I'm Daniel. I'm heterosexual and (was) homophobic.
I can recall my high school days when gays were fags, pussies, dykes, freaks, outsiders, non-entities, people you'd always get support for abusing, the safest of scapegoats. I wondered why I (and others) invariably reacted with avoidance, indifference and disdain, whether we were aware of it or not. I didn't understand how I was different or better. Certainly, I wasn't a pillar of normalcy, yet I was obviously better off than they were.
It wasn't until I was a freshman in college that I learned about stigma in a sociology class. A stigma is a visible or known attribute that relegates a person to a substandard or less desirable category of people. This person is disgraced, treated as weak, evil, immoral, defective, incapable and unworthy. But at the time, I hadn't made the connection that gay people were stigmatized, probably because out of sight meant out of mind into me. It wasn't until graduate school that I realized I was homophobic. It was there I first heard the term. My understanding was that it had to do with the stigma attached to being gay, an aversion to same gender sex accompanied by a devaluation of the person. My homophobia was evident in the ways I reacted to the idea of men having sex with other men, women having sex with other women; of a man wanting to have sex with me and of me having sex with a man. I was aware of an ingrained, almost automatic fear and revulsion, and was able to talk about it. More alarming, however, were its unconscious manifestations how my homophobia influenced my behavior whenever I was with someone who was gay. I acted respectfully and even honestly. I was able to laugh with the person, ask for help and offer help. I knew how to be nice. But then, after we parted, it seemed I was relieved. As I developed more understanding of my homophobia and homophobia in general, I saw there was a distinction between blatant and sophisticated homophobia. When it's blatant, homophobia usually comes across as ignorance or malevolence. When it's sophisticated, the person's attitude is more subtle; pretension, concealment and denial are involved. The question I eventually had to ask myself was how emotionally close can or would I allow myself to get to someone who is gay. Although I wanted to see myself as someone who treats every person as equal, I wasn't sure I was capable of doing so. Since my contact with the gay population was minimal, I hadn't explored this question much further. It was when I decided to get more involved professionally with the gay population that I was, once again, confronted by this question. I was putting together my first gay men's Dating to Relate workshop, which was about developing dating and intimacy skills. Up to this point I had done only heterosexual groups and workshops. One of the participants told me he had AIDS and wanted me to call the other group members to make sure his having AIDS was okay with them. I was under the impression that if someone is not actually sick, they probably don't have AIDS, they're merely HIV-positive. After I had spoken to the other group members, I let him know that none of them had a problem with his being HIV-positive. He later called back to tell me that my ignorance about HIV and AIDS made him feel unsafe being in a therapy group with me as the leader. During the course of conversation, it became clear to me that I was not only dealing with someone who was gay, but someone with a disease, someone who could get sick and die. Suddenly I felt exposed and vulnerable. It dawned on me that I had kept myself insulated or emotionally removed from the reality of AIDS, despite all the attention it received in the media. Why was AIDS something that wasn't real to me until it was in my face? Was it my homophobia? Or did it have more to do with my aversion to disease and death? Either way I had to respond to him. He wanted my assurance that I understood his considerations and he responded with a decision to be in the group.
This conversation changed me. I got much closer to him than I had anticipated. I found myself getting intimately involved with a gay man who has AIDS and knew I was going to get even more involved with him during the group. I accepted the fact that I couldn't take his AIDS away from him, that he and AIDS were a package deal. In that moment, I also realized that his being gay was the same thing; it's impossible to totally accept someone who is gay without accepting his or her sexual orientation. This was just the beginning of my metamorphosis. During the workshop, it became apparent that, just like me, these gay men were also homophobic. But unlike me, their fear and revulsion were directed at themselves and profoundly affected their experience in relationships. Not only was their homophobia an obstacle with which they had to contend, they had to overcome the kind of deep, silent pain that stigmatized people suffer when they know that what they are at their core is unwanted, unworthy and doesn't belong. Several of them discussed homophobia as a determining factor in their emotional and sexual development, and as an impediment in developing sexual and intimate relationships. One of the group participants noted, "Growing up, being gay was the absolute worst thing in the world. It was the lowest low of human beings. Gay sex was what distinguished me from other people. It was taboo for me to express my sexuality. There were no role models around me. I didn't receive any positive messages. I didn't know any gay people. There were no gay people in my family. I had no gay friends. To me, gay sex was perverted, wrong, dirty and awful. The anonymous sex I had, which was about 95% of all the sex I had was a playing out of society's expectations of how I should have sex. And I did a remarkably good job. The only options I had were furtive and shameful. Even after I came out, this pattern was so ingrained in me it persisted, that all I could have was that kind of sex and part of me still believes that gay sex should be anonymous, that it belongs in bathrooms or the park." Someone else added, "And it's part of what made the gay community such a fertile place for HIV to land. Our culture doesn't support monogamous relationships between the same sexes. It supports those kinds of encounters: bath houses, parks, bookstores, gas stations, where we don't know our partners. We don't like what you do, but if you're going to do it, keep it in sleazy places where we don't have to see it or know about it. If it were okay to make a commitment to another person, anonymous sex wouldn't be as prevalent as it is and nor would the gay population be such a hotbed for sexually transmitted diseases." As we discussed the issue of homophobia further, it became apparent that homophobia isn't merely a part of our social conditioning; it exists in our families as well, where it is probably the most well-disguised. It was unanimously accepted among the group members that being gay or living a gay lifestyle was not an option for them. Whether the messages were implicit or explicit, they felt being gay was a source of embarrassment and disappointment to their parents. These men taught me a lot about something I had no experience of, namely, what it's like to grow up in an extremely homophobic society. At the same time, however, I was deeply disturbed. I couldn't help but wonder, What if most people are like how I used to be: uninformed, afraid and judgmental? How many people really want to know what it's like being gay? What it's like growing up in a culture that rejects and denies your very essence, what it's like to have parents who can't and in many cases never will accept you, what it's like to be different from everyone else, to live in secrecy, to be hated and mocked so long that you actually believe you are incapable of intimacy, and as a result, resort to anonymous sex as the only available means for sexual/human contact, yet are like everyone else, yearning for love?