Most of us can recognize homophobia in everyday life in certain situations: derogatory remarks, violence in newspapers, magazines, and headlines, perhaps something that has been done to us personally, like bullying, loss of a job, friends, family, or exile from communities and homes. In a lot of these cases, it is pretty clear what is happening and why. But when some of this stuff happens as a child, or can have another context put to it that makes the lines a little blurry, it’s more difficult to separate fact from fiction, and to identify behaviors and incidents for what they really are.
I have been conceptualizing this article for some time now. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to manifest it until a couple of days ago. I had an interesting conversation with an online friend about relationships. I mentioned that I now have a partner, and he (a straight male who has a crush on me) assumed this person to be another male. I informed him that in fact my partner is female. He didn’t say much about it then, but a few threads later we were discussing our high school experiences and how they shaped us and he ended up saying something to the effect of, “Don’t worry. One day you’ll meet a nice guy, settle down, get married and have kids.”
I reminded him that I had no wish to do that, that I in fact have a partner and this is the relationship I’m in now and have no gumption to project into the future, with this relationship or any other. He said my current partnership is a ‘temporary solution’ and that I shouldn’t limit myself to such a thing because I’m an intelligent woman’. Because, y’know, queer people can’t be intelligent. He also stated that lesbian couples can’t have kids, settle down or get married, because children need a father in their lives. He actually said, when I mentioned that I was quite happy with my current arrangement: “What about family? Don’t you want to have one?”
Many other things were said, but as my intention with this piece is not to vilify the person who made the remarks, and is simply to highlight the fundamental and obvious flaw in some straight thinking (because he is certainly not alone in these beliefs), I will limit the conversation to what I’ve just written. It blows my mind that, with less than a month left of 2011, and 2012 right around the corner, people still think like this. People still believe that it is okay to have same-sex flings (especially if you’re a girl, though most aren’t even okay with this idea), but things like family, commitment (with or without the gold ring, house, double garage, white picket fence and 2.5 kids), love, and basic human rights belong to the straight domain.
Up until last year I had difficulty identifying homophobic experiences in my own life, yet I couldn’t figure out why I had so much internalized hatred and loathing when I finally came out. Turns out I had a couple of pretty major ones that I never thought to include. When I was a child in the fourth grade, my family spent the year in a major city. It was the only time I’d lived in a city, and I was so excited about it. There was so much to do, and the people were different. I had friends, and they were all different, and they all enjoyed the same types of things I did. I met a girl in my townhouse complex who was my age; her younger sister was my younger sister’s age, and the four of us used to play together. Sometimes the pairs of us would split off. One time when we were playing together she kissed me, and from then on, we would find a secluded spot and we would kiss and smile and giggle and share secrets. I still remember those moments, in the shade of a great tree, with the sunlight filtering through and catching her hair, making it gleam.
Someone found out and told her mother what we were doing. She was forced to eat dish soap, allegedly for being a dirty girl, and then wasn’t allowed to speak to me again. I remember, before I knew what had happened, I went to her place, excited to see her. I knocked on the door and her mom answered and glared at me and said my friend couldn’t come play, and that she didn’t want me coming by her house anymore. In fact, she wouldn’t even allow her younger daughter to play with my sister. Her daughters both cowered behind her, looking sad and fearful. They couldn’t understand why this was happening. Either could I. One day I saw her walking home from school and, while she was afraid to be seen with me for fear of what her mother would do to her, she did manage to divulge the dish soap incident.
The following year we moved out of the city to a tiny town, and we had a hard time from the beginning. We were excluded because we weren’t ‘from’ there, weren’t born and raised there. We were ‘city folk’, which is the worst thing you can be as a transplant to a small town. It was difficult making friends, and I got burned by a lot of people, but I managed to find two girls my age to play with. We would play house, and I would be the mother and one of the other girls would be the father. We would kiss, as that’s what mothers and fathers did, it seemed to us. At first it was with a hand between our lips, so that we wouldn’t be at risk of becoming gay, and then we didn’t bother with the hand anymore, we just kissed on the lips because it seemed so silly to have the hand there. Somebody (probably the other girl who was there) started telling everyone at school that we were kissing. There was a boy in my class who had a crush on me – he used to bring me gifts: packets of gum, mixed tapes. He was the cousin of the girl I was kissing. When he found out what happened, he cornered her after school one day and broke her nose.
