Why “no homo” is homophobic (in case you somehow missed it)

Interestingly, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has recently given me a number of reasons to pay attention to what’s happening in professional sports. I don’t really know what games are being played, but I have been paying attention to the discourses circulating about homosexuality in an arena in which conservative norms of machismo masculinity have long been dominant. First, in late April a player, Jason Collins, revealed that he was gay. Reactions were generally positive and welcoming of his identity. Then on Saturday, Roy Hibbert (another player) used a homophobic slur (“homo”) in a press conference. He apologized and was fined by the NBA.

Hibbert has acknowledged that his use of the term was “not appropriate in any setting, private or public”. However, many people have questioned whether Hibbert’s “no homo” comment, which is a common phrase used to distance oneself from homosexuality (check out this video on it) is actually offensive. I maintain that the phrase is, and I’ll show you why.

We can use Hibbert’s use of the phrase as an example to illustrate how it is used. Mark Liberman at Language Log has provided a helpful transcription as well as video of the comment and its surrounding context. In this transcription Hibbert explains his performance in the game as he is playing defense. Paul is a member of Hibbert’s team, and LeBron [James] is a member of the opposition that Hibbert was defending against.

I- I don’t block a lot of shots all the time
but you know I try to alter as much as possible
not to give up any uh easy plays because you know
the momentum could have shifted right there if he got an easy dunk and
you know uh
you know there was what, game- what was it- game three here?
I really felt that I let Paul [George] down in terms of
having his back
whether LeBron was scoring in the post or
getting to the paint because he was stretching me out so much
no homo
and uh- and uh- {laughs}
but you know I want to be there for him
you know he’s the future
I mean I think he has the chance to be mvp of this league next year
you know uh every- every guard needs to have a big guy to have his back
so you know I- I’m that guy

We can see in the transcript that the phrase occurs after Hibbert says that LeBron James (another player) “was stretching me out”. In the context of what Hibbert is saying, it’s clear that he’s discussing how James was proving difficult to defend against. There is little chance that genuine miscommunication would occur here and that we would actually think that Hibbert intended to imply that something sexual occurred between him and James.

So how is this homophobic? The use of “no homo” in this context and in others propagates an ideology that positions homosexuality and gay men as inferior to heterosexuality or heterosexual men. Specifically, it represents homosexuality as socially undesirable.

In order to understand this, we have to think about the context of the phrase. We know that it’s unlikely that anyone would be genuinely misled into thinking that Hibbert had suddenly switched from talking about basketball to talking about a homosexual encounter. We also know that Hibbert is a player in the NBA, a club that includes a grand total of one openly gay man. We can also then safely assume that the default assumption for a person in Hibbert’s (or James’) position is that he is a heterosexual man. Since the default assumption is that Hibbert and James are straight, and since there is nothing genuinely misleading about his words, why does Hibbert then choose to clear up a miscommunication that he seemingly manufactures all by himself?

The only way we can make the “no homo” phrase relevant within the context is if we assume that a heterosexual man needs to be constantly on alert for every possible shred of evidence that he is a homosexual  (however weak or clearly concocted that evidence might be). Why though would a heterosexual man need to be on constant alert for possible misinterpretations of his sexuality when he is a member of the vastly better represented group?

The most plausible explanation is that he needs to do so because as Deborah Cameron points out in her essay, “Performing gender identity” heterosexual men use homosexuality as a way of questioning the masculinity of other heterosexual men (and homosexual men as well). The label “homo”, far from always meaning the person engages in homosexual acts, often refers instead to the idea that the person engages in behavior that is being presented by the speaker as inconsistent with “being a man”. In a context in which anything can be construed as outside the norms of “being a man” (including saying something that could be intentionally misinterpreted by a peer as implying some type of sexual relationship with another man), we can provide explanation for why Hibbert chose to manufacture and then clear up the unlikely miscommunication so that he could distance himself from homosexuality.

Saying “no homo” at various times may be motivated by perceived threats to one’s claim to heterosexuality or masculinity. Indeed, it may have been that one of Hibbert’s teammates would have later joked about how Hibbert was “a homo” because he said LeBron James was “stretching [him] out” had Hibbert not quickly said “no homo” to deny the accusation (although this seems unlikely). It may have been that he just thought it was an amusing double entendre, and he wanted to point it out. Whatever the case, in using “no homo”, he drew on a phrase that is used to deny the idea that one is a homosexual (however misguided that accusation might be).

