I am gay. I am also homophobic.
Confused? I don’t blame you. Let me take a step back for a minute for context.
Roughly three years ago I was sitting in an undergraduate course, learning about privilege theory. I became enthralled with the literature and chose to examine heterosexual privilege. I hadn’t been openly gay for long and was naturally drawn toward research on homophobia. Dipping my toes into this fresh new pool of research, I got my feet wet in a way I never imagined. Article after article, page after page, variable after variable, I began to see something within homophobic literature I had missed time and time again. Me.
I couldn’t believe it, but it was true. When you water it down just right, all you have to be is a privileged, elderly, white male who grew up in a rather rural area with a religious upbringing and BAM – you’re a homophobe. Please, don’t get me wrong: I understand that’s a gross over-generalization and that doesn’t mean ALL elderly, white, rural, religious males are against anything and everything liberal or progressive, but the statistics are quite scary. If you don’t believe me, I implore you to do some light research and see what you find. It’s not pretty.
Now before you go dashing out the door to your local library for the latest and greatest research on homosexuality, let me present you with a little spoiler alert: All this research has one thing in common – it loves to ask why those white, rural, elderly, religious, heterosexual men are homophobes. The trick? Researchers don’t really highlight that little detail that their participants are heterosexuals; researchers assume that homophobes are heterosexual.
So there I was. A privileged, white, rural-raised, religious male… and gay. And I came to the realization that I’m homophobic.
So I graduate undergrad! Hooray! Now I’m a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young lad ready to have my hopes and dreams crushed by the exhaustive reality that grad school is like a cold, dark, and damp cellar – complete with prison chains that come in custom sizes for each student’s ankles!
But seriously. I took my undergraduate Communication Studies education, as well as whatever anecdotal evidence life handed me, and created a Master’s Thesis out of it. I continued to research homophobia in its many forms and finally got to ask the question I had been dying to ask for so long: Can homosexuals be homophobic? At this point, I’m assuming my readers are falling to one of two polarized sides – half are saying, “How is that even possible?,” while the others are saying, “Well… yeah… duh.” If you’re of the former, let me break it down for you.
Homosexuals grow up in a society that, day in and day out, is simply not made for them. They live out the same homophobic comments, slurs, attitudes, beliefs, teachings, morals, values, structures, rules, laws, etc., etc., etc. that heterosexuals do. Is it really that inconceivable to believe that gays may adopt the straight-rhetoric that has been spoon-fed to them since birth?
Okay. I get it. I make this sound very dramatic. Spoon-fed? That really does paint a drastic, polarized picture… I should have said shoved down their throats to be more accurate.
So where I’m going with all this? Well, I interviewed 24 homosexual men (sorry ladies, to include lesbians would have been a doctoral dissertation and there wasn’t really enough literature on lesbianism to make a strong argument… but stay tuned for the end!). I asked my participants a series of questions that required them to recall instances of homophobic intolerance. Wanna guess what examples they gave me? If you said examples of white, elderly, rural-grown, religious, heterosexual men discriminating against homosexuals, then you’re the lucky winner!
The questions progressed such that I asked them to describe instances in which gay men were intolerant toward other gay men. Perhaps they witnessed it; perhaps they were the victims; or perhaps they were the perpetrators. Regardless, the responses proved interesting. The examples of gay on gay intolerance mirrored the forms of homophobic intolerance my participants experienced from straight people. Every interview pointed me in one very simple direction – homosexuals can be homophobic.
I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I had a participant get roughly half-way through the interview, just to have a revelation. They realized that “homophobe” carries a specified connotation reserved for straight people. However, by comparing intolerance from straight people and intolerance from gay people, my participants began to see no real reason why they shouldn’t refer to gay on gay intolerance as homophobic. In fact, I repeatedly heard my participants admit that they “know more homophobic gay men than they do homophobic straight men.” But the million-dollar question that stumped so many participants was why?
To be fair, I had my own assumptions why a gay man may be homophobic – some were spot on. Many tried to say that they just didn’t like the more effeminate gay men. But that still doesn’t answer the big question. So then I asked, “What is it about femininity that makes you uncomfortable?” I, too, knew that feminine men freaked me out, but I really couldn’t pinpoint what it was that made me uncomfortable. While some participants also struggled to explain their discomfort, others were able to spell out exactly what made them itch.
First, my participants don’t like being sexually objectified, touched, or looked at unless they are attracted to the other guy doing it. Fair enough, right? This might explain why some straight guys feel uncomfortable around gays. Second, my participants were instantly turned off by a lack of authenticity; They felt that men who acted like women were “acting.” Third, my participants were fearful that feminine gay men would be more judgmental and disapproving of masculinity in other gay men. Finally, my participants feared being guilty by association. In other words, society homogenizes gays, viewing anyone who hangs out with feminine gay men as equally feminine.
Now for the big reveal. What do those four findings have in common? They are all based on stereotypes. My participants associated femininity with sexual promiscuity, overzealous acting, and being overly judgmental, so it makes sense why some don’t want to be associated with femininity, however wrong those assumptions may be.
To be clear, the gay men I interviewed ran the gamut from young-old, feminine-masculine, little education-higher education, east coast-west coast, etc. Regardless, it appears those gay men are deeply concerned with how straight people view them. These men recognize the stereotypes that straight people have for homosexuals, and react by attempting to distance the self from stereotypes. They do this by means of intolerance.
At the end of the day, my participants detest stereotypes; however, they allow stereotypes to guide their judgment of others. In doing so, they reinforce the conventional images of homosexuality, of which gays have been trying to break free.
So what? What does all this really mean or do for society? Why should you care? Well, I have a few opinions. First, I find it important to recognize the nonexistence of the gender binary. I found that feminine men can discriminate against other feminine men, because gender was placed on a spectrum in relation to one’s self. It isn’t that a man is feminine which inspires intolerance; it is that a man is more feminine which inspires intolerance. Once we realize the pettiness of our comparative nature, perhaps we can begin to critically ask ourselves why such a comparison is even necessary. (I’ll give ya a hint: it isn’t. Just be you).
Second, I found that no matter how liberating it is for gays to come out, the gays never really come out. Once they break free of the “heterosexual” identifier, they adopt a new label as gay, which comes jam-packed with a set of unrealistic expectations that ignore idiosyncratic behaviors and yet again confines individuals to despondency.
Third, homosexuals are still one of the largest targeted groups for physical and emotional abuse. Considering homophobia as a heterosexual problem limits the recognition of intolerance, hate crimes, and reported incidents for homosexuals. Once we broaden our scope to include homosexual homophobia, society can better protect the downtrodden.
So here I am: a gay guy who’s rather uncomfortable around other gay men. I know it seems an oxymoron to consider homosexual homophobia, but it’s a thing. And I’m not proud of it. But the difference is that I can recognize my emotional state of being and control it. I will not treat someone as less than out of my own ignorant assumptions for them or simply for their femininity. Instead, I will cognitively process their entitlement to my respect, and show it, simply by being a nice person.
These examples of within-group intolerance aren’t specific to gays either. Injustice exists within all communities, from race to religion to… anything, really. Therefore, I find it just as likely for this research to be applicable for lesbians as it is for gay men. Additionally, from what I’ve found, there seems to be a large cultural shift afoot, and the LGBTQ communities have much more to fear from each other than they do from heterosexuals these days.
With all of the advances the LGBTQ communities have made recently, why are we taking steps back?