Homophobia happens to all gay people. A few weekends ago I was treated to a very special type of it: homophobic remarks by drunk, straight men – not meant for my ears, but overheard nonetheless. The remarks I heard and have heard throughout my life – and their underlying homophobia – are built into the way straight men interact. Gay men know this not just because of our memories of middle and high school bullying, but because – in vino veritas – we get to hear drunk people expressing their feelings on the subject all the time.
Actually, I encountered two back-to-back incidents. On a Friday night, I was at a coworker’s birthday party when one of his (straight male) friends called another, jokingly, a faggot. The offender didn’t know he was in the presence of a gay person, and seemed like a genuinely nice guy, particularly after he apologized once my coworker brought it to his attention. He said something offensive and then expressed appropriate remorse.
On Saturday night, at a different friend’s apartment, a (straight) guy I’d never met questioned his friend, referring to me not as quietly as he intended: “is that the gay guy?” He was too drunk and surprised to respond when I yelled at him in front of his friends. I left the party soon after, but not before everybody I knew there – all straight people – expressed their various permutations of remorse.
While I was upset, I found it oddly refreshing to hear validated for myself what I suspected, and what many gay men suspect in similar situations: that this guy had been primed to meet me by the other (straight) guys coming to the party, that he knew walking in the door that inside he would find a gay person, and, very possibly, that I would or would not be “one of those”gays, that I’d “be cool” or should be avoided. Of course, I was left to consider the details of this conversation about me (and about gay men in general) on my subway ride back to Brooklyn: did it happen in the cab ride over, or when they were still at their apartment, debating the pros and cons of heading to my (female) friend’s? Was it a passing remark or more a extensive conversation? What kind of gay am I, according to those straight guys who I was acquainted with in college?
These back-to-back events reinforce a larger pattern that gay men face socially. Even before coming out – especiallybefore – “acting gay” is an extreme social liability anywhere you encounter straight men: at family functions, on sports teams, during a job interview, or talking to friends on the street. Social reinforcement becomes internalized, and gay men growing up learn to hold our wrists straight, to walk from the shoulders instead of the hips, to swallow our words rather than let the dreaded sibilant “s” emerge. That internalization, fostered from a young age, stays with many gay men well after they’re out, and well after they’d wish it gone. Because while being attracted to men has become largely acceptable in most circles, acting gay is not.
Honestly speaking, I have no idea how uncomfortable I would render most straight men if I talked more gay. I will say that throughout my life I’ve received feedback, direct and indirect, that such behavior makes straight people uncomfortable. And thus I control it. Admittedly, as far as outward communication, natural linguistic patterns play a role: people change how they speak depending on their environments (consider the classic example of racial minorities “talking white”). I am surely more recognizable as a gay men when I’m around a group of girl-friends or gay friends than when I’m in a group of straight guys – or, for that matter, talking to the cashier at the deli or conducting an interview – and this is partly due to natural linguistic mirroring which makes social interactions more cohesive. It’s always felt like unfair criticism to expect somebody to not shift their language to their environment (read: remain “authentic”, to whomever has designated themself the vanguard of authenticity). But only minorities, sexual and racial, are held to such a strict standard, both within their communities and facing out from them. If you’re a member of such a group, you can’t really win no matter how you act. You’ll face backlash from one direction or another.
For gay men, I think that debate about language and behavior becomes an internal one, as nobody chastises me for “acting gay” or rewards me for “acting straight”. Like everybody, I behave differently in different environments. But there remains in me an embarrassing level of internalized homophobia, one that I suspect many gay men share. I know it for that temporary upswell in pride that comes when I can “pass”.
I’ve always felt it easier to connect to and communicate with women in social settings. I’m not the only gay man who thinks so. This has changed somewhat as I’ve matured, but I think the tendency towards having female friends and male lovers is undoubtedly true for a lot of gay men. I have felt, and still feel at times, that interacting with straight men is like trying to speak a language I don’t speak fluently – manageable most of the time, but oftentimes hesitant; comprehensible on the surface, but indecipherable under the current; thrilling for a brief moment of clarity, but always pressurized and uncomfortable for the non-fluent.
All this is to say two things: first, that it’s not always the fault of straight men that gay men don’t feel themselves seamlessly integrated into social scenarios. Often, we feel awkward and unable to access these scenarios simply because they feel foreign, and not because the social codes are essentially homophobic. Second, that these interactions carry a lot of weight with gay men, because they go to the root of the rejection we’ve faced regarding acceptable expressions of our gender and sexuality: largely, straight expressions. And it’s the weightiness of these interactions that can make them so much more painful than those in the straight majority could ever understand – even a small slip on my part, an inadvertent rise in octave when it should have fallen, cuts to the heart of all the insecurities that come pre-loaded with such social situations: am I that obvious, do they reject me, am I in danger? Similarly, it’s more than a minor offence when I hear the word faggot thrown around from one straight man to another; it sets off a chain of negativity that is at once deeply personal (playground rejection manifested thousands of times over) and global (why do people still interact like this?).