The only explanations for why anyone could possibly feel the need to deny this idea when there has been no actual miscommunication about the person’s identity would be (a) that the identity is highly stigmatized and the person is deeply insecure about being seen as a homosexual or (b) that the person is actively feigning potential miscommunication in order to create opportunities for belittling homosexuals. Both of these explanations obviously have their roots in homophobia and as such the use of “no homo” propagates a homophobic ideology.

What does it mean to propagate a homophobic ideology? I’ve seen many people say that they know people who are not homophobes who use “no homo” in this manner, because it’s just a funny joke to them. Setting aside the possibility that these people are being intentionally ironic in order to critique the “no homo” fad itself (a friend of mine suggested that it would be hilarious if he, a homosexual man, said “my fiance (another man) and I are going to get married this summer, no homo”), even if the person has no desire to limit the rights and freedoms of homosexuals, this does not change the homophobic nature of “no homo”. The person might have voted against a ban on same-sex marriage. They may think the Westboro Baptist Church is an evil institution (which it is). They may even have gay friends. None of these things changes the fact that “no homo” propagates homophobia. That does not mean that the person who says these things is forever a homophobe. It doesn’t even really mean they’re a homophobe in the moment they say it. It just means that like everyone else this person still harbors beliefs and discourses that result from their socialization into our cultures.

For most of us, one unfortunate aspect of our cultures is the dominance of homophobia; many of us are working to rectify this now, and hopefully someday we’ll live in a world where the idea that homosexual men and women are just as good as heterosexual men and women is the “common sense” assumption that children are raised with. For now, that is not the case, and we will all (myself included) continue to say things at times that are homophobic, racist, sexist, and generally bigoted. What we need to do is acknowledge it (like Roy Hibbert did, props to him).

Pretending as though what we said isn’t propagating homophobia is a form of gas-lighting. It’s telling the people who have been hurt by our words that their interpretations of our words are wrong, that they’re crazy to think that what we just said is homophobic (which as we’ve seen is a huge crock of crap). Another thing we often do in these situations is tell people they’re being “overly sensitive”. When someone is the target of an ideology that propagates harmful ideas about them, their negative responses are absolutely justifiable. We all expect people to treat us with dignity and respect, and when they fail to do this, it is normal and healthy for us to expect that they rectify the situation. What is not normal and not healthy is to absorb constant abuse (in the form of things like the “no homo” fad) and simply allow it to happen to us. We also often look for a target of our discourse to confirm that what we’re saying is not in fact hurtful. We look for a homosexual who says “no homo” doesn’t hurt them. However, we forget that there are many reasons why someone would deny that these things bother them. Most importantly, it’s understandable that people might want to appear unharmed by the words we say, because they don’t want to give their bullies any more power than they already have.

In the end then, “no homo” is a way of propagating homophobia. If you say it and you don’t think of yourself as a homophobe, then stop saying it, maybe even apologize to your homosexual friends. If you do think of yourself as a homophobe, well… here’s hoping you don’t procreate!

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Posted in Ideology and social change
6 comments on “Why “no homo” is homophobic (in case you somehow missed it)
  1. Tim Hardaway says:

    I completely disagree. No homo is not inherently homophobic, although it can become so. In this context it was not. No homo is a phrase that points out a possible double meaning, in the same way as “that’s what she said”. It is merely a coincidence (usually) that the double meaning happens to be homosexual in nature, since he said it and not “she”. I think that the post and the reaction to the Roy Hibbert comment does the opposite of it’s intention, actually setting back the “gay cause” or whatever you want to call it. We need to be able to use words without the assumption being that there was an offensive meaning. The meaning of the phrase no homo is, has and always will be that the previous statement was not homoSEXUAL (not that it was not HOMOsexual).

  2. Chandra says:

    Can you not see the glaring difference here? “That’s what she said” jokingly implies that a (hetero)sexual encounter DID take place, whereas “no homo” specifically and emphatically proclaims that a homosexual encounter DID NOT take place. This is not incidental. It is precisely because homosexuality is disfavoured in our society. It is rooted in homophobia and perpetuates negative connotations about gay people, whether or not a particular speaker intends it that way, and whether or not you personally take it that way.

