Overcoming homophobia, Part 2

By my thirties I was already quite comfortable around gay people socially and professionally, and aware of many of the issues they faced, living in a homophobic society. But the final breakthrough in working to eradicate the vestiges of my own homophobia occurred when my older brother, Lindsay, came out of the closet. Now his homosexuality could become part of the weave of our lifelong ongoing dialogue. Things not previously apprehended about my brother fell into place.

Lindsay has told me that as early as age five, he knew that he was somehow different from most other boys. He grew up to be masculine in his demeanor, with no distinctly effeminate mannerisms. In high school he dated (though not much) and played football. It would take him many years before he admitted – even to himself – that he was gay. He preceded me by two years attending The Citadel, the Charleston military academy that was my father’s alma mater. He had an Army contract. While in graduate school, he went to a counselor and asked what he could do about his feelings of attraction to men. He received the rote -and ignorant – prescription “Find yourself a good woman and marry her.” Back in those days, homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder, and many counselors believed that the cure was a good heterosexual marriage – if you really wanted to change.

I believe that Lindsay tried his best to become heterosexual, and that if he could have chosen, he would have chosen to be straight. He served in the Army, married a good woman, and fathered two children. He loved his wife in his own way, but knew he was living a lie. Sensing something amiss in their relationship, she persuaded him to join her in marital counseling. Lindsay finally confessed to the lie he was living. She was devastated, and filed for divorce soon afterward.

Lindsay called me in Beaufort, where I lived at the time, and asked me to drive up to our parents’ home, in the Charleston area. He had things to tell us. The four of us sat around the kitchen table, and he admitted to everything. He totally understood his wife’s feelings of fury and betrayal, and wouldn’t contest the terms of the divorce. We hugged one another and cried. Lindsay was afraid of our father’s judgment, but Dad came through. He allowed as how this was going to take some time to sink in, but said exactly what Lindsay needed to hear at that moment: “You’re still a man and you’re still my son, and I love you.”

Lindsay has been openly gay for decades now, and lives with his life partner. He still regrets what he put his ex-wife and kids through, saying “I found a good woman and messed up her life.” He came out in the local press  as a gay graduate of The Citadel – to my knowledge, the first ex-Citadel cadet to do so. At alumni gatherings some classmates were initially guarded, but most came around when they saw the he was the same old Lindsay they knew back then. My love for my big brother wasn’t influenced in the slightest by his revelation. I felt a little dumb for not having figured out on my own that he was gay, but he’s the same person I’ve known all my life. Now I fully understood that sexual orientation isn’t a lifestyle choice, but a part of who you fundamentally are. Homosexuality is a normal sexual variation, not a deviation.

I now recognize that I grew up in a racist, homophobic society, and that this has had consequences in my life. My father was less racist and homophobic than his own father, leaving me with less mental trash to discard. The first step in overcoming learned prejudices is to own them and examine them. Having biased beliefs about race or sexual orientation doesn’t make you a bad person, just someone with issues you need to examine and outgrow. It’s not who you love, with regard to gender or sexual orientation, that matters; it’s how you love. Being a sexually responsible but sexually active person means practicing safe sex with consensual partners who are capable of giving consent, and not using people sexually. Love is a natural sweetener, if not always a necessary ingredient.

Just as I’ve had to deal with the racist notions and memes I was exposed to in my youth, in order to understand and overcome any residual racist reflexes, I had to recognize the homophobia that still exists in our culture, in order to understand and rise above it. I take no pride in being either white or straight, because I had no choice in the matter. But – because black people have been told by so many that they’re inferior – if I were black, I’d embrace the Black Pride movement. Because of all the shaming and discrimination aimed at gay people, I fully support the Gay Pride movement as a corrective to intolerance.

Being openly gay isn’t easy when you have to deal with haters; but it’s so much better than having to live a lie. Living in the closet inevitably takes its emotional toll, and some closeted gay people end their own lives rather than coming out. Lindsay describes his own coming out as both a liberation and a “homecoming.” Gay and proud, he says he knows that there will always be homophobes, but he no longer fears them.

