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How to recognize subtle homophobia (and why it's not okay)

Nov. 29, 2017
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With gay marriage now legal, there are many who believe that homophobia has simply disappeared. At least once a week, I find myself overhearing the same conversation. Each time it may happen in a different way or involve different people, but normally both parties agree that “the gays have their pride parades and marriage—I wish they would stop complaining about inequality.” As many of you may imagine, I am always shocked when people who believe that the LGBT community has achieved equality start a sentence with “the gays”, but it happens. For those of you who know homophobia still exists but are unsure of how to spread the news, here are a few things worth pointing out.   

First of all, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In fact, it exists in more than just a subtle way. Just last year, I was holding my fiance’s hand in public and a man in a passing car yelled, “Faggots!” And this was not the first, second, or third time: it has happened both before and since the passing of marriage equality. And this is far from the worst thing to happen to a member of the LGBT community. Here at the University of Maine, there have recently been two incidents of hate speech which have gained public notice. Blatant homophobia exists and it is alive and well.  

But blatant bigotry is bolstered by its more subdued counterpart. What contributes to subtle homophobia? Let’s start by defining it. Subtle homophobia can range from accidental hate speech, to learned behaviors and words from parents, to the implicit bias most have and the double standards placed on LGBT people. For example, when I went into the comment section of the Facebook advertisement for the show Ozark, I found many comments complaining about the three gay sex scenes that happen throughout the entire first season. Keep in mind: most of these people loved the show, but it was ruined for them because of the gay sex. You’ll find many comments starting with “I am not homophobic, love is love, but I don’t like having it thrown in my face.” I can only sit there, aghast, as every straight sex scene I’ve seen dating back to the 1980s flashes through my head. It is no secret that I am bisexual and that I am with a man. Why don’t straight relationships on TV count as “forcing straight culture” on someone like me? 

But homophobia isn’t always disdainful. Take, for example, a common phrase: “Oh, I love gay people! I have a gay cousin!” The good intent is appreciated, but in reality you are just reminding someone that they are different from you, which shouldn’t be the case. My sexual orientation isn’t a conversation-starter. It is not for you to love or hate; it is for you to accept and move on. What’s worse is the conversation that leads up to that knowledge being brought up. The normal situation I find myself in usually goes something like this:

A coworker will say something like, “Oh, that girl is pretty. She was really nice; I’m surprised you didn’t grab her number.”

I respond, “Well, actually, I am engaged.”

What my coworker says next may not shock you: “Oh, who’s the lucky girl?”

First off, this person has just assumed that I am straight. That is no fault of their own, but it is an expression of a societal standard that needs to die. Next, I have to awkwardly explain that I am with a man, which prompts this person to express their profound love for “my kind.” The good intentions here are what make this type of homophobia so dangerous. After all, they don’t even know that they are making me feel uncomfortable—they are just being nice. 

When someone finds out I am gay, there are a few things that can happen: blatant homophobia, subtle homophobia, or the more rare and welcome option—acceptance. With the first two options, people almost always point out that I “act too straight” to be gay. There is no standard of behavior for being gay, okay? I cannot express enough that anyone can love anyone, regardless of gender or how one looks.  I always recommend that people make no mention of it. My orientation doesn’t define me. There are many ways that subtle homophobia makes itself known, but the first step in solving it all begins with people not treating LGBT people as if they are a different species. We all bleed, we all have hearts, and we all just want to be normal.