The everlasting effects of homophobia and why it's not just gay people that suffer
I am a man. In September of 2015 I married another man. Something I never thought possible in my youth. Something I never thought I would allow myself to do for one simple reason: homophobia – internalized to the Nth degree. Declaring my love and kissing a man in public, in front of my family… was my worst fear for a time. The moment I publicly said "I do" was a personal triumph, putting aside decades of hiding, fear and self consciousness in the name of love. I had done it. I had overcome my big gay demons for good.
In January of 2016 I went on my honeymoon. My new husband Jeff and I went to Hawaii, a generous gift from my parents. They sent us to a timeshare at a first class resort overflowing with amenities. It immediately became clear that in terms of demographics… we were a deviation from the norm. We were surrounded by white haired retirees and young heterosexual families with screaming, running children. My husband Jeff is so good at talking to people it didn't matter, he was striking up conversations with 75 year olds over margaritas and having a great time doing it. Plus, if we needed a break from the crowd we could walk down to the ocean, take a deep breath and listen to the whales sing underwater. There was no complaining.
Near the end of our trip we decided to attend a luau. We couldn't get into the high demand luau off site so we settled on the second string hotel luau. Even a passing thought of it jolts it back into the present. Seated at a large round table with strangers from America's 'Bible Belt' I am already a bit nervous. I feel them looking at Jeff and I, trying to figure out what the deal is. On stage a male performer, a local in a grass skirt, starts making misogynistic jokes. The crowd laughs uproariously. My discomfort increases. I'm familiar with this sense of humour and the personalities and belief systems that go with it – a relic from my small town childhood. I feel something familiar creeping in, my internal clock stops ticking and time slows. The grand finale comes – "anyone who is on your honeymoon stand up." It's time to slow dance amongst the torches. I freeze. The trauma I carry spiders across my chest. The dark passenger I thought I had finally locked in the trunk on my wedding day was back in the driver's seat. I feel like every pair of eyes in the room is on me. I remain seated as I watch my husband's heart break. I know I'm hurting him but I'm paralyzed. I can't expose my gayness here. Not here. It's not safe. I know I'm ruining our honeymoon and I am powerless to stop it. Jeff can see what's happening. He's seen it before. It doesn't make it less hurtful.
The road to this moment started long before. Sitting around a packed table in the early 90's on a Sunday it was a usual post-church luncheon at my grandmother's house. That side of my family, my father's side, was always boisterous and funny. This Sunday was no different. I had recently gone to Canada's Wonderland and bought one of those custom rings where they carve your name into the band while you wait. I had sprained my right ring finger playing basketball so I wore it on the left. During the conversation my grandmother stopped as it caught her eye. "Why are you wearing that on your finger? Did you get married and not tell us?" My reply: "No, it has my name on it, it reminds me not to get married." (I was a recent child of divorce, I thought it a topical and timely joke). Her response: "What are you some kind of fa**ot!?" Silence. I was 12 or 13 at the time. I don't remember if I understood what the word truly meant but the sentiment was clear – being a "fa**ot" was not an option.
Homophobia wasn't confined to my family gatherings, it was pervasive in the culture of my small Ontario town. The F word became the go-to insult between boys as my cohort aged. The most common logic on solving the "gay problem" was: "If we put all the gays on an island and shot them there would be no more gays" (because straight people don't ever raise gay people?). The result for me… I became a closeted gay man with some capital D Denial coupled with some capital D Distraction and capital D Depression.
The greatest hits of my adolescence:
- Unnecessarily hurting several girls with no gaydar by dating them to maintain social development checkpoints;
- Distracting from my hidden gayness with outrageous try-hard academic achievement;
- Running until I lost a toenail to win Athlete of the Year;
- Avoiding alcohol fearing revelations resulting from lost inhibition;
- No Capital D D*ck though. None.
I was a textbook Best Little Boy in the World.
I also absorbed and internalized every anti-gay sentiment I heard. I agreed with the flawed logic inside and out. I held onto the insistence I was straight as long as I possibly could until finally, in first year university, my psyche cracked in two and exploded like a dark horror movie version of a Skittles commercial (tasting the rainbow really set me off). The following years were difficult but I worked hard and spent a lot of time in therapy to become confident in my sexual identity. Eventually I met a man I loved. He challenged me. He helped me heal. I married him.
