On Patriarchy and Homophobia

Or, “RTFM, NOOB.”

isaacs
I. M. H. O.
Published in
5 min readOct 16, 2013

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Disclaimer: What follows is my own opinion, and not necessarily the opinion of anyone else. I’m not a thoroughly educated student of feminist studies or queer issues, but I try to think these things through, and I have read a few books and had some really great friends who’ve taught me a lot.

In reaction to this awesome tweet, the question came up: What does patriarchy have to do with homophobia?

I think this is a pretty reasonable question, albeit a naive one, which is impossible to answer in a 140 char response. Since people talking about feminism on the internet tend to be flooded by demands to be educated by people who can’t be bothered to educate themselves, the reaction to such a request tends to be rather curt, at best, if not outright hostile. Since the asker may be asking for the first time, they usually interpret this as the equivalent of “RTFM, NOOB”.

I get it. I get sick of explaining to people why atheists are not immoral, or why a single thread per request in an HTTP server is not always the best plan. So, I don’t exactly condone hostility, but noob, srsly, from the bottom of my heart and with all due compassion, please rtfm. Understand that some bona fide trolls DO use the “you must explain this to me right here and now or else you are wrong!” tactic to annoy and distract from genuine conversations, and dismissing your 101 question is not an attempt to hurt you, it’s a simple matter of self preservation. Since I don’t field this question often, I’m not sick of it yet, and hopefully anyone out there who knows more than me can point out any places where they think I’m off base.

Here’s the thing. “Patriarchy” is in my opinion a pretty terrible choice of words for what it means in feminist discourse. In common parlance, “matriarchy” and “patriarchy” refer to ways of organizing society. “Patriarchy” is, literally, “father-rule”, and “matriarchy” is “mother-rule”. Patriarchal societies are ruled by the men, and matriarchal societies are ruled by the women. You can also talk about “patriarchal naming” (like most western societies use), and so on. This follows the etymological pattern of oligarchy, monarchy, pentarchy, and other rulership shapes.

However, in feminist discourse, “patriarchy” is more like a set of ideologies and memes, which together combine to enforce specific arbitrary gender roles and attitudes about what sorts of behavior and roles are “appropriate” for each gender. It is more like “oppressive gender meme”-archy than “father”-archy.

As I understand it, the etymology of the word in this context literally comes from the belief that a woman is the property of her father, until she is sold to her husband, who is the father of her new family, and cares for her like a father. Hence “patriarchy”. This is the traditional gender role that modern feminism rebels against, which strips females of their agency. “Patriarchy” is the word that stuck, so here we are. Don’t nitpick the spelling; use the concept.

A bit outside the scope of this question, I’d argue that patriarchy oppresses and limits men as well in many significant ways that reduce our excellence and capacity for joy, happiness, and self-exploration. If nothing else, viewing half of our society as not fully persons certainly limits the number of valuable friendships we can have. Of course, as status quos go, we’re a lot better off under patriarchy than anyone else is, what with the money and the power and the entitlement and the rights and such.

So, what does this have to do with homophobia?

On the surface, in many cases, possibly nothing. It’s certainly common for someone to be extremely patriarchal in their attitudes, and yet fine with gay men being together. An extreme case of patriarchy may even be quite compatible with male homoeroticism; one might view women as empty non-persons who exist only for the service of men and children, while other men are the proper vehicle for romantic intimacy, since they actually have thoughts and opinions. (Eg, the bisexuality of the model citizen in classical Greece.)

This can be seen in some attitudes about bisexuality, in particular. For example, “all women are bisexual for the pleasure of men, but bisexual men are closeted gays”. Or in expectations that gay couples follow “traditional” gender roles within their couple. For example, “which one of you is the ‘mom’ and which one is the ‘dad’?”

Lest we make the opposite mistake: Some straight women may engage in bisexuality for the pleasure of their male partners and that’s fine if they’re into that. Some men who claim to be bisexual may in fact be gay and we should give them space to figure their sexuality out in their own time. Some same-sex couples do follow traditional gender roles and that’s great if they enjoy that.

The point isn’t that any of these things are wrong. Having a family where the mom cooks and cares for kids while the dad goes to work and manages the finances with stoic detachment, is not, in itself, patriarchy. However, limiting our views of men, women, families, and relationships, to these proscribed roles, is exactly patriarchy. Feminism isn’t about undoing happy families and people comfortable in their gender roles, it’s about empowering people to choose the types of families and gender roles that suit them.

While patriarchy may not be fundamentally connected to homophobia and transphobia, patriarchal attitudes do tend to resist changes to social norms which upset the limits set by traditional gender roles; fluidity of gender and sexuality certainly do upset those limits.

For example, a transwoman may be viewed as a man, and expected to act like a man, until she has The Operation, and becomes a “real” woman. This “one way or the other” approach can be compatible with a patriarchal view: she switched teams, but at all times is on a team.

Well, perhaps that transwoman prefers to keep her penis, and on Saturdays, she enjoys putting on a suit and a fake mustache and talking in a deep voice, and being called “Davey” (but still “she” and “her”). What then? A resistance to her fluid expression of gender is transphobia, and is also patriarchy.

Or, a person may be homosexual, but not at all interested in one partner being the “man” and another being the “woman”. Maybe they’re really butch, and they are into other really butch people. Or maybe 2 men and a woman have a loving, intimate, triangular marriage. So what? The insistence that homosexuality (or bi- or pan-, etc) is ok only if you can kind of squint and see the heteronormative gender roles in it, is homophobia and bi-erasure, and is also patriarchy.

The claim that “you can’t be homophobic if you’re gay” is patently false, just as you can be female and misogynist, or trans and transphobic, or bi and bi-erasure-ist (warning: I think I invented that word just now). And certainly, you can be any of those things, and also a complicit victim of patriarchy. Humans are absurdly complicated, and very difficult to reason about!

I hope this clears up the matter a bit, if only to help show that it’s exceedingly un-simple.

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