    Also, if you are not gay yourself, you do not get to decide what gay people consider offensive. If you are, you do not get to speak for all gay people as a group. Most DO find it offensive.

  3. nsubtirelu says:

    Tim, I’ve already addressed much of what you’ve said in the original post, and Chandra has also elaborated nicely on some of it. I wanted to just respond with what I think are a couple of important questions here.

    First, if as you assert “The meaning of the phrase no homo is, has and always will be that the previous statement was not homoSEXUAL (not that it was not HOMOsexual),” then why does the slur “homo” make an appearance in the phrase (why is the phrase not “not sexual”)? Your explanation apparently is that it’s just a random coincidence. That seems unlikely given that we know homosexuality/gayness is used in precisely this stigmatized manner in other contexts “you’re such a fag/homo” (for both homosexuals and non-homosexuals), “that’s so gay” (for example for non-animate entities), etc.

    In addition, you seem to be arguing that there’s no intended homophobia in the phrase. I wonder to what extent that really matters. Can we not intend to do one thing and in the process unintentionally do another thing?

  4. Tim Hardaway says:

    OK, I don’t completely disagree with what you are both saying but i see some basic logical flaws in what you are saying. First please not that i am not propagating homophobia, in fact, quite the opposite. My point it that attitudes such as yours can be counterproductive to your efforts.

    Chandra: you say that I can’t speak for all gay people (not sure how I was doing that) but then you say “most DO find it offensive”- see what you did there (you spoke for most of them…have you personally met most of them?)

    Back to the point: I’m not disputing that the phrase can be offensive in the right context and with the right intent. I do however, strongly disagree with the proposition that it is inherently or intrinsically homophobic.

    If we look back at the original meaning- you both imply that the phrase is homophobic in nature. The phrase is used when something with a possibly homosexual undertone has been said, usually humorously, as both speaker and listener tend to know that no sexual advance has actually been made.
    But- sexual ADVANCE is the key. The phrase is used to mean- I’m not coming on to you, flirting etc.

    Let’s look at that closer. The speaker is saying to the listener- that last statement was not a sexual advance towards you. If anything the implication is that it COULD have been such an advance since homosexual encounters are common and acceptable– but it was not, it was not a flirtatious or sexually motivated. You both seem to think that the phrase is some kind of pat on the back to each other saying- we are both superior to homosexuals. How would that even make the slightest bit of sense? Just out of nowhere to say- I’m better than gay people? That’s not just incorrect- it’s totally ridiculous. You can google the origin of the phrase to see that in no context has it ever meant- I’m just going to randomly declare myself superior to homosexuals.

    To recap that point- the phrase actually means: Homosexuality is so main stream that I don’t want you to be confused into thinking that I am attracted to you, since it is in the realm of possibility that I could be. (were homosexuality not so main stream, the phrase would be useless).

    Here’s my problem with your efforts. To me this somewhat similar to the misguided effort to use gender neutral terms. For example- we can’t say waitress or waiter- it’s “server”. Or we can’t say actress- it’s female actor (that’s better??). It’s silly and counterproductive. The implication is that a waitress is inferior to a waiter…but who ever said that? I’ll tell you who said it: not the person saying “waitress” but the person saying that we need to use a gender neutral term. Can you see that?

    What this opens the door to is even more abuse. If we look at racism and sexism for example: there are certainly people that have done a lot for better race relations as well as for feminism. However, there are also those that would say they are fighting racism but are actually engaging in reverse racism (which btw is an oxymoron, but that’s another topic). You can use an anti racism cloak but actually be a black supremacist etc. Same thing with feminism. Most truly want equality but a few are female supremacists, who are engaging in the behavior they claim to dislike.

    I realize that your efforts are noble here but my point with the examples above is what happens when we go to extremes. This Roy Hibbert situation is case in point. Was it inappropriate- yes. Immature- yes. Homophobic- absolutely not, in any way. If you look at the context- he had just called the media collectively “motherf***ers” and followed it with “i don’t care if I get fined” so he was already planning on being fined and was just ranting in a frustrated and immature way. By turning HIM into the bad guy- you misdirect your efforts away from the real bad guy, whoever that may be. That doesn’t just apply to him, i mean it in the more general sense of starting a witch hunt against the phrase “no homo”.

