This story was originally posted on Medium, on May 23rd, 2015.
When you meet someone, what is important to you?
You slip casually into conversation with a stranger; your small talk tickles their interest and you laugh cautiously — mysteriously — at their jokes. You judge them. You note their lisp, their camp, affectionate body language, their tightly rolled sleeves and their scent. His jaw-line, under smooth tanned skin, is sharp. His posture, suave. He chuckles, his teasing cheekbones transfix, but he knows you’re a straight guy, and you go your separate ways. Moments later, you turn around and notice his familiar dark, slickly styled hair calling for attention above the crowds. He links fingers with his girlfriend. Your synapses flash with surprise: Oh, really?
Sexuality matters. We’re all at least subconsciously curious. We all judge our acquaintances, even our friends. We all want to know who is gay and who is not. We notice, and we care. Most of us don’t discriminate or insult, but we do one unquestionably wrong thing: we define people by their sexuality. We stereotype, offensively, in our heads, and don’t even know or worry that we do. We should be terrified of ourselves because we’re all homophobic, and we all deny it.
I write today not necessarily to praise the progress we have made towards equality in much of the western world, as fantastic as it is. Instead I write because I worry our mindset and our understanding — the things that need to change to spearhead further progress — remain as primitive and as harsh as they were in pre-Civil Rights Era America.
At this point I must clarify, regrettably, that this essay is not going to be some revolutionary driver of change; I have no tangible solution. I believe that addressing our homophobia and changing attitudes is likely the best start we can make in the short term and that is my goal here, but be aware that this is an issue close to my heart — one that I can get angry about, and I may fly off on tangents as uncontrollable as Tory welfare cuts. I’ve grown up my whole life with close family friends who are gay and my best friend at my school was too. Someone being gay is innately normal to me so when someone’s sexuality is the first thing I notice I cringe, agonisingly: What are you doing Nathan?
I am compelled to change that.
Understanding what it’s like to be LGBT+ is hard. So is understanding what it is like to be heterosexual, but trying to learn is a good start in revealing what makes us so engrossed in people’s romances. Sexuality is a complex spectrum that no one person could ever accurately draw and it is not my intention to try and do so. Nevertheless, James Casey picks three principles to follow in an amazingly concise, humoured explainer of ‘how not be homophobic’:
Keeping in mind those three traits of sexuality — its complexity, fluidity and individuality — will probably help you avoid a lot of awkward conversations with people on a topic you’re hopelessly and self-consciously ignorant about. Their sexuality is their business; don’t assume you can gauge their interests from it, don’t impose a single sexual identity onto each individual you meet, and don’t make everything worse by putting people into neat, rainbow-ribboned boxes, because you, as a straight person, are in no position to do so.
Most people see gender and sexual orientation as binary, which leads to the stereotypes, but I challenge you to find one straight person without a same-sex crush, celebrity or otherwise. Once we break free from that simplistic view, and realise that everyone is not specifically gay or straight and may fluidly move between them, it becomes easier to empathise.
I understand why there may be confusion here. As a consequence of defining sexuality as something that can change, there is a risk of portraying it as a choice. Many compare gay rights to race rights, which is an easy way of clarifying that we are born with our sexual orientation although what that simile fails to illustrate, is that changing preferences are out of our control too. It is a vexing concept to decipher, so no wonder confused, deluded and unintentional homophobia is built into so many of our subconsciouses.
British students who were asked to imagine borrowing a phone from a gay man came up with significantly more words about cleansing in a word-completion task. In another study, Portuguese students were offered either a yellow pencil or yellow disinfecting wipe after the experiment; those who imagined borrowing a phone from a gay man were more likely to choose the wipe…
…But actually the findings intrigued me, because prejudice can only be washed away (if you will) when it is understood.
He more optimistically concludes:
A society free of sexism and homophobia won’t just emancipate women and gay men: it will free straight men, too.
Clearly, studying sexuality is an intricate craft, and we are inadvertently entangled in its convoluted controversy. We are trapped. We are in a dark box of our own misunderstandings, and are too busy looking for a key the that we ignore the unlocked door. We can’t escape until we stop paying attention to what doesn’t matter. We are slowing progress by trying to progress.
How do we stop ourselves? By ignoring it. Maybe we should be defining people how they define themselves. What is someone passionate about? What is important to them? If the answer is food, think of them as a chef; if the answer is family, look on them as a parent; if the answer is sport, they are an athlete. If they want being LGBT+ to determine who they are, then it is fine to care. If not, it is irrelevant.
I asked at the beginning what is ‘important’ when you meet a person. That question was intentionally misguided and I am sure your answer was too. Because the key to shaking our instinctive homophobia is to forget what is important and concentrate on what is relevant.
When you meet someone, what is relevant to you?
You slip casually into conversation with a stranger; your small talk tickles their interest and you laugh cautiously — mysteriously — at their jokes. You judge them. You note their accent, their commanding body language, their perfectly tailored suit. His posture is dignified. He talks briefly about his work; he’s an associate at a law firm, and by his gently withheld smirk you know he’s never been happier. He chuckles teasingly, excited about your common interest in film and buzzing about the future of Star Wars, but he’s busy — he tells you he’s running late for a meeting with a new client— and you go your separate ways. Moments later, you turn around and notice his familiar dark, neatly styled hair above the crowds. He links fingers with his boyfriend. Your synapses flash with surprise: I thought he said he had a meeting?