace that ‘internalised homophobia’ has become.
Rats and cockroaches
Patterns of nationalist or inter-ethnic violence are similar. Once they reach fierce enough levels of intensity, propaganda against the detested group acquires a lexicon of hygienic self-cleansing. The detested group becomes characterised as filth and muck, rats and cockroaches.
In other words, they represent a pollution of the type that must invariably be eliminated from one’s own body and one’s own home (anti-miscegenation laws being particularly emblematic). They nourish a mythologising discourse, harking back to a Golden Age that never was, which shrouds the group in purity, cleansed of the alien taint. The Jew most detested by Nazism was not the Jew living and breathing among the Germans. It was the symbolic Jew lurking within the Germans.
Yet those observations, too, remain confined to scholarly circles. Only rarely do popular characterisations portray inter-ethnic violence as a violence waged against the Other’s abhorred traits carried within the perpetrating group.
In the case of anti-gay violence, we readily speculate about a perpetrator’s suppressed homosexuality even without the kind of evidence discovered in Mateen’s case. There is little resistance to seeing the psychopath as presumptively gay, hence the violence as presumptively reflexive.
But with these other forms of violence, the opposite seems to hold. Reflexive elements go unnoticed, and are certainly not deemed presumptive or constitutive within mainstream political analyses.
Everyone’s a pervert
Internalised homophobia ends up, then, as the aberrant model. Yet we have every reason for viewing that model not as the exception but as the rule, the analytical paradigm, extending far beyond the contexts of sexuality.
Internalised homophobia ends up as the exotic, psychologising approach, the alternative to a straightforwardly political model. And yet as soon as we apply it beyond sexuality to those other contexts, its indissolubility from politics becomes glaring.
In a legendary and seminal footnote, Freud observed that the homosexual is indeed a pervert, but only in the sense that everyone is a pervert. Shall we now add that anti-gay violence is indeed pathologically reflexive, but only in the sense that mass violence, inherently, is pathologically reflexive?
Public discourse—beyond the academy—needs to apply the same psychologically reflexive model to other forms of mass violence that we all find so easy and obvious in the case of homophobia.
Eric Heinze is Professor of Law & Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London. His most recent book is Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship (OUP, 2016).