It turned out that the girl’s mother happened to be the stepmother of one of my friends, whom I didn’t know at the time. After I started hanging out with my friend, we would have sleepovers. The first time we spent the night at her dad’s house, her stepmother approached me (my kissing friend was also in attendance, which made the whole thing super weird) and very pointedly told me that I’d ruined her daughter’s life with my lies and that I needed to not only stay away from her daughter, but I needed to go to school and tell everyone that it wasn’t true, that it had all been a lie that we’d been kissing. I remember feeling uncomfortable. I remember thinking how weird it was that people thought it was such a big deal, but most of all I was scared. All of a sudden I had become this person who was causing so much trouble for others, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing that was so horrible.
Those are two things in my life that, until I processed them with a counselor this previous year, never occurred to me as homophobia. It seems kind of bizarre, now that I am out and openly queer, that it managed to escape my awareness for so long. I knew that what had happened to these girls was wrong but I never made the connection. It helped me to understand so much of the internalized homophobia I experienced and still experience. It also helps me to understand that, while I have no problem kissing and holding hands with my partner in public, and I think that everyone should have the right to be openly together with the person they love, the person of their choosing, I am always waiting for some kind of backlash, some kind of attack, albeit physical or verbal. Because in my experience, that’s what happens to gay people.
Let’s face it. Queer people can’t just be queer. And this is not new information. Here are some pretty typical ideas of what being queer means to a lot of people who are straight and afraid: we are also predators; we prey on people’s children; we corrupt communities and workplaces. We can’t be teachers, religious leaders or politicians, or hold any other position of authority, without being questions and criticized and undermined at every available opportunity. We can’t be many things, in the eyes of many people, because we are denied basic human rights at every turn, despite the laws that are in place to allegedly protect us.
And you don’t even have to actually be queer to receive this treatment. You can be any number of things that people of various age groups and backgrounds perceive as queer. You can have a certain haircut, talk a certain way, have certain political or personal views, listen to certain types of music, associate with specific types of people, and generally conduct your life in a way that says you oppose the current mainstream offerings. Or someone can just decide they really, really don’t like you and want to do something about it, and the most accepted platform for this type of retaliation seems to be assuming that their target is queer. This has never been more clear than with the rash of bullying-related suicides linked to anti-gay propaganda among youth and young adults in North America in the last couple of years alone.
In my hometown, the police constables have to rotate every couple of years. One year, when the new police constable arrived, his son was suspected of being queer. I don’t even know why. I never got to meet him, though he was my age, I think. It could have been anything from the fact that he was new in town (which was – and probably still is – the most popular reason for a person to be gay), to the clothes he was wearing. A few guys in town took it upon themselves to roll out the welcome mat by beating him badly enough to put him in the hospital. I’m not sure if they stuck around after that.
Homophobia is only one piece of anyone’s puzzle. Being queer is only one hat. I wear many. As a person in this world, I also live with fat panic (because ‘phobia’ just isn’t a strong enough word here), sexism, classism, ableism, and capitalism, to name a few. I am a Witch in a predominantly monotheistic culture. As a person who is openly in recovery from addiction and living with mental illness, I add to my hat collection. I am ‘out’ about all of it, because I have personally chosen this as my activism, first and foremost. I believe it’s important for people to be able to put a face on these things, to challenge their beliefs about what these things mean. I realize and support that not everyone is willing or able to make this choice in the world we live in, for any number of reasons.
There is a common misconception that we have it made here in Canada, with gay marriage and the like. Check again, people. With the results of the most recent federal election, a close friend, who married her same-sex partner within the last few years, was crushed. She was scared for her life and the life of her partner. We no longer have a government that is willing to protect our basic human rights. We can no longer take anything for granted. Same-sex marriage and equality, and the legal protection of LGBTQ people, are potentially on the chopping block, along with all the forests, riverbeds, and anything else that is sacred in this country.
How is it that we continue to go on in the face of all of this, amidst the different hats we all wear and the public perception of what it means to wear specific hats? It all seems so insurmountable oftentimes. It makes fighting seem pretty pointless, especially when one also happens to live with any form of mental illness. With my mental health as it is, I go through periods where I fight my ass off for everything I believe in, and then periods where I just have to hide from everything because I feel it bearing down on me, and homophobia eats away at me from the inside out. What can we do?
I take comfort in the little things, whenever I am able to do so. Whenever I connect with friends or family, or my partner, whenever I begin a new project, a new piece of art or writing, whenever I connect with the community gardeners, the Witches, the activists, the queer folk, the people I respect and admire from all walks of life, whenever I go outside and revel in the beauty and wonder of the natural world around me, I am able to transcend the pain and heartbreak that composes much of my daily life. Sometimes i forget that there is hope, and cannot connect to it no matter how hard I try.