Homophobia has a new face. As progress sweeps the cultural landscape and equal rights push on, it often seems like homophobia is disappearing, doesn’t it? The language around LGBTQ issues is beginning to change, and many are beginning to declare the disappearance of majority bigotry. This feeling of victory is nice, but it may be a tad premature. While it seems to be disappearing, homophobia is actually just donning a new cloak, masquerading as tolerance while spewing the same ignorance as always. Irrational feelings toward LGBTQ people are still very much with us … it’s all just changing. Having been ingrained deeper into a progressive cultural vocabulary, the sinister bigotry that was once open and obvious has become hidden and more difficult to detect … but it’s there, and it may be more dangerous than ever before.
When most of us were children, somebody being called a “faggot,” “queer,” “homo,” etc in the schoolyard or at the park was a normal occurrence. Now the damage these bold displays of hate have caused through the decades is undeniable, and it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to use those words to hurt people. There are exceptions to this, where public vitriol and hate is still allowed, and even encouraged (the small county in which I live, for example), but those places are becoming fewer; and the change happening is generally positive. Fortunately for all of us, the cultural climate is beginning to turn against the abusers and we will eventually see the end of it. As this change moves forward, however, homophobia is appearing in new ways. You see, while we are making it unacceptable to use homophobic slurs, we aren’t doing anything to change the hearts and minds of the people who use them. We tell them “you can’t say that,” but when do we tell them why? In most places, there are no public lectures, no public forum debates, no information sessions to educate people on LGBTQ issues. We simply aren’t doing a good enough job at educating the public.
So what’s changed then? What is this new face? Well, today we have kids being stereotyped and called gay in a more “accepting” way. For example, “It’s okay if you’re gay. I’ve always wanted a gay best friend.” Let’s use the story of a young man to illustrate the point. Soft-spoken and kind to his peers, this young man goes to school one day sporting a new look that makes him feel confident and comfortable. His classmates see his demeanour and dress style as somehow effeminate, and he is immediately assumed to be gay. His friends gather around him to tell him that they’re cool with it and they think it’s awesome that they have a gay friend. Sounds pretty good, right? Not homophobic at all? Not exactly. First of all, the classmates have used an ill-informed stereotype of how a gay man should look as the basis for their assumption that their friend is LGBTQ. Second, they are pushing that assumption as truth, and that’s a hurtful thing to do to a person. Even if the young man IS gay, what right does anybody have to impose that box upon him? What right does anybody have to presume another person’s sexual orientation? Self identity is, by definition, dependent on the understanding of one-self. There is no stereotypical gay man, no cookie cutter mould of what the actual LGBTQ person is supposed to look like. Casting aspersions on a person’s sexual orientation based on the way they dress or act is just as homophobic as calling them a “fag;” it’s just more subtle. Granted, there is a difference regarding intent. The kids approaching the friend who they assume to be LGBTQ are generally doing so out of care. The problem is that in their failure to understand that they have stigmatized this person, they have put another of their peers at risk. Being marginalized hurts regardless of the intent behind it, and although not blatantly offensive, marginalizing a person based on LGBTQ stereotypes is still homophobic.
This new face of homophobia is altogether frightening and dangerous. Because the people employing these stereotypes don’t realize they are doing anything wrong, we have a situation in which education becomes increasingly difficult. This new wave of homophobia is happening primarily at the Middle and High School levels, and it’s accompanied by a change in attitude of both the student body and the educators involved. The students have responded to anti-homophobia and anti-bullying education, and believe they have eliminated bias and bigotry from their social circles. The educators, in some schools, are seeing less homophobic bullying in the schoolyard, and naively interpreting this to mean homophobia is no longer a major problem in their school. To the person assumed to be LGBTQ based on pre-conceived notions, the feeling of isolation and diminished self-worth is the same, and less visibility means greater risk to the victim. Either we find a way to open the eyes of both the students and teachers, or more teens will needlessly suffer; many losing much more than we should be willing to tolerate.
We are all guilty of casting aspersions based on stereotype. Everyone does it in some form, and we are all accountable for that. We may think we are acting with love and compassion, and we may be advocates for equality and freedom, but when we assume a person is a certain way because of what we think their clothing or mannerisms say about them, we are misrepresenting ourselves. Stereotypes do not define populations. There was a lot of education on the dangers of stereotyping in the 1990’s, yet most of us have learned very little. So the question we all need to ask ourselves is how much longer are we going to do this for? Are we going to focus only on the progress, and ignore the harmful pre-conceptions still embedded in our thinking? Are we going to say that homophobia is no longer a problem, and if we do, are we going to avoid accountability when the worst happens because of what was blatantly in front of us the whole time? The new face of homophobia may be more subtle and difficult to detect, but it’s still right there. There is no excuse for not seeing it, and if you didn’t see it before, you’re reading about it now. Homophobia, in all of its forms, continues to cost lives. Acceptance is great, but acceptance based on assumption driven by stereotype is going to have the same effect as its aggressive and hateful predecessor. When so many people fail to see it, the challenges of educating are more difficult, but it can be done. People will deny the problem, and getting this message through will be stressful at best, but it is so vitally important that we do everything we can to raise their awareness.
As we begin to fight the new face of homophobia, we must keep in mind that this battle is not the same as the one we’re used to. The people stereotyping and casting aspersions are generally unaware that they are doing so. The hate in this case exists only in the stereotype, not necessarily in the heart. Like the war against hateful misinformation and rhetoric, this too is a battle that must be fought with education, and despite the challenges of gaining recognition of the problem, I believe we can fight this and see the end of it very soon.
The new face of homophobia, dangerous and subtle though it may be, is rearing its head among people who are already most of the way to acceptance of all people. They just need a little push to get there. If we can get them to listen, we can get them to understand. So let’s take it on. A fight to save lives is a fight worth having.