 

 

Overcoming homophobia, Part 1

My first memory related to homophobia is from middle school. I was about to attend my very first dance, at an international school in Vienna, and was talking to a friend who had already been to school dances. Asking for instruction, I reached out as if to a dance partner, left arm up, right arm at hip level. Jumping back, he said “What are you, a homo?” I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t know anything about homosexuality, except that it was bad.

Like most of my generation, in my teens I heard “fag” jokes, and my image of a gay person was the stereotype of the effeminate “fairy.” That image changed in high school, when I was groped by a “normal looking” man at a news stand in Columbus, Georgia. I was scared and disgusted, and practically ran from the store. I got propositioned by men a few times as a young man, and never had a positive, non-threatening encounter with a gay man until years later. When I was an Army Lieutenant, I was propositioned by a bisexual Major. When I thought about men having sex with men, I felt disgust.

I’ve already written about my time as a race relations educator in the Army.  Although I wasn’t raised in a racist family,  during my training at the Defense Race Relations Institute I realized that you can’t grow up in a racist society, untouched by racism’s taint. As I became aware of the need to work on ridding myself of my own residual racism, I also became aware of my homophobia. I’d grasped the principle that people often fear things they don’t understand;  and I certainly didn’t understand homosexuality.

Over time I came to the realization that homosexuality wasn’t a choice, and that the stereotypes I’d associated with being gay weren’t accurate. I saw the movie “The Boys in the Band” and for the first time realized that gay people are just as varied, as individuals, as straight people. I read a speculative fiction story about a future dystopian society where homosexuality was the legally-enforced norm, and heterosexuals were persecuted as “queers.”  It really made me wonder what it would be like to be labeled a “queer” just because of who I make love with.

After I got out of the Army, my then-wife Doris and I (we’re still good friends) visited a former soldier I’d worked, traveled, and even shared hotel rooms with during my time as a race relations educator. Although he’d successfully passed for straight during his Army service and I’d never suspected otherwise, seeing him in civilian life it was quickly apparent  that he was gay. He revealed that he’d always felt very attracted to me. I suddenly realized that I’d had many positive, non-threatening encounters with a gay man whom I considered my friend. And he’d never hit on me! It was a major breakthrough. Thank you, Scott, wherever you are!

In grad school I conscientiously worked on chipping-away at my residual homophobia, knowing that I’d have gay clients in therapy. My real-life test came when I attended an afternoon immersion-experience workshop at a psychology conference, titled “Being Gay for Part of a Day.”  We were split up into small groups by our gay facilitators, and asked to role-play being gay, in a bar with other gay men. (Each group had at least one gay facilitator in it.) I’ve acted on stage, and did my best to get into character, so as to make the most out of out of this educational experience. As instructed, I chose the man in my group that I thought I might be most attracted to if I were gay, and focused my attention on him.  After we ended the exercise and I broke character, it quickly became apparent that the guy was convinced that I was really gay, and either on-the-make or still in denial about my sexual orientation. At first, I felt humiliated and defensive. I protested that I was happily married and tried my best to convince him that it had just been an act; but my efforts just seemed to reinforce his belief. It was a liberating experience when I decided that it was okay for him to be convinced that I was gay. I just let it go and was immediately at peace, because I’d internalized the belief that I’d need in order to do therapy with gay people: There’s nothing wrong with being gay.

By the time I became a professional therapist, I felt comfortable working with gay (lesbian, trans, etc.) clients, many of whom were confused or conflicted about their sexual orientation/identity. Many were dealing with their own homophobia. As a non-judgmental straight male, I was in a good position to validate the client’s sexuality. More than once I said something like this: “I hear that you don’t want to be gay, but you can’t deny your feelings. I’d say that what’s important for now is to accept that you’re a sexual person, like everybody else, and that’s a good thing. In time, you’ll figure out what prefix – hetero, homo, bi, trans, whatever – to put in front of it. I just hope you know that there’s nothing wrong with you if it turns out that you’re gay. In the meantime, what’s important is that you’re a loving and sexually responsible person.”

In my next post I’ll tell you about my final breakthrough in overcoming my own homophobia.