[content warning: slurs]
Homophobia has a tremendous effect on the lives of many heterosexual people.
In a lot of our culture, being gay is really really bad. Fortunately, we have become compassionate; even social conservatives, more often than not, will express some pity for the struggle that ‘same-sex-attracted’ people go through. But while people disagree about how this compassion ought to be expressed, there is a general consensus among straight people than gayness is a bad thing to be.
How that consensus negatively affects gay, lesbian, and bisexual people is obvious. But it also hurts straight people!
Fear of being gay is a powerful tool to police people into social conformity. I highly recommend the ethnography Dude, You’re A Fag, which is about how fear of being seen as gay is used to police boys into gender role conformity in a high-school context. Caring about clothes, failing to express appropriate attraction to women, not being interested in or good at sports, and caring too much about other men are all policed through the ‘fag’ discourse. (Seriously, though, read it, my summary doesn’t do it justice.)
One of the things I want to point out about the fag discourse is that the boys who use the word ‘fag’ articulate an anti-homophobia position. (This is true to my experience of high school as well.)
Jabes, a Filipino senior, told me, “I actually say it [fag] quite a lot, except for when I’m in the company of an actual homosexual person. Then I try not to say it at all. But when I’m just hanging out with my friends I’ll be like, ‘Shut up, I don’t want you hear you any more, you stupid fag.’ ” Similarly J. L. compared homosexuality to a disability, saying there was “no way” he’d call an actually gay guy a fag because “there’s people who are the retarded people who nobody wants to associate with. I’ll be so nice to those guys, and I hate it when people make fun of them. It’s like, ‘Bro do you realize that they can’t help that?’ And then there’s gay people. They were born that way.”
The thought process here is something like “being gay is bad (as intellectual disability is bad) and it is bad to be like gay people. Actual gay people can’t help it, so you should be nice to them and not rub it in their faces. But for you, a straight person, to be like a gay person is the worst thing.”
I do not think this thought process is reserved only for such homophobic environments as the average high school. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, I notice this thought process. There are many straight people who would never be so gauche as to call someone a fag, but they still think, in their heart of hearts, that becoming gay would be a disaster.
I notice as well many straight people who legitimately don’t seem to think that way: they are only attracted to people of a certain gender, which is fine, and other people are attracted to people of a different gender or all genders or to no one at all, which is also fine, and if they happened to join a different category it might be inconvenient (for instance, if they were married), but it wouldn’t be in and of itself a bad thing. (That is different from being “secure in your heterosexuality”: being secure in your heterosexuality means being so sure you’re straight that you can do gay things, while these people simply don’t care whether they’re gay or not.) And I think that those people are, frankly, a lot happier.
For the most obvious example, not worrying about whether you’re gay or not opens up a lot of sexual horizons. I don’t just mean “you can hook up with boys if you happen to find a boy you’re attracted to,” either. It makes it a lot easier to date trans people, because straight men don’t have to worry that being attracted to a trans woman means they’re secretly gay, or that being attracted to a trans man also means they’re secretly gay, but in a different way this time. And they don’t have to have the long tedious freakout about whether pegging means they’re gay.
But I also feel like it opens up a lot of tremendous freedom to be gender-non-conforming. If you want, your wardrobe can contain eyeliner and skirts and bright colors! It is totally possible! (This is naturally an intersection with transmisogyny, but I’m sort of eliding transmisogyny in this post– people with a gender identity have a perfectly good reason to care whether or not they’re trans that has absolutely nothing to do with transmisogyny.)
Most important, I think, is expanding the ability of men to be friends with each other. A lot of straight men have a hard time having a deep, emotional connection with other men, because that would be gay; they have relatively shallow friendships which mostly revolve around shared hobbies, and they receive emotional support from their girlfriends or wives. Of course, if you like relatively shallow friendships, that’s fine. But a lot of men are quite lonely, and even the men that aren’t lonely are in a very fragile situation. What happens if your wife dies? What happens if your wife divorces you? All too often, that means they lose not only their closest friendship but also the only friendship in which they could talk about their feelings or process the experience of loss.
However, if you don’t care whether you’re gay or not, it doesn’t matter that having a close, intimate relationship with another man might be perceived as gay, because you don’t care about whether or not you’re gay. It just doesn’t come up as an issue. And then you have more capacity for friendship.
I want to make it clear that I don’t think that that sort of mindset is possible for most people outside of a supportive social environment. In practice, all straight people I have met who don’t care whether or not they’re straight have been in communities that are at least a quarter queer. I do not intend to blame the victim here. It is quite natural to avoid behavior that is seen as bad and punished by your community; those who manage not to internalize those attitudes are extraordinarily self-reliant and strong-willed. And if you know people will harass you for being gay, of course you’re going to avoid things that will make you be seen as gay.
I just want to point out that straight people should totally be on board with the project of ending homophobia. It helps them as much as it helps us.