I have been on the receiving end of it many times from strangers and even family members, but there was a time I embraced it. I practiced homophobia as a means of hiding who and what I was.
Homophobia (From Wikipedia)
Coined by George Weinberg, a psychologist, in the 1960s, the term homophobia is a blend of the word homosexual, itself a mix of neo-classical morphemes, and phobia from the Greek φόβος, Phóbos, meaning "fear" or "morbid fear". Weinberg is credited as the first person to have used the term in speech. The word homophobia first appeared in print in an article written for the May 23, 1969, edition of the American pornographic magazine Screw, in which the word was used to refer to heterosexual men's fear that others might think they are gay.
I’m gay; and I’ve always been gay. No one taught me to be gay, it has always been a part of me. I heard it inside my head and felt it in my heart. For my first 37 years I struggled with it. I hid it and lived a double life.
In my youth, I didn’t understand the feelings I was having until around my pre-teens. A friend then was just that, but I recall I would be jealous if someone else came around and wanted to be his friend too, so instinctively I think I learned to hide that part of me.
Three things that I was taught were religion, racism and homophobia. They weren’t things I felt in my heart or heard in my head. My teachers told me that I would grow up, I would marry a woman, I’d have a family. I was told that I must go to church and follow God’s way. If I had any thoughts of being a homosexual, I would set myself up to be humiliated and most probably abused. During this time, practicing homosexuality was both against the law and considered a mental illness.
As I entered my teenage years, homophobia was a big part of the vocabulary I heard in the schoolyard and out in the neighborhood. The terminology was meant to sound disgusting but it helped me understand what homosexual sex involved. When my friends were noticing a girl’s boobs or ass, I was trying to get an eyeful of the male crotch and butt, without being caught, of course.
In high school there was a gay guy, I think his name was Steven, and he was very effeminate. They would chase him down the street and call him the most disgusting names. A couple of times they caught up to him and he was beaten up badly. I never witnessed the beatings but I heard some of the name calling and it scared me. There was no way I could live with that kind of cruelty everyday - and for Steven it was ev-er-y day.
I walked the walk, talked the talk, I found ways to keep it hidden. I knew if I defended one of them, I would have been subject to the same ridicule - and called a homo-lover.
The language has changed over the years, I’ve been using “homo” here so far because “gay” was a word of the 70s and only used in major cities where the gay rights movement was getting underway. In my small town, we used the older lingo.
We called them homos, queers, cocksuckers, gear boxes (some say they never heard this one but I recall it vividly) and fudge packers to name a few. I never said the words to anyone face to face; it was all said in conversation with others or shouted at them from a distance. How big of us!
The names were not aimed just at the homos. They became part of the ‘bullying’ of the day. If someone wanted to degrade a rival, they would call him a cocksucker and tell him, “blow me” or “suck my cock”. Some of the rivals would come back with, “produce it” and it would either escalate into a fight or the bully would leave.
Did I feel any shame? Yes I really did but I couldn’t show it. The words ‘I’m sorry” could never escape my lips. I was a small person, weighing about 110 pounds soaking wet. I had two older brothers who watched out for me but they were two of the most homophobic guys I knew - so there was no telling them of my feelings either.
In time I did what my friends did. I married. I had children. And like some, I divorced. After that, while I was single someone would ask why didn’t I have a girlfriend, why I’m not dating, so I would start dating women again just to stop all the questions. I damn near ended up married again, twice, but was able to escape.
When I was 25 the marriage finally had come to an end but I was still twelve years away from finally coming out. I lived with the same fear and the homophobia, I had lied about it for so long, even making up stories about friends that didn’t exist.
It was in the 80s when the AIDS epidemic first started. Right away, within my circle of friends and small town life, AIDS generated a feeding frenzy of new homophobic language directed towards gays. Early on, it was termed the ‘gay disease’. Some of the most common quips were . . .
Gay = Got AIDS Yet?
AIDS = Anal Injected Death Sentence!
They deserve it.
This is when the homophobia became ugliest for me. I repeated those words when in the company of others. In the back of my mind, though, I knew just how wrong it was to do so. I did have a conscience and I did feel guilt. I told myself I wouldn’t be like this always; one day I would grow a pair and be a better person. I would own my words.
I’ve read some blogs online where a writer pens a letter to their younger self. What would I say to my younger self? I wondered, if I wrote it, would I be kind to myself, express some understanding? I would confirm to myself that the fear I lived with was real for many years after, the fear was my prison or in this case, the closet. I would also validate that during that time of my life, there wasn’t anyone to turn to. The only time I could have changed anything would have been at sixteen when I quit school and left home. I should have left everyone and everything behind to move to Toronto, where I knew there were more people like me.
When my kids were growing up, some parts of their life mirrored mine. I would hear them make homophobic comments that they heard at school or in their neighborhood. I was able to defend gay people. It was when I came out to them that they understood why I wouldn’t allow that language, and that gay people were just as deserving as anyone else.
I’m proud to have had a part in raising three straight, non-homophobic human beings. I believe each generation should strive to be better than the last one and I see that happening with my kids and grandkids - beautiful people.
Ultimately, I think homophobia played a huge part in my becoming HIV-positive. The fear I felt lowered my self-esteem, and during my secret double life I did risky things. Add in large doses of alcohol and it was the perfect recipe.
I don’t know exactly when I became infected or by whom - and maybe he didn’t know he was infected. I thought I had it all figured out, when and where it happened, only to find I may have had HIV two or three years sooner and didn’t know it, I could have been one of those guys.