Homophobe! Homophobe! Homophobe!

Your AggreGAYtor begins hir search for a kinder, gentler word

You mean, all this time, we could have been friends?
You mean, all this time, we could have been friends?

How do we gently escort people out of their bubbles of privilege, to see the world as it is, without shutting down all communication lines? It's like bathing a cat.

We’ve all met him (and it’s pretty much always a “him”): blissfully unaware of his own level of attractiveness, which is often rather low, and likely not very pleasant around women. His cup of entitlement runneth over, his obnoxious objectification is seldom checked, and when it is, the checker is promptly labeled a “bitch” or “faggot” or “pinhead” and stuffed into some handy category, never to be consulted again. His opinions on gender and sexuality usually revolve around the idea that all sexual attention naturally revolves around him, and at his most beneficent, his pronouncements on homosexuality go as far as “They’re OK as long as they don’t hit on me.” “Homophobe” can be a very accurate term for that guy; he harbors an irrational fear of same-sex attraction that can sometimes lead to situations that threaten grave harm to himself and others.

But the largest bloc stalling our progress are the millions of citizens who simply don’t see why LGBTQ equality even matters. Their lives, as far as they know, would be unaffected, and of course, change is difficult, even threatening. They, however, are neither the enemy nor should they be painted with the broad, pathologizing brush of homophobia, and perhaps it’s time to figure out how to name them, since they are the audience we must approach. After all, to the extent that our movement has succeeded, it has done so primarily due to the success of Harvey Milk’s call for us to “Come out, come out, wherever [we were].” They are our relatives, our peers and coworkers, our neighbors, and they can be brought round. However, before we draw a fine line between the boorish bigot and the rank-and-file voter we hope to convince of our cause, we must acknowledge an important point.

Whenever a contentious issue arises, forces arise ready to use any tactic in pursuit of their ends. The Right has amassed a symphony of dog whistles to pursue white-straight-cis-male supremacy, and while racism at this point is a thoroughly coded, secret enterprise shrouded in “political correctness,” homophobia has its own cottage industry. The activists of Homophobia,  Inc. are committed to driving the feral homophobes into a frenzy, while teasing out any lingering fear, doubt, and uncertainty in the voter at large. They make a living off the first group, but their real successes happen when they shut down dialogue between our movement and the second. According to blogger Rob Tish (who is also an inspiration for this post):

Much of our opposition declares gay people to immoral, depraved, Hitler-enabling, America-hating purveyors of evil comparable to murderers and rapists, who reduce their children to trophies, cannot love them like straight parents can, cannot love their partners, are worthy of death, and are in the thrall of Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan.

And Satan.

So yes, it’s hard to have a rational conversation when such wildly irrational scaremongering accusations are constantly being lobbed, but try we must. When someone says something ignorant and racist, we accomplish little by calling them a racist and taking punitive measures. Even with the loudest megaphone and the most public of pillories, the most that’s accomplished is that the offender wishes he’d kept his stupid mouth shut, and that’s neither helpful to anyone. Indeed it could be harmful, because one can only imagine the self-righteousness felt by closet racists everywhere. “Thank goodness I know better than to say that.” The same with homophobia. It’s structural. The world we live in is racist, sexist, and, yes, homophobic, with a whole lot of other “otherings” on top of that.

The anti-LGBTQ talking heads continually brought back on Fox News or Meet the Press (despite their organizations’ dwindling support) make it hard to see the line between the spittle-flecked homophobic bigot and the nice neighbor who just doesn’t want her kids to grow up in a different world than she did. If we can reach her, then maybe, just maybe, we can show her how hard growing up in that world was very hard for people who were growing up different. That’s our goal, after all, as progressives: to leave the world better than we found it, not pickled in a rose-colored vat of nostalgia.

We won’t reach that neighbor by labeling her as a homophobe or a bigot, even if she occasionally falls under the sway of National Organization for Marriage or the American Family Association, we have to prove to her that we’re no more ‘other’ to her than she is to us. That’s not an assimilationist statement—we in all our marvelous variety are just as human, just as worthy, and just as interconnected as she is, and unless she’s really a closeted bigot of the first order, she would come to recognize that, if given the chance. However, we shut down that opportunity ourselves when we give her the title of “homophobe” and categorize her out of our lives.

If our gender expressions or sexual preferences were the biggest difference between people, we’d live in a much more harmonious world. Instead, we live in a world that not only expresses the incredibly vast range of human expression and experience, but pushes the limits. Only those of us who embrace that fact have the possibility of living in a world that is both harmonious and diverse. Those who refuse to accept humanity’s built-in rainbow flag are destined to spend their lives polishing their tribal totems and fending off the other/inferior/inhuman tribe, wasting their chance to see life as it is, to feel true compassion, or to experience something the Christians call “grace.” When we shut them out in turn, however, we do ourselves the same disservice.

So where do we go from here? What do we call our potential-but-not-quite-yet allies in the struggle for LGBTQ equality? Do we need to call them anything but our friends and neighbors?

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