But despite an abundance of love and hard work one fact remains: as I learned in Hawaii, my homophobic dark passenger is with me for life. I would love to write that homophobia holds no power over me and make this an empowering inspirational article about the power of love and positivity but it would be a lie. Some gay people are better than others at shelving it… but the fact remains that if you've been the target of homophobia it's always there on the shelf. It speaks to the pervasive power of shame, and homophobia is all about shame. But there is a part of homophobia that is often overlooked: it can deeply affect the homophobic as well.
A lot of homophobia is the result of miseducation. Once people are educated on the subject, or a close family member or friend humanizes homosexuality their views often change. However, much like the victims of their anti-gay assaults, for the perpetrators in these stories, a homophobic past can become an excruciating sore spot in their personal history too. My parents certainly held some homophobic beliefs, as did the majority of the town I grew up in. It was a thoughtless part of the culture's fabric and they were steeped in it from birth. Thankfully for me, their minds opened when they found out their son was gay but those past beliefs undoubtedly haunt them to this day.
A few years after I came out I had lunch with my father in Toronto. He's always been a bit more awkward than unaccepting when it came to my sexuality. As I sat across from him he relayed a perplexing story. At the garage he worked in, during lunch hour in a predominately male lunchroom in aforementioned small town Ontario, one of his colleagues made a homophobic remark and he froze. There was no defending his gay son, no calling out the bigotry. At first I was angry at his response. Why wouldn't he stand up for me? Why would he even tell me this story with no happy ending? A potential moment of redemption seemed so glaringly obvious. Then something became suddenly clear to me. He too was saddled with shame. The culture he still lived in, the culture I moved away from, filled him too with fear of rejection and mockery. It was like this bizarre conversation was an apology and an acknowledgement. It was as if this was his way of saying he was starting to understand my struggle, and that he was ashamed for his part in it now that he too had felt the sting of homophobia, however vicarious. Should he have stood up for me in that room? Yes. But that's not the point. The point is his debt had come due. He too was now suffering at the expense of homophobia – threefold. Crippled by the same silent shame I was indoctrinated in and doubly distressed by a realization of the effect of his past beliefs on his own child and by becoming a target himself by association.
My mother's atonement has been more active. I wouldn't call her outwardly homophobic in the past, more of a victim of social consensus – agreeing with the majority because it was the majority. Ironically the mildest offender in my life was the only person who has ever apologized to me. Today, she is a get in your face gay parent. She's just waiting for you to say something homophobic in front of her so she can pounce and reveal she has a gay son. She will also give you an on-the-spot re-education for the low, low price of your self-esteem. But even though her past offences were mild, and her present compensation robust, the cost of her now non-existent homophobia remains high. When I came out I could tell it broke her heart. It wasn't about me being gay, or mourning the expectations of heterosexuality (which all parents do). It was realizing she had hurt her own child without knowing it. When I came out I was deeply depressed not because of my sexuality but because of people's reaction to it. To this day, if she doesn't hear from me for a while or I sound tired on the phone she immediately worries that I have sunk back into a depression and my life could be at risk because of it.
This is not meant to be a 'woe is me' tale. My life is great. My relationship with my family gets better every day, my husband didn't throw me into a volcano out of frustration and homophobia is not in the driver's seat today despite a recent joyride.
The lesson here: take care with your choice to be homophobic because it lasts forever for both the victim and the victimizer. It doesn't just affect gay people or people with gay kids either. The culture of LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion is expanding so rapidly that homophobes risk social condemnation increasingly. Just ask gospel singer Kim Burrell.
There are, of course, people in this world whose hatred of homosexuals will overpower any regrets or guilt even when confronted and educated. Worry not, secular society's shift toward LGBTQ acceptance is making their beliefs increasingly difficult to hold. But for anyone with a conscience, homophobia is a dangerous practice with lifelong costs.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, today is the International Day Against Homophobia and it's important to recognize a few things. The LGBTQ community in Canada is very lucky but we still have work to do. While I can battle homophobia in a psychologist's office, others are battling it in the streets after being kicked out of their homes for being gay. Some are not getting the chance to fight at all because they succumb to homophobia's intended effect: a feeling of worthlessness. Outside of Canada, certain countries have institutionalized homophobia, and the results are predictably inhumane. Chechnya comes to mind. If you feel the urge to help those suffering from the effects of homophobia start by confronting it when you hear it. Then check out the links below and donate to an organization that can help combat homophobia both here and abroad.