The phenomenon of homophobia touches every aspect of a gay man’s life. Work, romance, religion, politics, the feelings of acceptance and belonging. From the casual remark of the unexposed bigot who utters “how man go dey fuck man” to the extreme case of gay men being thrown off roof tops to their deaths, homophobia manifests in our society.
In a recent gathering, on a hot harmattan’s afternoon, I sat with a group of men who exchanged stories about their homosexual experiences. One by one, and in the boisterous manner common of informal round table discussions, each man re-countered personal stories of skin-to-skin action involving male muscles and aroused penises.
The conversation however shifted in tone when one of the men, in response to another’s fondness of feminine men, said with the ends of his lips pointing downwards, “Some men are just too gay. I can’t be seen with them. Especially not in public.” What followed, as I unwittingly presumed, wasn’t a chorus of dissent rebuking the man for his utterance but an almost unanimous consensus of the reason gay men need to do a better job at concealing their homosexuality.
A gathering of homosexual men engaged in the exercise of rebuking other homosexuals for homosexual behaviours seems ironic. But it alludes to the reality that homophobia isn’t something to be found only in non-homosexual people.
We tend to be acutely aware of the biases of others without recognising our own biases. Imagine the gathering I described had comprised heterosexual men spewing vitriol about how homosexuals need to denounce their homosexual ways, and any one of my gay counterparts was in the midst of these heterosexual men. Every one of the gay men would have come out of the gathering in regret for having wasted a perfectly good afternoon with a band of homophobes.
Why are homosexuals quick to recognise homophobia in others but fail to see it in themselves?
One possible reason is: It can be difficult to see how the member of a group can engage in actions antithetical to the interest of the group. Another reason which is rarely touched upon is the (false) notion that homophobia is a dichotomy. You are either a homophobe or you are not. But as with a lot of manifestations, the phenomenon of homophobia manifests across a continuum.
I have created the following scale to demonstrate this point.
- 0 – Homophilia: Homophilic people love homosexual experiences, and promote such experiences.
- 1 – Conflicted homophilia: Conflicted homophilic people are drawn to homosexual experiences, but can find themselves question the promotion of such experiences.
- 2 – Indifference: Indifferent people lack care about homosexuality.
- 3 – Conflicted homophobia: Conflicted homophobic people are appalled by homosexual experiences, but can find themselves question the point of eradicating such experiences.
- 4 – Homophobia: Homophobic people hate homosexual experiences, and look out for ways to bring an end to such experiences.
It is my belief that no homosexual person raised in a religious home escapes the scar of homophobia. Every one of us walked through the hall of indoctrination dedicated to instilling in our minds the sinfulness of homosexuality. So it is the rare person who exists on the scale as 0 (as homophilic). The majority of us exist as conflicted, to varying degrees.
I would describe myself as a conflicted homophilic person. Seeing two (gorgeous) men kiss inspires something close to bliss within me. But this bliss is, more often than I like, accompanied by the thought that what the men are doing is less than right. It is not because I believe it is sinful. I don’t. It is because I was told it is sinful and this knowledge sometimes pops up to influence the operations of my mind.
To recognise the flaw in ourselves is to better understand such flaws when we find them in others. This is what it means to have empathy. Our quickness and harshness to label anyone who has varying views on homosexuality as homophobic should be cushioned by an awareness of their background. Are they Muslim? Do they have Christain parents? Something can be said about our individual responsibilities to exercise critical thinking. We might think: It must be the responsibility of the religious bigot, through the exercise of critical thinking, to change his views about homosexuality. Yet each of us has the responsibility to get at the root of what inspires the behaviour of others – even those we find difficult to like.
If our interest really is to dampened the presence of homophobia as touches various aspect of our lives, our focus has to be set inwards. We can only disarm homophobia in others when we are adept at disarming it within ourselves.