In October 2017, Donald Trump joked that Mike Pence wanted to hang all gay people. The reactions were typical yet disappointing. Rather than mass outrage at casual jokes about genocide, people on the internet were quick to turn to the tired, overused joke that Mike Pence only feels this way because he himself is secretly gay and represses these feelings or only acts on them in secret.
This is a common trope with respect to homophobia. Homophobes are assumed to be repressing internalized homophobia and squashing down their own secret gay feelings. Sometimes this is meant as a joke, and other times this is intended as a serious sociological statement. They are often said by those who believe themselves to be allies to gay people. However, these jokes or statements are ultimately homophobic.
Mocking a disliked figure for their supposed gay identity turns being gay into the butt of the joke and something worth being ashamed of. On the most basic level, it is a homophobic joke for assuming homosexuality is something worthy of shame and mockery. Further, the belief that homophobes are secretly gay turns the attention away from how homophobia is systemic, detracting attention from how heterosexuals oppress homosexuals. Joking that Mike Pence is secretly gay turns the villain of the story into another gay person. Suddenly, it is not a heterosexual as the oppressor. It becomes easier for heterosexuals to stomach a situation if they are not painted as the oppressor and if those that they hold implicit biases against are painted in a negative light. Even allies hold implicit biases and will be more comfortable with associating gay with villain than straight with villain. It is difficult to stand seeing oneself reflected in the oppressor.
Believing that Mike Pence wants to kill gay people because he is secretly gay turns the acts of oppression he has committed into “gay on gay” crime. Suddenly this becomes an issue that gay people must deal with among themselves rather than an issue that requires collective action from heterosexuals. It becomes an issue among a minority group, i.e. a “small issue” rather than a large-scale issue of a dominant group enacting violence against a minority group. Making the villain into another gay person implies that heterosexuals are not responsible for the oppression. It distracts from discussion of how heterosexuals systemically oppress gay people.
These sorts of jokes are often made by allies who mean well and don’t have ill intent- so how can they be homophobic? One does not need to have explicitly homophobic motivations in order for their actions to be prejudiced. Downplaying the systemic issue that needs addressing, e.g. Mike Pence’s alleged desire to hang gay people, and painting gay people as the source of their own oppression, is a homophobic act.