Overcoming Homophobia

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The cure for homophobia is compassion and acceptance, from all sides of the political spectrum. (And yes, lefties, I mean us, too. Right to left AND left to right.) But why us, too? Because radical empathy can resolve intractable conflict.

I wholeheartedly support marriage equality and gay rights. I’ve also had to get over my own fear of homosexuality. I’m pretty sure there are more like me who won’t admit it, but that’s why I’m writing this. I’m sharing my own story to show common ground can be found anywhere, in the most surprising places, and that that is where true political victory lies.

The Internet’s been crawling with political articles on gay marriage. A particularly incendiary letter, written by Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings, viciously mocked the idea that, if society respects gay rights, more people might “convert” people to homosexuality. Yea, it may sound ridiculous, but I know from experience that it’s not too far-fetched. Studies even suggest “homophobic people actually fear their own unconscious feelings.” I concur. I was totally one of those people.

Growing up in a moderately liberal household, I knew people who were gay, had friends and relatives who were gay. Hell, I was in band and drama in high school, which pretty much earned me a platinum ‘Ally’ card.

But as one of my drama friends told me, when explaining how she came out to her parents, “It’s different when it’s your kid. You can be ‘open-minded’ about other people, but there’s something more challenging about your kid coming out. It’s more personal, making it harder to overcome the stigma.” And again, I concur. It’s different when it’s you. It’s alright for ‘them.’ ‘Their’ lifestyle is fine with me. There’s a missing, unspoken piece to these sentiments, though: That being gay is alright for them–as long as it’s not me.

In college, one of my best friends came out to me before she was officially ‘out.’ I was taken aback by her admission, but even more so by my immediate reaction. When my friend told me she was queer, I got really, really, intensely uncomfortable. I totally freaked out. A hundred questions flooded my mind all at once: Does she have a crush on me? Is this the part where she makes a move? What happens when I say I’m not interested? What does this mean for our friendship?

Thankfully (more like thankfully x a bajillion), I held it together, and came up with something supportive, respectful, and unselfish to say. Underneath all the questions, though, I felt fear. Sticky, hideous, suffocating fear. I wasn’t afraid of my friend; I was afraid of myself.

I’m not afraid of much. I’ve traveled solo through Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Turkey. I’ve maneuvered out of sketchy places on dark nights. But no other kind of fear has even come close to the fear of my own bisexuality. The first time I felt it, I was twelve. It kept me awake at night, laying frozen in a cold sweat. When my college friend came out to me, I finally felt strong enough to face who I am.

I was afraid of being gay because I thought it would cost me dearly. I feared the reaction of my parents and my family and my friends. I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me, saying it was just an interim step to ‘going lesbian.’ And many years later, I realized I wasn’t willing to stand up for myself because I still harbored judgment about being gay. Despite my internal allowance for non-hetersexual identities, I hadn’t truly accepted–and celebrated–that being gay is normal.

Now, I’ve finally let go of my own homophobia. I’m lucky I’m only 25, and that I live in a time and a place where I don’t need that fear to survive. Most people in this country and around the world are not so lucky. Even with my personal experience, I can only begin to imagine the shadow they live under every day.

Still, I also feel for the people who are afraid homosexuality threatens their lifestyle. In some ways, it does. Imagine all the rules you know are based on who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong.’ Imagine believing the wrongful will be punished, and the righteous will be rewarded. Imagine you’ve sacrificed your critical thinking skills, your own desires, and your sense of self to following those rules. If one of them turns out to be wrong, it means they might all be wrong. It means your whole moral code is in jeopardy, and you might even unwittingly be one of the wrongful. It means moving past homophobia is way, way more frightening than those of us from liberal homes think it is.

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I pledge allegiance to RuPaul, and the United Takei followers of America.

For those of us who know that ‘gay’ can still mean ‘happy’ (I like to think of it as crossing over to Happy Shiny Rainbow Funland), we can help make the step away from homophobia less scary. “We’re already doing enough,” you might say. I don’t think so though. I think we can do more to show that compassion and generosity, gratitude and forgiveness–which are also deep Christian values–still count for something. If we can connect the dots between the values we do share, turn it into a navigable path from homophobia to normalcy, we might have a chance. I’m just praying to Freddie-Mercury-and-all-that-is-gay-and-holy that they follow the breadcrumb trail.

Homophobia is a debilitating social disease, and it must be eradicated. I personally hope it will come to represent the polio of the 21st century: a virtually nonexistent tragedy of the past. Frankly, I think we can use the same tactic to combat it in future generations: vaccination. Give kids early exposure to deactivated, ‘harmless’ homophobic ideas so they can recognize them, protect themselves, and eschew such poison effectively, efficiently, and without lasting damage to their impressionable minds.

It will take more than a social ‘vaccine,’ though. It will also take raising children to lead healthy sexual lifestyles, which includes honest understandings of their own sexuality. If kids grow up learning from their own bodies, knowing who they’re attracted to and what they like, and how to safely and positively negotiate sexual encounters using that knowledge, I think we can wipe out homophobia–and sexual violence, for that matter. Or, at least reduce the current epidemics of homophobia and sexual violence to extreme exceptions rather than demoralizing, everyday realities.

No matter where you are on the political spectrum, no matter what issue is at hand, empathy is possible. Actually, it’s critical. I owe my life and freedom to the radical activists who came before me. I will continue their radicalism until it’s no longer necessary, but with a slightly different bend: radical empathy, radical trust, and radical acceptance of my earthly bedfellows. Even with a small chance of success, I’m sure willing to try.

‘Cause I’m into this planet, baby, and it’s the only one we have. From where I sit, that means ‘all in.’ From each of us, for all of us, with everything we’ve got.

I’m all in. Are you?

Images from The Rag Blog and WallChan.com

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