(I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to write a post on my personal experiences with homophobia. And so…here it is. Don’t expect too many of these kinds of posts, though. I want to get back to books and science fiction and fantasy and other such things.)
I’ve made fun of gay people in my life. True, much of the fun-making was done when I was an ignorant, culturally-conditioned young person who didn’t understand that, well, gay people are just people. But I don’t think that excuses me in full. I contributed to homophobic bigotry in my youth. I still sometimes say things like “that’s gay” or “you’re gay,” though I have thankfully removed the word “faggot” from my vocabulary (except when I jokingly call someone a “faggot” and then remind them that it means a “cigarette”). Change didn’t really come for me until my mother came out to us (my sister, my brother, and myself). I don’t really remember that moment, to be honest, but I recall kind of shrugging about it (internally more than externally). My mother is gay. So what?
And then the gay rights movement got in full swing. Maybe it had always been in full swing and we just hadn’t noticed it in the small town of Placerville, California (where we all eventually moved a year or so after my mother “came out”). I don’t know. But once I knew that my mother was gay, I also knew that a lot of the things I had done in my younger years (and was still doing at that time) were, at the very least, problematic (and, at the worst, offensive). I never hurt any gay people physically, because I have never been one for violence, but I know I hurt
many people, gay or otherwise, by calling them names (I say “gay or otherwise” because I don’t know if any of the people I called “faggot” or “gay” were gay — they were usually those on the lower end of the social scale from where I stood, which was pretty damn low on that scale in the first place). And when my mother said she was gay and started bringing around other gay people, male and female, it brought home not only the need for personal reflection, which I was pretty poor at in my high school years, but also the bigotry and hatred so many gay people experience day in and day out.
It started with a group whose name I have thankfully forgotten who used to park what they called “Truth Trucks” by the side of the highway (Placerville has three stoplights on H50, which is a fairly major highway in the Foothills above the Central Valley). The group would sit out there on the side of the road waving their signs, which are variations on things like this:
But standing on the side of the road wasn’t enough for these people. They also stood outside elementary schools handing out pamphlets to little kids, inside of which were various explanations for why Jesus hates homosexuals, what will happen to people who support them (or are them), and so forth. Shortly after, the city passed a non-binding resolution to make Placerville a “No Hate Zone.” I say non-binding because they could not actually enforce the “zone” because that would be a violation of the 1st Amendment. But it set a tone for the debate in El Dorado County and had an impact on California’s fight for equality, however small.
That’s when things got nasty. The “Truth Trucks” people didn’t like the “No Hate Zone” resolution, and they set out in full force to protest the passage. And so did we — my mother and siblings and a good chunk of the gay people in the county. We stood out there on the side of the road cheering for honks from cars. And we tried to ignore when the “Truth Trucks” people yelled at us or people in cars screamed obscenities or threw half-empty cups of soda at friends and supporters. When the skinheads showed up (no joke), things didn’t get much better. There were debates, screams, condemnations, and violent rhetoric, along with large influx of police officers (who, thankfully, acted as one would expect them to act — like they deserved the badges on their belts).
I learned some time later that my brother was told he would burn in hell because our mother was gay (at a protest I couldn’t attend). Someone I worked with told me he didn’t want gay people teaching his kids because he didn’t want them to turn out queer (I got really upset and told him off; he apologized later for upsetting me, which was nice, but that didn’t really fix the issue). I know worse things were said to my mother, who attended many Gay Pride events in her slightly younger years, and participated in a few protests.
When the protests “ended,” the “Truth Trucks” people didn’t. I had to drive past the “Truth Trucks” almost every single day for work. On MLK Day, they would hold up signs saying he didn’t support gay rights (when in fact he did, to a certain degree, having retracted earlier comments he made about gay people in his life; but using his words is really unfair, considering they are nearly 50 years old). Then I moved out of Placerville and things improved, in large part because Santa Cruz is where the Hippy Revolution went to be immortal. There were protesters in town, but I never saw them. Rather, I was surrounded, for the most part, by people who supported gay rights. It was a town where marching for what was right occurred frequently.
And it continued: friends of mine were called names, and only by then did I understand the impact those words had on gay people (I had no gay friends when I was younger, but after my mother came out, I met more gay people and befriended some of them). Another friend had numerous altercations with her father, some of which boiled down to “you’re barely my daughter because you’re barely human.” The website I run for young writers has a strong gay membership. Two of them experienced things I can’t comprehend because I’ve never had my sexuality questioned. The first still has to deal with his mother thinking that his gayness is somehow connected to sexual promiscuity (even though he’s opposed to such things himself). The other went through weeks of torment wondering what would happen if he came out to his family, and even more torment when people at school started to suspect he was gay, while others found out the truth and spread it around.
Many of the early stuff turned me away from religion. The “Truth Trucks” were bad enough, but it was the apprehension by other churches to get involved (i.e., to take a stand) that was the catalyst that pushed me away from faith altogether (I was already losing it at the time; I just needed a nudge). At times, I’ve been downright hostile to religion, in large part because the kinds of people I routinely conversed with who were religious were of the radical anti-gay camp. Some of my fierce anti-religion rhetoric died down as I got older (it feels something like what many feminist women must experience when they’ve repeated the same arguments “for” or “against” something enough times to go cross-eyed). I’m still critical, but I try to keep that oriented towards the “church” rather than the people (and like all human beings, I fail at such things).
The fact that I didn’t experience many of the above incidences personally only points to my sexual privilege: being heterosexual. But the people above are people I care about. Many are friends and family, and I’ve seen first hand a lot of the things that others do to hurt them. They are, in many respects, people with a strength I can’t imagine. It’s unlikely I’ll ever get jumped in an alley or have someone spit in my face or have my rights trampled on, left and right. Few people would be inclined to video tape me in relations with my girlfriend and post it on the Internet to show the world how “abnormal” I am. Or tie a noose around my neck and drag me behind a truck. Or gang rape me to “learn me the right way.” I will always be sexually privileged, and I know that’s not fair.
I may not be gay, but having a gay mother and meeting gay people, old and young, and getting to know them as people has made it clear to me that there isn’t a difference between us. They love just like anyone else.
What inspired me to write this post? Emotion, if I’m being honest. In many (most) respects, the issue of gay rights is an emotional one for me. I can’t bring myself to divorce emotion from gay rights, because I have an intimate connection to it. I may not know what gay people feel inside when people trample on them, but I still can’t help getting upset when someone proposes a law that directly targets them or says something ignorant about them or links them to pedophilia or whatever. Because I think about the people I know and the ways in which words and laws and so on affect them, and, by proxy, affect me. I don’t like it. You wouldn’t like it either…
What is your experience with homophobia? Let me know in the comments!
(A disclaimer in the form of a clarification: I in no way pretend that what I experienced, however personal, in any way reflects or stands up to what actual gay people (and transgender, queer, etc. folks) experience face-to-face. In all honesty, I can’t comprehend how they feel when someone screams in their face or tells them they are going to burn in hell or beats them to a pulp or rapes them or publicly humiliates them or even threatens to kill them, among other awful kinds of abuse, verbal, emotional, and physical. While I have been bullied and can imagine what such things are like for gay people, I will always be outside of that experience in large part because I am heterosexual and little more than a staunch supporter of gay rights. Much of what I have experienced from the homophobic sphere cannot match up to what gay people feel. I just hope that people who read this post will think my experiences valid. Even more so, I hope that someone tells me I’m being ridiculous by offering a disclaimer at all…)