Youthful homophobia

Published 11, Dec, 2012

New writer Olivia Kijewski, a staffer from the AIDS Committee of Guelph and Wellington County, is talking to at risk young people about homophobia and its connection with HIV. Here is what she’s finding.

As part of my new position as Positive Prevention Coordinator at our local AIDS Service Organization (AIDS Committee of Guelph and Wellington County), I have been designing and conducting workshops for “at risk” youth on homophobia. This means youth who are perhaps street involved, recovering from substance use or who are young parents.

 The workshops are designed around a slideshow of homophobic and oppressive graffiti taken by participants in the area in order to facilitate discussion and to help challenge homophobia. However, when the photographers went in search of hateful and homophobic graffiti, they were surprised by how much graffiti they found with positive and supportive messages. Perhaps it is because we live in a relatively progressive little town, but this is telling of the capacity we possess as a community to challenge homophobia.

When delivering these workshops, I encountered, much to my surprise, something very similar. While initially met with suspicion and some very homophobic remarks, after some gentle nudging, I was surprised and elated at how self-aware these youth were and how much capacity they have for change.

I usually open the workshop by asking them why they thought someone from an AIDS organization would be coming to speak to them about homophobia. Surprisingly, the youth have been very careful not to reproduce the stereotype that HIV was a “gay disease”. In fact, some of them even identified this as a stereotype. While the connection between HIV and homophobia is not always clear, I briefly explain how they might be interconnected. I tell them that twenty to forty percent of homeless youth  are LGBT, one in three transgender youth will be turned away from a shelter due to their gender identity/expression, and that one in two LGBT youth experienced a negative reaction from their parents when they came out (often they were kicked out of their house). Many of the youth seem to be able to relate to this in some way.

“I tell them that Canadian LGBT youth hear anti-gay slurs an average of twenty-six times a day”

Furthermore, I explain, experiencing homophobia can cause LGBT or questioning people to engage in riskier behavior that puts them at increased risk of HIV and other STIs. Additionally, a lack of queer relevant and positive sexual health information can increase LGBT people’s risk of HIV and other STIs.  Next I tell them that Canadian LGBT youth hear anti-gay slurs an average of twenty-six times a day and are five times more likely to experience violence or harassment than their heterosexual peers. Additionally, an estimated 28% of completed suicides are by LGBT people.  The point I am trying to make is not only that there is a connection between HIV and experiencing homophobia, but that homophobia has real, harmful consequences for people who experience it;  a point that was not lost on all the youth.

After this, we talk about why people might be homophobic. This is the part I was most worried about. It usually sparks the most discussion and is where the majority of the homophobic comments come out. The most common being, “I don’t mind gay people, as long as they…keep it to themselves/don’t flaunt it/ don’t hit on me, etc.” Here is where the real challenge lies:  how do you tactfully call a fourteen-year-old a homophobe, or more appropriately, how do you help them recognize their own homophobia? I try to direct conversation to how people may be uncomfortable with homosexuality because they are simply not exposed to it very often, how homophobia is a learned behaviour (“my father told me if a man ever hits on me to punch him in the face”), and how people may have their own internalized stigma. I then ask how they might react if someone of the opposite sex, who they were not interested in, hit on them and ask how that is different from someone of the same sex. It is here that some may begin to see their own homophobia.

How can we expect them to challenge homophobia when doing so would risk them being labeled as gay and therefore experiencing the same discrimination that LGBT people experience regularly?”

What I really noticed from these workshops was that it was the males that were more openly homophobic. In general, the female youth had an easier time seeing the connections between marginalization, homophobia, oppression and HIV. They were more likely to understand gender norms and how they relate to homophobia. They tended to have an easier time expressing themselves and generally expressed more tolerance of LGBT people. What this suggests is not that girls are generally more tolerant, but that perhaps there is less room in our society for boys to be openly tolerant of people who differ outside of “the norm”, especially with regard to sexual orientation. In a society where boys are taught to be hard, strong, athletic, aggressive, and emotionally closed off, where is there room for anyone who falls outside of this construction? How are boys supposed to talk about things like homophobia, when they, by and large, have not been given the tools to do so? How can we expect them to challenge homophobia when doing so would risk them being labeled as gay and therefore experiencing the same discrimination that LGBT people experience regularly? That takes a particular strength, one that we as a society, often fail to teach our sons.

Despite these challenges, I was pleasantly surprised at the willingness of the youth, both male and female, to engage with these difficult topics and make connections. Near the end of the workshop, when the discussion moved more to ways that we can challenge homophobia, many of them had begun to question their own prejudices. Several youth remarked that they had not thought like this in a long time. Another youth began to question himself on why he was okay with lesbians, but so uncomfortable with gays. At one point, the conversation even turned to feminism.  I could see them struggling with these ideas, engaging in debates with one another, and working through them. The youth wanted to engage with these topics, they wanted to be challenged, many even wanted to see change, which made me question  why are there not more workshops like this?

 These workshops have, by far, been the most rewarding and encouraging part of my position thus far. I was not met with the same skepticism or blank stares I had anticipated. It was the opposite, near the end of the workshop I was having to move on in order to finish on time. When I asked the youth what they would commit to change in their lives, I got a whole myriad of amazing answers. Some stated they would change how they viewed society as a whole; others said they would challenge stereotypes. Some youth committed to not using “that’s so gay”, and others said they would change the way they viewed LGBT people, or even try to get to know an LGBT person as a person, separate from their sexual orientation.

 Like those who took pictures for our graffiti project, I was very pleasantly surprised at the amount of resilience and strength that exists within our community.  Even though the homophobia that exists both overtly and covertly in our society can be overwhelming and discouraging, these youth reaffirmed for me that there is in fact plenty of room for change. We are able to engage with these ideas, to challenge homophobia in our lives, and significantly decrease homophobia in our communities, we may just need to do it one workshop at a time.