What I Got, When I Gave Up Homphobia

Originally published by The Guy Code on September 18, 2000.

I’ve been thinking about this issue of homophobia, lately, from a purely selfish point of view. I haven’t been trying to defend political correctness, or to change society by instituting liberal policies. I just found myself wondering how my own life might have been different, if I had kept it closed to gays and lesbians.

I used to keep it solidly closed. I called people “faggot” for years, even after I knew what it meant. (As a young boy, I’d thought it meant only “a bundle of sticks” – a mistake that left me very confused when, after I used it to describe a fellow student, a teacher kicked me into a wall. Later that day, my mom told me that the word meant more than I had thought. I kept using it – we all did – but I was more careful after that.)

As a freshman in high school, I inspired a friend of mine to help me tease an effeminate classmate. We bullied him, scared him, made fun of the way he said the letter ‘s.’ The whole nine yards. We did not regret it, afterward; we laughed about it. That we had tormented someone together made us closer friends. Probably we felt safer as friends, now that we had warded off the demon of homosexuality. Maybe that’s why soldiers and male athletes tend to show more homophobia than others: Doing so enables them to become closer.

In some ways it would have been natural for me to continue behaving that way. The Catholic schools I attended were not hotbeds of tolerance. Nuns and monks taught us that homosexuality was a grave sin. Who was I to say I knew better? And if God hated gays, then maybe I was doing them a favor by teasing them – maybe my nastiness would show them the error of their ways, and they would come back to the straight side before it was too late. I don’t mean to exaggerate my hostility; I was never in a situation that approached the brutality with which Matthew Shepherd and others were treated. But I certainly was not very nice.

(By the way, that idea – saving someone by hurting them – is not as absurd as it may sound to someone who has not grown up under a religious cloud. If you are taught that no punishment meted out by humans could ever approach the tortures of the damned, then it can feel like an act of kindness to try to scare the hell out of people by using tactics that an atheist would consider cruel.)

In addition to the religious worries, I had to worry about pleasing my parents. My father worried that a friend of mine who had an earring and long hair might be queer. The fact that he wasn’t – the fact that the pretty girls in our class liked him more than they liked me – did not undo the lesson that a queer friend was not the right kind to have.

Get over it!

At some point I got over it. By and by, the evidence accumulated that what I had been taught was just so much bullshit. And now, here are some obvious and tangible ways that my life today would be different if I had believed the B.S.:

* I would be paying a lot more rent and living in a crappy apartment. My broker, who is gay, appreciates my friendship, as I appreciate his. When a better apartment than the one I had first rented from him became available, he let me know about it before a single ad had run. Had we not been friends, I would never have known that such an apartment existed as the one that is now my home.

* I would never have had a chocolate martini, or seen the original “Dracula,” with musical accompaniment by Philip Glass.

* One of my oldest friends would not have told me the truth about himself. As a result, our friendship would have undoubtedly deteriorated in a way that would have confused me; I would never have learned why he was no longer comfortable with me. I would probably have said ‘Oh, well, friendships die, c’est la vie’ – or the equivalent to ‘c’est la vie’ in a language that sounds more masculine than French. ‘Asi es la vida,’ probably.

* I would never have become friends with a woman I know whose parents both left each other for same-sex lovers when she was a child. Again, I would not have known why we were not friends; it just would have seemed to work out that way.

* A very good friend of mine would not have been there for me a few years back, as a listening ear and an erudite sounding board, as I went through a time that was emotionally very painful. His compassionate guidance showed me that there might be meaning in my suffering; without his guidance, the trip would have been much lonelier.

* I would not have gotten such good advice about avoiding law school, as a lesbian friend of mine gave me during a frank discussion about how to figure out what you really want in life and why.

* I would have missed out on hours of laughter. One example that jumps to mind is watching the John Waters movie “Polyester” at a party thrown by a gay friend. Again, I would never have known that the party existed, had we not become friends.

* I would never have known a man named Francisco, who died of AIDS some years back as I visited him each week over a period of months. Knowing him deepened my life in ways that are hard now to measure; concretely, knowing him meant that my brother and I could stay with his family, in a small town in Mexico, years after his death; we saw life there better than we could have done as tourists.

* I would not have felt the admiration for Bill Clinton that I felt during the 1992 campaign. When a young woman asked him about gays in the military, he said, “We need all Americans, working together.” My admiration for that strong statement stands, no matter how disappointed I was by his lies during the Lewinsky investigation.

* I would have missed out on knowing what it was like to have a man hit on me at a gay bar.

Why would that be a loss? Here’s why: I have hit on a number of women, and I will probably hit on many more before I’m done. I have tended to see this experience from my perspective only, so that the awkwardness of my target’s response has often felt personal.

To get hit on by a strong man in whom you have no interest is not the same as being hit on by a woman. The difference in physical strength increases one’s need to remain polite while trying to convince him to let you be. I suddenly appreciated, in a new way, the gyrations some women have gone through in order to reject me without causing me to lose face.

I also saw that it was often not personal: My rejection of this man had nothing to do with his face, or his approach, or his level of physical fitness, or his soul, or his clothes. It was simply that he wasn’t my type, because my type is female.

* I would have missed out on simple, cordial relations with nurses and patients in the psych hospital where I once worked and at the magazine where I now work. There are many people in our lives whose smile is important to us even though we will never become close friends. The ability to comfortably greet someone, in the course of your day, without having to feel anxiety about that person’s “lifestyle choice,” should not be minimized.

* I would have missed out on a funny, external affirmation of my heterosexuality. Not long after meeting me, one friend said, “I could tell you were straight because you were so comfortable with me. If you were, on the fence, shall we say, my presence would probably have made you agitated.”

In short, the increasing comfort I have felt with gays and lesbians has improved and deepened my life in a way that is no longer possible even to measure. I cannot imagine how my life would look now without these friendships. It would certainly be narrower, and would certainly be lonelier.

Fewer of my friends would be my friends – and this extends to straight friends, too, because most people in my social circle find homophobia, like racism, rather off-putting.

As well they should.

A few years ago, I tracked down the boy I had tormented as a high-school freshman. I called him at his home in Montana, where he lives as an artist. We talked for a little while, and I told him how sorry I was for what my friend and I had done to him. I wrote him a letter afterward, underlining what I had said awkwardly on the phone. He sent me a postcard, saying that he appreciated my efforts to make things better. It was also clear that he remembered my cruelty quite well; I was unable to comfort myself by telling myself that it had been no big deal.

It had been a big deal, and I’m only glad I didn’t create too many others before I knew better.

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