Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Email about subtle homophobia in everyday life

A few months ago, a reader sent me an email which highlights a very interesting issue. The email was as follows:

Dear GB,

I am sending you this email at one o’clock in the morning, as I just got home quite early from a party. I love your blog and with all the different stories it has really enlightened me in the past few months, considering we all have to go through the same problems more or less. The thing I want to tell you about is either a subtle form of homophobia, or me being too sensitive.

I am 22 years old and am studying Psychology at a University in Germany. I had my coming out when I was 16, always having lived with it quite happily. There are things to it which I wish could be easier like getting children or the fact that finding a partner doesn’t exactly work like it does for straight people, though those are not really hard issues for me.

The thing is that I am quite a masculine guy and though I have my fair share of female friends and a few gay friends who I feel really comfortable around, I am also friends with quite a lot of straight guys, because they're something I wouldn’t want to miss in my life. The thing that really bugs me every now and then is the phases in which they just keep going on about my sexuality through like quite stupid and obvious jokes. And believe me, I’m actually a really fun person and make jokes about myself and others all the time and I don’t mind others making jokes about me, but there is this certain kind of gay jokes that I sometimes think are more than just jokes.

My problem is that I get really pissed off sometimes like I did at the party I was at earlier this night, because I was the only gay guy and after hearing the tenth gay joke I just can't find it funny anymore. Am I being too sensitive or is this something you came across in life yourself? I’m sure everybody does at some point. If it was some random person that didn't matter to me making those jokes I really wouldn’t care. Or if it's like a gay friend of mine, I wouldn’t care, because they obviously know what it's like, but with my friends it really bugs me sometimes, I just don’t want to be reminded that I’m gay all the fucking time, it just shouldn’t be that important to mention it all the time.

It’s kind of hard to put all the thoughts I have right now to words. But I hope you get what I mean and I would be really happy to hear back from you!


Of course, I know exactly what this reader means. To my mind, a good example of the subtle homophobia that the reader is referring to is the word 'gay' itself. Wikipedia has an excellent article about how the use of the word 'gay' has changed over time, and that these days the word 'gay' can be used in an abusive context, for example the phrase "that's gay" can mean "that's rubbish".

However, the reader was writing from Germany, and when I first read the email I wondered whether he was referring to the German rather than the English language. So I sent a quick reply to ask that question, and also to ask whether he could provide some examples of the subtle homophobia that he's thinking of. It didn't take him long to respond:

Hi GB,

The thing is with my friends that I just don’t want to be friends with other gay guys or just girls. And with straight guys one often finds himself confronted with this constant ‘making-fun-of-the-gay-guy’. Obviously this is something that only happens amongst others, when I’m alone with my friends it’s not ever a problem. So for example we were talking about heteroscedasticity and homoscedasticity, so one of my friends found the ‘homo’ part really funny. And he made the same joke two days later, so at that point I was quite pissed off already, because this isn’t a joke that’s like funny at all. I sent you my previous email after I'd been to a guy's birthday party, and we all congratulated him and gave him a hug, and when I walked up he was like "I’ll get an extra warm hug from you" (though I must say he doesn’t matter that much to me and in a different context I wouldn’t consider this as a ‘bad making fun of’). And then there were two of my really close friends, who are actually the reason for me contacting you, because they are my closest male friends at Uni and all the other males I have like a good friendship with too, but I’m not as close with any of them as I am with those two. Let’s call the N and J for now. So N was talking to J about nicknames and he was like "I could just call you wiener" (and yes, we have the same meaning for wiener) and then I came in and was like ‘yea’ and then N said ‘yea, I know you like wiener’ – I suck dick, thanks for reminding me.

And you know, there are things like that quite often. It follows a certain pattern. At first when you come out to others they don’t talk about it at all and then they start making fun of it. But they probably wouldn’t talk to me about emotional things like if there’s a guy that I am dating or whatever, or if, it wouldn’t be quite as natural.

The real problem is that the difference between good and bad 'making fun of' is marginal. I make fun of myself all the time and I wouldn’t want them to stop being funny, I make fun of them too. But with sexuality it’s just quite difficult. Either way I think I can either talk to them and tell them what I think, or just leave it. However I’m not somebody that likes to stick to situations that are unpleasant, or in this situation disappointing.

Also I think it's quite unfair for them to make jokes about a subject like this, because they seriously don’t know what life as an openly gay guy is like.

I have gone through this situation many times before, because I seriously feel the need for male friends in my life and it just happens that they’re not always gay. Here in Germany people are also just a bit behind on the subject of homosexuality compared to England, where I used to live for three years.

And yea, we have the word 'schwul' in German, though it only describes the sexuality of two males loving each other. But it's just as misused as the word gay is in English.

Take care,

There's little doubt in my mind that the general subtle homophobia in everyday language, such as 'gay' meaning 'rubbish', relates to people (particularly teenagers) who want to be seen to be *normal* (as they see it). Hence they use language to distance themselves from being gay, and similarly might poke fun at gay people. I have no idea how to deal with this issue, but it's an important problem because it had a bad effect on gay people who haven't yet come out. Luckily the reader doesn't have a problem being gay, so for him the subtle homophobia is just extremely irritating.

When I was younger, I can also recall some *friends* sniggering when talking to me and words arose in conversation that contained 'homo'. Although that kind of behaviour can be annoying, it's also very childish. If that happened to me now, I'd probably just discontinue the conversation and walk away, because it's pointless trying to have adult conversations with children.

One thought is that the kind of behaviour that the reader describes can simply be from people who're not used to handling social situations with openly gay people. Although the jokes aren't funny to gay people because we've heard it all before, people who haven't met many gay people may need to get it out of their system. So I think that as friendships develop, that kind of behaviour will gradually stop because the novelty will wear off.

However I do have one constructive idea that people like the reader might be able to use to tackle the problem, namely to join in their game and poke fun back at their friends. For example,
"Yeah, I know you like wiener," says N.

"That makes sense, " replies the reader, "and perhaps I should call you pussy for the same reason!"
Or perhaps a put down, for example
"I’ll get an extra warm hug from you " says the birthday boy.

"Don't count on it mate," replies the reader, "but if I get desperate I'll let you know!"
Of course, to make a success of this approach it's necessary to be quick witted. Most people can think of the perfect response to something after the event when it's too late! But it might just work for someone like the reader, who may be able to channel his anger into finding the right response at the right time.

Anyway, have any other readers encountered similar things, or does anyone else have any thoughts on how to tackle this problem?