issue 201 - November 1989
Homophobia (hatred of homosexuals) and heterosexism
(the assumption that heterosexuality is the only norm)
are deeply rooted in many societies. Here are a few ways
in which we can all help to change the attitudes
that cause misery and destroy lives.
Don't automatically assume that a person is straight - even if you think you know them well. There is a good chance (about one in ten) that you are wrong. If you assume they are heterosexual you make it much harder for them to be open and honest with you. However sympathetic you may be in reality, that person has no way of knowing that you are not prejudiced against homosexuals. There are simple light-handed ways around this difficulty. For example, when inquiring after someone s lover you can use neutral terms like 'partner' instead of 'girlfriend' or 'boyfriend'. Even more positive is to refer to them as 'her or him' - indicating that you recognize the possibility that the partner in question might be of either sex.
Poking fun at lesbians and gays or referring to them with abusive terms is all too common. You can challenge this in a number of ways. For example if you hear someone using terms like 'pouf', 'faggot' or 'queer' you might remark, 'Would you refer to a black person as a "nigger"?' or 'You seem to be very interested in this subject. Why do you think that is?' Another option is to ask them how many homosexuals they actually know. Alternatively, by saying something like: 'I don't understand why people are so hostile to homosexuals? Do you have any idea why it happens?' might encourage them to think more deeply.
Make it known if you are lesbian or gay. This is easier said than done, but most oppression stems from ignorance. Although all straight people probably have at least one gay person amongst their circle of friends or within their family many will be unaware of the fact. Each time you 'come out' to someone you are not only being more honest in your relationships with people - you are also making it easier for the next gay person to do likewise. And coming out to people who care about you, gives them the chance to change their negative attitudes. But it is risky. You could also be giving them the chance to be extremely hostile. A degree of psychological preparation helps.
When someone tells you they are gay, believe them. It may well be the most difficult thing they ever have had to say to anyone. Your refusal to believe is a rejection of them as the person they are. Panicking parents and friends often respond in this unhelpful way. Another typical response is to blame someone or something for this 'abnormality'. Worse still is to try and get the gay relative 'straightened out' by psycho- or hypno-therapy. Many people would rather stubbornly cling to the idea of homosexuality as a disease or deviation than to recognize it as a rather common variation. This can lead them to do unintentional but lasting damage to their nearest and dearest.
Don't treat sex as a taboo subject when talking to lesbians and gays. Many liberal-minded people will be friendly to lesbian or gay people but still make it quite clear that anything to do with sexuality is off the conversation agenda. This is a form of gentle censorship, which reinforces the lesbian or gay person's feeling of alienation. It often happens because people are socially conditioned to be intensely embarrassed by homosexuality. But gay people themselves have had their own hang-ups about homosexuality and therefore are good to talk to about it.
Support lesbian and gay rights - however you define yourself sexually. It is part of a wider struggle for emotional and sexual liberation that involves you too. Recognize that gay oppression is as destructive and pervasive as discrimination against people on the ground of race, gender and religion. Perhaps a gay colleague is being threatened with the sack on account of her or his sexuality? Take industrial action, and get homosexuality written into your company's equal opportunities policy - if it has one. Perhaps homosexuality is illegal in your country? This will make things more difficult. But you can refuse to enforce anti-gay legislation, campaign for reform, and call for laws to actively protect lesbians and gays against discrimination. There could be cases of discrimination in your own neighbourhood. Perhaps you hear of a lesbian mother who looks likely to lose custody of her children on grounds of her sexuality? Give her your support.
One of the main ways in which homophobia can be combated is by creating a climate that is positive to lesbians and gays. This can be done by lesbians and gays making themselves visible, defining themselves politically and campaigning for equal rights with heterosexuals in all areas of life. But it can also be done by educating people and bringing homosexuality in to the cultural mainstream in a positive way. Complain when the media bombards you with only negative or sensational images of homosexuality. Encourage positive images such as TV soap operas that feature gays and lesbian people in an unbiased way, or educational material that recognizes that not all couples are heterosexual.