Its an unfortunate fact of our current culture that many people still fail to judge others based on the content of their character. Instead, a single quality of a person can trigger hate, fear and prejudice. Racism, sexism and xenophobia seem to fill the nightly news. From the #metoo movement, to President Trump’s false justifications for The Wall, to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling for racial justice, the fight for equality and fairness has been front and center.
However, in recent months it seems the issue of homophobia has taken a back seat to those other movements. Since the Supreme Court solidified gay couples’ right to marry in 2015, the LGBTQ community has made progress gaining acceptance, but there are still large pockets of society who exhibit fear, hate and violence towards the community.
Like racism and sexism, homophobia is often based on stereotypes, false-beliefs and a lack of interaction with people from diverse backgrounds. And while hate in any form is disturbing, we often look past it by telling ourselves that we, nor anyone we know would harbor such prejudices against someone else simply because they are attracted to individuals of the same sex.
However, every now and then someone close to you surprises you. Someone who you thought you knew unintentionally reveals their true selves, and it can be shocking. That is what happened to me, and that experience is the inspiration for this essay.
Over the summer, a group of close friends and I signed up for a tour of local breweries. The draw for this particular tour was that the travel was accomplished by kayak and bicycle. Our group, four heterosexual guys in their early 30s who’ve known each other since childhood, peddled and paddled our way to five of the best breweries in Milwaukee, WI.
As we approached the final brewery, we noticed that the street was blocked off for an event. There was a DJ Booth and the entire area was packed with people. Once we got closer, we realized it was a gay-pride event. The crowd was energized, and the music was banging.
Three of us had a very enjoyable time. While none of my close friends are LGBTQ, most of us are openminded and accepting of people for who they are. Regardless, this was my first time at a gay pride event, and I tried to guard against any stereotyping.
I expected to see bright colors, fabulous outfits, a full dance floor, and to hear some great music. My expectations were not disappointed. The event had a great vibe, and I was happy to celebrate with the LGBTQ community. I can’t say what my friends’ expectations were, but we ordered a few more rounds and I think most of us enjoyed being at the lively event.
However, after about an hour, things took a turn for the worse, and one of my dearest friends revealed a very ugly side that I had never scene before. During a trip to the facilities to relieve ourselves (as one does after a day of drinking IPAs), my friend exploded in a fit of anger at another guy standing in line, accusing him of “looking at him” while he was using the facilities. I did not see what had happened, and I don’t know if anything of note actually occurred. But I do know whatever did happen did not warrant the fit of rage that my friend displayed. Fear and anger were in his eyes, and I was dumbfounded by the situation I found myself in.
Luckily, the accused was in a conciliatory mood, and we exited the area without incident. Then, in our walk back to our table, he blurted out a “what are you looking at” to a passerby. My friend told me that he thought another man had looked at him the wrong way. In our youth, this usually meant someone wanted to fight, but at this event, it meant someone wanted to flirt.
By the time we made it back to the table and rejoined the group, my friend was distressed. He lead the conversation that followed, and it was filled with homophobia. He told us that he didn’t like the way “they” acted and that “they” should just leave him alone. He attacked the way people were dressed, and said that he didn’t care if people were LGBTQ, but didn’t like how they were “out there with it.” It was obvious that he felt threatened because another man may (or may not) have looked at him.
I sat their listening in subtle disbelief, and a strange sense of irony entered my mind. I realized that he felt threatened because he believed men were looking at him the same way he often looked at women. He was now the target of the “male gaze” that he had used so many times on women before. As I looked back through the many years I had known him, I began to see a pattern, that my friend had always viewed women as inferior, and often treated them with little respect.
His idea of flirting often involved aggressive behavior, perhaps not sexual assault, but in light of #metoo, I can’t say for sure. The entire situation felt like an out-of-body experience. Someone I thought I knew like a brother had hidden a side of themselves from me for over 20 years. Maybe it was hidden, or maybe I was guilty of looking the other way.
He says he’s infuriated because “all of them” are looking at him like a piece of meat. In actuality, no one was paying any more attention to him than any other stranger at the event. What he would not admit is that he was uncomfortable because his worldview had been flipped. Here, he sees himself as the prey, just as he would view a woman at the bar.
Given the content of the conversation that was unfolding, we had to leave the event before most of us wanted to. On the way out, my friend, someone I’ve never seen in a fight, was pounding his chest and getting in the face of any one who even looked our way. In all honesty, it was kind of sad.
That was several months ago. While I am still close with the other two friends who were part of our brewery tour, I’ve spoken very little to the friend who displayed such homophobia. I wish I could say it was because I decided to make a principled stand against homophobia, but that would not be true. It wasn’t a conscious decision to drift apart. He simply was no longer the kind of person I wanted to be associated with. When opportunities came around to call, text or get together, my intuition took me to people and places that did not include that friend or people with those views.
The whole experience has made me reevaluate how I view homophobic men. I understand this is armchair psychology, and is all purely anecdotal. However, the connections and patterns are logical. I think most heterosexual men who treat women poorly, be it sexual assault, subjugation or sexism, do so because of their own fears and insecurities. It makes sense that those same fears and insecurities would reveal themselves when they assume, correctly or not, that another man is looking at them as they look at women.
Real conversations about how we feel about people who are different than ourselves do not happen often. For those of us who are accepting and openminded, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, we have to remember that there are people, sometimes friends, that are not ready to let go of their fear and hate, no matter how misplaced or unfounded it is.