It never fails. After I've given a lecture or a course on homosexuality, explaining at length why it can no longer be considered an illness, the questions are always the same: "What are the symptoms?" "Can it be cured?" "How can one prevent it in one's children?" Even, occasionally, "Is it contagious?"
I encounter these questions everywhere: in Mexico City and the provinces; on radio programs and university campuses; among ordinary people, psychology students, and health professionals. In Mexico there is still the assumption that homosexuality is a disease, as well as a social problem to be eradicated. Always there is the presumption that gay people are fundamentally different from "us normal people."
These views translate readily into action. With an average of 35 reported murders a year (unofficial estimates run three times higher), Mexico ranks second in the world, after Brazil, for anti-gay crimes. Attempts to legalize a limited form of gay marriage were quashed three times by the local congress of Mexico City, by parties of the left and right alike.
For years I've tried to discover the underpinnings of this homophobia, which remains deeply rooted despite the progressive liberalization of public opinion in most areas of morality: contraception, premarital cohabitation, divorce, single motherhood, women's rights, have all gradually (if grudgingly) been assimilated into the spectrum of "normal" behavior. Yet homosexuality remains outside the pale. Why?
To begin, the presumed causes of homosexuality are shrouded in pseudo-scientific theories and psycho-babble: homosexuals supposedly suffer from hormonal imbalances, or were sexually abused as children, or constitute an indeterminate "third sex" that is neither male nor female, or had absent fathers and over-protective mothers. Although science disproved these explanations decades ago, they still prevail in Mexican popular culture because they all fit into that culture's rigid, polarized definitions of masculinity and femininity.
In this deeply held view, men and women are not only different, but opposite. A man who has any "feminine" traits is "poco hombre": boys who dislike soccer, men who enjoy the opera or express unmanly feelings such as sadness or tenderness, husbands who help with the housework or tend to their children, are considered effeminate. A woman who does "man's work," shows too much independence, or stands up to men is overly masculine, "hombruna." It is easy to take the next step and declare her a man-hater and a lesbian.
"Effeminate" men and "masculine" women coincide perfectly with the popular view of homosexuals as men who are not "real" men and women who are not fully "feminine." The fact that most gay men are not effeminate, and that most lesbians are not masculine, does not affect this belief, mainly because that kind of gay individual is invisible within the culture. The mass media, for instance, pick up on the flamboyant queens and dykes who participate in gay pride parades. The vast majority of homosexuals, who are indistinguishable from straight men and women, simply don't enter into the picture.
But homophobia is not just about homosexuality; it is also about what it means to be a man or a woman. Anything that violates traditional gender stereotypes is severely sanctioned in Mexican society; therein lies the true foundation of homophobia. But this has implications that go far beyond the rejection of homosexuality, because heterosexuals are also affected by it.
As a psychotherapist specializing in homosexuality, I have been consulted many times by anxious parents terrified that their little boy is gay (at age five!): he likes to play with dolls, enjoys the company of girls, refuses to play soccer. He must be homosexual. When I ask them what they would think if their child was a little girl who liked to play baseball, enjoyed playing with boys and refused to play with dolls, they answer, "Oh, that would be fine. It's OK for a girl to be active and enjoy sports."
This is logical: in a machista society, masculinity is the central value. That is why, in Mexico today, little boys (and not little girls) are subjected to hormonal and psychological treatment, are removed from mixed schools, and are forbidden to play with girls, all in an effort to prevent them from turning out homosexual. Thus, homophobia, far from involving only homosexuals, affects everybody who does not fit into traditional gender roles.
Homosexual couples prove that it is possible to have relationships on an equal footing. Almost always, in a gay couple both men work, because men do so as a matter of course; and both women in a lesbian relationship work, simply because they don't have men to support them. The fact that both members of a couple have an income, and the autonomy that comes with work, produces an equality that is rarely seen in heterosexual Mexican marriage. Similarly, homosexual partners are generally best friends--which is rarely the case between husband and wife in a machista society.
For all of these reasons, homosexuality poses a serious threat to the ideas that underlie Mexican society. Homophobia serves not only to discriminate against homosexuals, but to keep everybody--men and women, gay and straight alike--firmly in their place.