How To Not Be Accidentally Homophobic

(I was gonna make this a Pro Tips post, but couldn’t think of five things to put in separate headings…)

As someone living in not-Uganda, I experience the privilege of being able to coexist with queer people on a daily basis, without fear of having their, or indeed my, head kicked in at a moment’s notice. And with this privilege, I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning straight people make rather rude and insensitive remarks about queer people and their sexuality, through a combination of not appreciating the importance of subtle differences in vocabulary, and unintentional ignorance. Obviously, I can’t fix all the accidental homophobia in the world with this blog post, because it’s a problem way broader than this blog will ever reach and there’s no way a 700-word post can cover the sexualities of seven billion people, but I’m going to outline some ways of conducting yourself so as to minimise the chances of you being a bit of an arse.

Sexuality is complicated. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not binary options, propped up by the elusive ‘bisexuality’ that only exists for indecisive losers and that one female friend you have that conveniently allows you to ask her for a three-way with you and your girlfriend! A more accurate means of categorising sexuality is the Kinsey Scale, that assigns numbers from nought to six to various sexual preferences, and caters for people who are predominantly attracted to one gender, but can still find a few people of the other gender attractive. But even this is incomplete; the scale reinforces the idea of gender being binary, and doesn’t even touch upon transgender sexuality. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore sexuality altogether, because it’s full of difficult language that’s a bitch to learn, but that we should engage with people complexly, and see them as people with a sexuality, rather than a person with that sexuality.

Sexuality is fluid. I only used to wear football shirts. Now, I wear football shirts alongside t-shirts with band names and internet references on them. This is an example of a thing that changes, much like sexuality. (I’m not going to answer the ‘is homosexuality a choice’ thing here, because it’s stupidly complicated and its existence reinforces a heteronormative culture in which alternative sexualities must be justified and scientifically codified, instead of celebrated for the diversity of identity that they are) Just because I like men now doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll like them next year; just because I have a girlfriend doesn’t mean I’m necessarily straight. Just as you can’t assume that gay people like x, you can’t assume that one’s sexual preferences are fixed. So don’t make a big deal of my sexuality if I dump a girlfriend for a boyfriend; just focus on the fact that I’m probably a whore.

Sexuality is individual. This is maybe the biggest one, and deals with the idea of a ‘homosexual identity’. Just as some people choose to engage with gender or ethnic identities (a woman may choose to wear makeup because of society’s association between it, and a feminine identity), others may not (a woman, equally comfortable in her gender, may not wear makeup because its expensive and is a faff to put on). Equally, some queer people will dance on the podiums of G-A-Y late waving a rainbow flag, and others will facepalm in the corner in a dignified manner, dreading the drunken, stumbling, sing-a-long that will inevitably take the place of the walk home. One isn’t ‘more gay’ than the other, and one isn’t more comfortable in their sexuality than the other; they are just choosing to publicise those sexual identities to different extents.

Obviously this isn’t a universal guide, but keeping in mind those three traits of sexuality – its complexity, fluidity and individuality – will probably help you avoid a lot of awkward conversations with people on a topic you’re hopelessly and self-consciously ignorant about. Their sexuality is their business; don’t assume you can gauge their interests from it, don’t impose a single sexual identity onto each individual you meet, and don’t make everything worse by putting people into neat, rainbow-ribboned boxes, because you, as a straight person, are in no position to do so.

PS I’d still consider myself upsetting ignorant on this whole topic, because I’m about as sexually active as a vasectomised giant panda; feel free to call me out on any ignorance, wrong approaches, or, ironically, accidental bouts of homophobia.

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10 thoughts on “How To Not Be Accidentally Homophobic

  1. I’m sure that Kinsey, when the report was written, couldn’t imagine transgender folks but here’s the thing that stands out to me: Even a transgender is either male or female so the famous scale is still applicable (unless I’m dead wrong but I don’t believe I am). Indeed, I happen to know a bisexual transgender who went from being male to female and still has her desires for men and women – so there you go.

    Is sexuality complicated? No, not really – we just choose to complicate it because, as you said, sexuality is individual – it’s not what everyone says it is, it’s what YOU think it is, for example, the thing that drives me nuts: People who behave as bisexuals but say they aren’t – they’re heteroflexible and despite how they describe it, it’s still no different than being bisexual; it’s not how often you do a thing – it’s that you do it, period.

    When folks start talking, “hearts, not parts,” this just complicates it even more, in my opinion – it’s a denial that the parts aren’t of interest or somehow plays a minor role. But, ah, don’t we all tend to like the person so we can get to their parts? It’s a difference which makes no difference except to complicate something that isn’t really all that complicated.

    It just helps to keep a very open mind if you want to avoid being accidentally homophobic; look at sexuality just for what it is – a “sliding scale” – more than what you think is should be.

