A candlelight vigil for Orlando was held at City Hall this week. Pride flags flew as the windows of the atrium fogged with the heat of the huddled crowd. Interactions were elated and subdued, tenderly hushed. I entered to a refrain of “ I am gay, and I am tired,” emanating from Sowyer Making.
Another speaker, Alex Noel, cautioned against armchair activism: action, not prayers, they said. Longtime educator Susan Rose urged the government to implement an LGBTQ curriculum from kindergarten. “We learn how to hate,” she said.
Gerry Rogers exalted our sweeping strides, but warned of the pernicious force that lurks “sometimes in dark corners, sometimes in broad daylight”: homophobia.
I think about homophobia a lot. It’s a monster that has lived inside of me all my life, rearing its head at every juncture, from early childhood onward. Throughout my life it has governed my mannerisms, and dictated everything from my style of dress to my career choices.
I encountered it as a five-year-old when my aunt told me to pick out any treat I wanted and I handed a package of fake fingernails to the cashier.
As a seven-year-old so enamoured with Madonna’s Vogue that I insisted on playing it for the entire class every morning.
As a pre-teen inept at sports, as a teenager who admired female rappers, as an adolescent who preferred the platonic company of girls, I felt the sting of homophobia. Long before I had conceptualized the notion of same sex attraction, I knew homophobia – in the concerned look of my aunt, the taunting over my hobbies and personal tastes, the horror with which family reacted to my Mary J. Blige halloween costume.
When drumming up the courage to come out at the age of eighteen, it wasn’t homophobia I feared. Hate? Yes. Violence, definitely. But not homophobia. Hateful attacks happen, violent episodes occur. But homophobia is.
The LGBTQ community has fought tooth and nail for equality, and their struggle, at least in Canada, has been fruitful. It has resulted in the awarding of full legal and political rights to gay and lesbian couples – a massive victory worthy of celebration.
Another admirable triumph of the Struggle has been increased LGBTQ representation across social platforms like television, movies, and books. The LGBTQ community has become more fully integrated in Western societies and the positive implications of that are undeniable. There is one potentially negative effect, though, that concerns me, especially in the wake of events like Orlando.
In addition to guaranteeing us equal rights in the political and legal realms, the sheer might of the LGBT movement, like that of African Americans, has resulted in the demonization of any potentially inflammatory language. You can’t say the N-word; you can’t say ‘faggot.’
The positive result of this censorship is that people heed its message: You can’t be racist; you can’t be homophobic. The potentially negative result, however, is that people reject these monsters without ever looking them in the eye.
I’ve heard people condemn the shooting of Trayvon Martin while admitting they’d be hesitant to enter an establishment whose entrance was crowded by black people in hoodies. I’ve heard people vocally support gay marriage while refusing invitations to gay events out of fear of ridicule from coworkers. I’ve heard the same people maintain their insistence that they aren’t racist, that they aren’t homophobic.
I am homophobic. I’ve always been homophobic, and part of me always will be. I’m not hateful, I’m not violent, and I’m certainly not anti-gay, but I am homophobic. The homophobia I harbour inside of me was instilled at a very early age, at the same time I was learning to walk and talk, to belong.
It was taught to me in gym class, when my inaptitude for sports was first pointed out by the instructor. In music class, when my enthusiasm about singing A Whole New World was met with disgust. In the Family Living curriculum – not in what it contained per se, but in what it lacked: gay fathers, lesbian mothers, something – anything – to explain the irrepressible urges I had been feeling towards other males for years.
I distinctly recall listening to my red-faced class mate read aloud a highly detailed passage describing the process of vaginal intercourse to a classroom of chuckles. I also recall the contents of the postage stamp-sized text box at the bottom of the page: “Sometimes boys like boys.”
The worldwide outpouring of support in the wake of Orlando is heartening. It is further proof of the incredible strides the LGBTQ community has made around the world. But in my opinion, it is dangerous to call the massacre a homophobic attack.
In so doing, we bolster the prototype of the despicable homophobe as a vicious gun-toting maniac – an image we then use as a yardstick to measure and profess our own degree of tolerance. Orlando was not an act of homophobia and it was not an act of racism, it was an act of violence – violence rooted in ideology that has pervaded Western society since the Christian crusades.
Don’t look for homophobia in the motives of raging murderers – look for it in classrooms, in office breakrooms, in the subliminal subtexts of movies and shows and in the butt of the next “harmless” joke you hear. In so doing, remember the words of prehistorian John Lubbock who warned that “What we see depends mainly on what we look for,” as well as those of dearly beloved ally Sinead O’Connor: “Fight the real enemy.”