Of the True Causes of Gay Panic in Authoritarian Systems of Thought
As I’ve written before, it seems strange to me that authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin or Ron DeSantis would be so invested in policing homosexuality, but it is such a persistent hallmark of strongmen’s philosophies, there must be more to it. Some folks posit that dictators need a stable social hierarchy. That might be somewhat true, but it sounds so…polite. We’re still just skimming the surface, and to understand the mind of a man like Putin or Duterte or even the deceptively genteel likes of a McConnell or Abbott, we have to be willing to go to a much darker place.
We see the world through the lens of our own internal reality. Even the basics of anatomy often dictate our fundamental assumptions about the way people experience the world around them. I’ll provide a trivial example: a woman once made a comment to me to the effect that my parents must have taught me to wipe front to back when I was potty-trained. In fact, they did not, because as a boy, I have no risk of urinary tract infections from coliform bacteria — my urethra is tucked so far away, it doesn’t matter what direction I wipe my ass. It may seem a trivial example, but it taught me that people are limited by their experiences and consciousness. In the same way, men often misunderstand female sexuality as simply a different version of male sexuality (not a radically different thing altogether), because we simply have no other frame of reference.
In a more meaningful way, we radiate out into the world around us the ulterior motives that animate us. Fathers are protective of their daughters for reason that they “know how boys are” (never mind that his precious little darling might actually want boys to be the way they are). It is in this spirit that people had posited that homophobia might be associated with homoeroticism, i.e.: the homophobic bully is papering over his own fear of being a poof in hiding. Researchers have even provided evidence for a link between the two. This is a more sublime interpretation, but still seems too benign to me. In this telling, autocrats are simply conflicted. Could a massive game of transference explain how the despots of the world move in concert to fixate on this one same thing?
It still seems a little too obvious, but it is believable. Discomfort cum fascination with homosexuality is not just the province of autocrats and thugs. It’s woven into the fabric of our societies, no matter how many episodes of “Will & Grace” or “Modern Family” might be broadcast or how accepting we become of metrosexuals. Mention imprisonment in the US and you can almost be guaranteed of hearing jokes that betray a shocking degree of awareness of and tacit endorsement of prison rape. It has its own acronym: PMITA. To triangulate a bit more, it’s interesting to note that the same stigmas do not attach to female homosexuality. Female homosexuality is viewed with titillation and encouragement, not the same mix of dread and obsession we give to male-on-male sexual activity. While we may make jokes about women’s prisons (“caged heat”), we move on rather quickly. There is no acronym for it, so far as I know.
No, what we have to acknowledge is that male sexuality and violence are inextricably connected in our minds. It’s reflected in our vernacular. “Oh, that is so fucked.” “You really fucked us on this one.” “Fuck you.” It is all tinged with malevolence, and if you need more proof consider that the act of road rage is often preceded by the middle finger, sign language for “fuck you.” The act of “getting fucked” is intrinsically a bad thing in our telling of it, despite the fact that we pursue fucking and getting fucked endlessly. Huh, I guess Andrea Dworkin wasn’t wrong after all.
I often wonder why rape as a concept is still around and not just around, but thriving. Despite seeming prohibitions against it, it is still very much with us. What do the stats say? 1-in-6 women will experience rape in their lifetime. And while we supposedly don’t like this, we also don’t riot in the streets about it. A basketball star can rape a woman in a hotel room, drag her sexual history into court until she accepts a monetary settlement in return for her silence, and when that basketball star dies, his fans will shout down anyone who mentions the plain truth: he was in all likelihood a rapist, even if he was skilled at putting a round ball through a hoop with a net.
No, rape or the threat of it must play a role in our species’ survival. If not, it would have died out a long time ago. That isn’t to say we like it consciously — clearly, we don’t — but if it didn’t provide some benefit, it would have ceased to exist in the dark corners of our brain and men would have stopped doing it well before #timesup or #metoo. That it hasn’t come to an end and that men haven’t sopped doing it says something about it. Like a virus, it has found its niche.
My hypothesis: the threat of sexual violence emerged to counter the role of female selectivity. Women have immense power of decision and discernment, which scares men. The threat of violence creates an additional incentive towards heteronormative behaviors or — more to the point — a disincentive to non-heteronormative behaviors. Carrot (intrinsic sexual attraction) meet stick (sexual violence). In a dangerous world, she has reason to find and ally herself with a man whom she trusts.
Men are sexually overt. It’s right there in the genitalia, and to take us back to the trivial example that started us down this path (aren’t you glad you’re still reading?), the mind translates the outline of the body into a spiritual landscape. Men believe they have to impose themselves on others or else God would not have given them appendages to stick in things or made them the violent beasts they so often are.
This brings me to what I think is really going on in the heads of men like Putin or DeSantis. When they invoke fear of homosexuality, what they are really doing is delivering an ingenious warning. They are implicitly threatening the men in their societies that they could be raped. They are vice-signaling. “Remember what men can do. Remember what I can do. You don’t want to be the one penetrated.” That is the subtext whenever the specter of homosexuality is dredged up through criminalization or fearmongering. They are afraid of being dominated themselves, so they stigmatize any form of homosexuality and then find value in attaching themselves to that stigmatization. While some of the value may be practical, they get a deeper salutary thrill out of it.
To a violent heterosexual man, it is impossible to imagine sex divorced from a context of hierarchy and domination. Absent the threat of male violence, homosexuality is not a problem at all. Just as the threat of rape serves a purpose in a heterosexual context, so does it in this monosexual context. It is why we should be deeply suspicious of those who resort to gay panic, same as we should be suspicious of those who identify all kinds of threats where none exist. He is betraying the fact that he is dangerous. That is the sublime, veiled purpose of gay panic in the constructs of guys like Putin, Kadyrov, and yes — sniveling little wannabes like DeSantis.