    If it were just a waste of time- fine I would let it go. But it’s not just a waste of time- it’s counterproductive. Homophobia is already being fought extremely aggressively and this type of argument is the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. Quit while you’re ahead.

  5. nsubtirelu says:

    Tim,

    I think I’ll start with a couple of rather important points about language in general here. I am not arguing that “no homo” is “inherently or intrinsically homophobic”. That is not how language works. Language makes meaning through intention AND interpretation of conventionalized cultural signs. Although you’ve focused on intention, you’re failing to make note of interpretation. While it does matter what someone intends (not that we can really figure that out since it’s not at all surprising that people would claim not to intend to be offensive when they’re called out on it), it is not the only aspect that is relevant to the creation of meaning. Hence saying that people don’t intend to be homophobic is nice and all (if it’s true, which I am often skeptical of), but it doesn’t remove the problem. We can be ignorant of the reason why a phrase perpetuates an ideology (and even have no desire to spread it) and still spread that ideology regardless by participating in the socialization of others into that ideology.

    This is not the same as saying the phrase (or any aspect of language) “inherently or intrinsically” means anything. It’s possible that “no homo” could be used in a way that didn’t propagate homophobia through reclaiming or resisting (and I’ve given an example in the original post above). It’s also theoretically possible that the word could simply be a cultural relic of a time when we hated this one group of people who we hardly even notice anymore (not likely, and we obviously don’t currently live in that time, but in theory it’s possible — look at the etymology of “barbarian”). However, I don’t see any evidence for the first suggestion (that Hibbert was reclaiming the word). The second suggestion that “homo” simply refers to homosexuals in an oblique but no longer relevant way (like the original meaning of barbarian, not that the word is now a compliment or anything) also seems unlikely given that one need only walk by a middle school to hear the word shouted as an insult.

    Getting on to your analysis of “no homo”, you say first that: “The phrase is used when something with a possibly homosexual undertone has been said, usually humorously, as both speaker and listener tend to know that no sexual advance has actually been made”. So here you say both listener and speaker know that no sexual advance has been made. I agree with your first assessment of the situation (we didn’t actually think there was any mention of sex; it was a joke). However, you then say “If anything the implication is that it COULD have been such an advance since homosexual encounters are common and acceptable”. This seems contradictory not to mention far-fetched. You seem to be saying that there’s such a high likelihood that someone might have legitimately and innocently thought (as opposed to purposefully to tease Hibbert) that Roy Hibbert meant that Lebron James was stretching him out in a sexual sense that it really needed to be cleared up; you’d need to provide some type of evidence as to how we would be misled into this interpretation given that the context from what I can tell is pretty clearly about basketball. I would say I prefer your initial assessment of the situation that we all know there’s no actual confusion, but it’s a common form of humor to point out unintended double meanings. Given that there is only one openly homosexual man in the NBA, the claim that “homosexual encounters are common and acceptable” in this context makes little sense

    The problem here, however, isn’t that Roy Hibbert was engaging in humor, it’s that he was engaging in humor at the expense of a stigmatized group. He’s engaging in a type of practice whereby showing that he’s not a homosexual he gets to assert his manliness since the “no homo” practice (along with other practices like it, calling other men “fairies” or “fags” or what have you) defines manliness through an exclusively heterosexual lens. Hence, the homophobic aspect of the practice as a contextually performed cultural phenomenon (not an intrinsic aspect of the phrase).

    Finally, you’ve said that I’m “turning [Hibbert] into a bad guy”. I would say I’m doing no such thing. He apologized almost immediately in a way that I’m quite satisfied with. I have no quarrel with him. He said something stupid; we all say stupid things. I’m not at all ready to start a “witch hunt” over this minor slip-up, but that doesn’t mean we should let it pass. In fact, I’m presenting Hibbert’s use of the phrase only as an example not an indictment. However, the language we use is a huge aspect of our socialization. Ensuring that it reflects our highest ideals is an important task.

  6. […] claim shouldn’t cause offense because it’s “just a joke”. (If you agree, there’s a great post over at Linguistic Pulse that you should […]

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