    1. I’d say that sexuality is complicated on a personal level, especially for people who themselves haven’t decided on a particular label for their sexuality. Also, perhaps the complexity comes in people discussing their sexuality with others then? Even if we all knew what we were interested in, explaining that to others can be hard, because of social stigma or a lack of specific terminology to describe your own preferences – it’s not inconceivable that someone could call themselves ‘gay’ because it’s the closest mainstream label to their sexuality, which might be so individual and unique no single term is widely accepted for it.

      Regarding the Kinsey scale, I agree that sexual preference can remain unchanged for people pre- and post-transition, but the scale in general reinforces the idea of gender being binary – whether you are a man or woman now, you can only be interested in men, or women, or both. Also the scale is pretty vague in not separating ‘male’ from ‘man’ for instance – some people could be biologically attracted to people with male sexual organs, but romantically attracted to people who display masculine traits in their behaviour, two things that are independent of each other.

      But I totally agree about the need to be open-minded – it’s being accepting of others’ ideas in the first place that lets us consider complex things, and form coherent responses to them 🙂

      1. Well, to me, the gender binary makes sense since it’s kinda obvious that people are either male or female, physically, emotionally, or even by role – gender, by definition, is the act of being male or female which, yes, is different than sex; you might have been born XY but in everything else, you’re XX.

        But just this distinction overly complicates the whole nine yards, doesn’t it? I think it does – for some reason, we just refused to apply the KISS principle. Yep – we can be attracted to male sexual organs or masculine traits – these can be seen in women as well, right? But there’s who we’re “supposed” to be attracted to – in this, men are only supposed to be attracted to the female form and the feminine role… and that was never true because if it was, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

        We must be more open-minded… and more simplistic so that we can see this for what it really is and not just what we think it’s supposed to be; it just unnecessarily complicates things and makes room for accidental things to happen.

        1. I know gender and sex are different things, but neither are binary – intersex people have sexual organs that can’t be defined as exclusively male or female, and gender is the act of associating with masculine or feminine roles, but you don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to taking on only one set.

          And I don’t think it complicates it unnecessarily – things like sex and sexuality are complicated, but imposing a simple view onto a complex problem won’t make it easier to understand, you’ll just end up understanding less. I associate open-mindedness with complexity, not simplicity. I reckon there are seven billion types of human for the seven billion humans, all of whom are unique, and all of whom need to be accepted as complicated. This will lead to some stereotyping in the short-term as we try to define people en masse, but it’s probably better in the long run.

          1. Intersex – you said the magic word because they’re the only folks who actually confuse me! The thing about complexity is that the simpler you can look at something, the easier it is to understand. When I was in college and getting my AA in computer science, I had to learn base-8, binary, and hexadecimal mathematics – it’s some crazy stuff and it’s complex.

            The whole class was failing until the professor changed up and simplified the concepts for us – then then As and Bs were flowing as expected. Sexuality appears to be complex – and it isn’t – but what we think is complicated. It’s not that hard to understand when applying a simple approach and more so when you begin with the fact that a lot of sexuality is all in our heads and our perceptions aren’t going to be consistent; my idea of being bi might not be like your idea – but we’re both bi.

            Wanna avoid accidental homophobia? Don’t assume, don’t presume, but simply be accepting…

            Loving the dialog, by the way – this is how we learn about each other!

            1. ‘My idea of being bi might not be your idea’ – I totally agree with this, and there’s a lot of complexity and confusion that comes from sexuality when you apply it, as an individual concept, to a whole society of people. I think we’re differing in our interpretations of this fact though – you’re suggesting (I think, but please correct me) that we all know who / what we are, and should be comfortable with our own sexuality foremost, as a thing we can each easily understand. I’m not disagreeing, but I think instead of each of us letting each other have their own sexuality and not bothering to engage with it, it might be helpful to try to understand the complexities and intricacies of each other. But that might just stem from the fact that I like gratuitous over-sharing of all the details of my life, so I’m more okay with others doing the same.

              And yes, the dialogue is awesome! This is perhaps the only conversation about sexuality on the internet I’ve seen that isn’t based on rampant homophobia.

            2. If we can understand ourselves and the fluidity of our bisexuality, can we then be able to understand the sexuality of others? It’s worked for me for five decades! Well, except those intersexual folks – still working on them.

              I love over sharing – gets people to learn stuff – you should read my blog and my “Today’s Bisexual Thoughts” if ya like oversharing…

    1. Your point about engaging with what is relevant is so true – I know people whose sexuality is a part of their identity, but for others they’ll not mention it at all, and it’s not like one person is ‘more gay’ than the other. It seems like queerness is seen, by a lot of straight people, as a kind of super-identity, one that colours all the other identities of a person – if you’re an athlete who is gay, you’re a gay athlete; or a teacher who is gay is a gay teacher. This seems way too simplistic a view.

      Also you quoted me alongside Owen Jones, which is probably undeserved and be greatest honour I’ve ever received 🙂

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