The offenders are usually sympathetic when they find out I’m gay or that what they’ve said is inappropriate (for a word as basic as faggot the fact that I’m gay is fairly self-evident; for some other conversations the offense must be explained, such as: “no, it’s not a compliment to tell me that I’m the first gay person you don’t find annoying”). The guy who said “faggot” (Friday) gave me a sincere and well-delivered apology, which I accepted and moved on from. The second guy was stupefied and didn’t know how to react.
The reaction of bystanders is interesting too. Most are embarrassed; some apologize for their friend’s behavior. Sometimes, these apologies include explanations such as: “He didn’t mean it like that”, to which I always reply that he did, in fact, mean it like that; he just didn’t realize it. Faggot wouldn’t be faggot without the gay male stereotype, and there’s no arguing otherwise even if the word has allegedly taken on another, innocuous life for its users; the word and the shaming of gay men are, indisputably, linked at their heart. Sometimes the famous “black friend” defense is trotted out, as it was on Saturday: “He has nothing against gay people – he’s got a gay uncle!” Yes, and everybody has a black friend when they’re being racist, and every misogynist loves their sister. Woman, black, gay: these are not just disposable identities to be brandished every time somebody needs to defend their offensive behavior. Having relationships with people belonging to discriminated groups does not excuse you from proper decorum and general intelligence; in fact, these relationships arguably necessitate a higher standard of behavior. There’s something to be said for the guy who has genuinely never interacted with an out gay person being slightly uncomfortable with the idea– I think that’s understandable, though I know many disagree with me. What is not defensible is somebody with full exposure to real, live gay people who’s still a homophobe. And, if that person then hides behind their gay uncle, their use of hair products or their sartorial instincts, then they’re a hypocrite as well as a homophobe.
With the tension (and the booze) comes the over-apology, when the offender (or his friends) repeats their explanation or how bad they feel ad infinitum. Interestingly, the over-apology puts the onus back on the offended party to assuage the hurt feelings of those in the majority who “didn’t mean any harm by it”. I, the offended minority, after mustering the courage to call out the inappropriate behavior and then defend my stance, am now expected to placate those in the wrong because their feelings have been hurt – by their own actions. Because it would be a shame for anybody to leave the event not feeling like they’ve had the opportunity to air their feelings, clear up any negative energy, and indulge in a brief kumbaya before returning to the revelry. That is, it would be a shame if anybody but me has to carry negative energy from the interaction. And heaven forbid I reinforce that pernicious gay stereotype and appear hysterical if I choose not to accept somebody’s apology, or continue to be angry when I’m now expected to be soothing.
Because no matter how much all the straight people have learned from the experience, gay men will leave these situations with a deep and uncomfortable sense of non-belonging. Because it confirms a suspicion many of us harbor, even if we don’t necessarily admit it to ourselves: that no matter what changes we’ve witnessed in the past decades, no matter what progress has been written into the legal codes and inscribed in the hearts and minds of many Americans, no matter what false-equality notion we’ve been fed by the cultural elite, gay and straight (“we’re just like you!”), we will always be fundamentally left out. There will always be social situations – whether explicitly involving gender and sexuality or seemingly irrelevant to those identities – that will leave us dumbfounded, hurt, and on the outside.
Not all interactions I’m left out of are offensive. The mere fact that I can’t gain access to a conversation doesn’t make it homophobic. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to maintain full guy-banter with the bros, just as I wouldn’t expect to be able to converse with a group of senior-citizens about The War or with a group of tweens about the new it boy-band. Different groups discuss things differently, and that’s OK; in fact, I prize the in-group relationships I have with other gay men, unique and impenetrable to others.
But there’s a difference between inaccessible conversation and offensive conversation. My two examples – hearing faggot thrown around nonchalantly and being referred to in third person as “the gay guy” – are evidently over the line, wherever we choose to draw it. Homophobia is more insidious than it used to be, partly because those that take offense – LGBT people and their allies – are swifter and more vocal with our criticism. But driving the conversation underground, relying on subtleties, nods of the head or eyebrow lifts, makes offensive behavior harder to identify and prove. In these specific cases, thanks partly to the alcohol, the offensive behavior was on the surface. It was easier to call out.
It’s harder to see racism now that we all share the same water-fountains. It’s harder to claim sexism when federal law allows litigation based on gender-discrimination. And it’s harder to call out homophobia when somebody ostensibly supports the right legislation or has a gay uncle – even if he feels deeply, internally uncomfortable around him. I always speak up in these situations because I owe it to myself, and to the LGBT community, to do so.
And I get to choose how I respond, whether it is accepting an apology, rejecting it or telling somebody to stop apologizing; joking with the offender or yelling at him; explaining my feelings, or leaving the room without a word. I’ve exercised all of those options before, and certainly will have to exercise some of them again. Just as gay men have to live with the implications of homophobia, I think homophobes should have to live with the consequences of their actions: that is, being called out, and not necessarily placated, because of their homophobic behavior. No matter my response to them, if it’s logical and rational, I am in the right, and they are in the wrong.