13 April 2017

Why do some people beat up homosexuals?

What is behind the disgust or even violent behaviour that some people display when faced with same-sex love? We hope that the answer will come from John de Wit, Professor at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Utrecht University. Our question was prompted by a recent incident in Arnhem where two male lovers were assaulted for walking arm in arm.

'From the perspective of social sciences, the underlying question is: why do people distinguish between "them" and "us"? Many studies have addressed this notion of social categorisation or "classifying the world", which all of us do, unavoidably, in order to make sense of the world. However, we can try to change this habit in terms of the aspects we distinguish and what their meaning is.'

Why is homosexuality considered especially offensive by some?

'The usual explanation boils down to power. Dominant groups decide how a society operates, who should behave in what way and which behaviours are designated as deviant. Homosexuality is a venerable taboo across many cultures, possibly related to concerns over procreation and the survival of the species. Its cultural counterpart comprises do's and don'ts – either or not religiously informed –, institutions such as marriage and social norms.'

Are we improving?

'We've come quite a long way and have drawn a clear line that violence against homosexuals is condoned no longer. Although I'm optimistic about that aspect, there still remains the challenge of drawing in the groups at the rear of this development. To what extent have notions of equality between men and women, gays and straights taken root among especially migrant and Muslim communities? It appears that an egalitarian view of gender and sexual preference has become a veritable litmus test of Dutch citizenship. For example, young Moroccan men who feel out of place in society consider it "a matter of personal identity" to dissent from the majority view on homosexuality. This is a worry to me, as it would be an perverse effect of ostensibly good intentions.'

How is Utrecht University doing in terms of gay liberation?

'As an openly gay man, I've had little or no trouble at UU. We're generally talking about highly qualified people, who are cognisant of diversity and behold the world with an open mind. At the same time I notice that homosexuality doesn't seem to get an awful lot of attention. Any discussions about diversity mostly concern increasing the proportion of women in higher positions. I consider it important to include gay liberation as a part of the wider diversity policy.'

John de Wit is Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences: Public Health at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. He previously worked at Utrecht University in the then interfaculty working group Queer Studies and at the Department of Social and Organisational Psychology.

Text: Hanneke Olivier