Violence and discrimination against gay people is still a global phenomenon. While some countries have laws ensuring equal rights for gay and lesbians, in other countries you can still end up in jail for simply loving someone of the same gender. The worldwide fight for equal rights and an end to all homophobia is far from over.
The axis of hate
Homosexuality has existed throughout the ages, and discrimination because of homosexuality didn’t lag all that far behind. The historical spread of homophobia isn’t easy to chart. Throughout history there have always been various cultures side by side: in some, love between men or women was accepted, openly or behind closed doors, and in a few rare cases it was encouraged (as in ancient Sparta), while in others it was seen as a mortal sin that needed to be eradicated. This situation still exists. The hate is generally passed on from generation to generation within a culture and has various causes.
No matter which religion you are part of, there is a good chance a high-ranking official within the organization has publicly stated that homosexuality is a cause for great concern and that people suffering from this condition should be helped. The idea that someone who is gay can lead a happy and fulfilling life is foreign to these leaders. The cornerstone of many modern religions is a man-woman union, with kids to guarantee a next generation of believers. Man-man unions and woman-woman unions are an unwanted alternative, which lead to too many unanswerable questions among their flock.
The homophobic mindset is often supported using quotes from a religious document such as the Bible, or using quotes from prophets who have stated that it is wrong for men or women to have or to act on romantic feelings for their own gender. Believers conveniently forget that these historical documents and historic figures have also stated many discriminatory and misogynistic things which no longer have a place in our modern society. The ‘letter of the law’ is adhered to only when it suits the needs of the leaders, and the often vague texts and quotes are enthusiastically and freely interpreted, making it mean whatever the interpreter wants it to mean. Even if an explicit condemnation of homosexuality can be found, this may just be the result of a bad translation. The very subjective dogma is then presented by the leaders as the will of God and is not open for debate, under threat of eternal damnation.
Purely for pragmatic reasons, the opponents of homosexuality see it as a choice, not as something you are born with. If it were inborn, this would indicate a flaw in the divine design and it would also make it much less likely that the problem could be ‘fixed’. But if it’s a choice, then lesbians and gays can be judged for the immoral way of life they have chosen. They are then primarily victims to be helped, and if they refuse such help, then God (or any other deity) will wash his hands of them. This approach also makes it possible to fan the flames of paranoia with regards to homosexuality: gay and lesbians are presented as a sect which is looking for new members, spreading their gayness like a virus. Painting gays as an immoral group, makes it easier for fanatics to take a dangerous next mental step: gays are not worthy human beings and violence against them is not all that bad, as it has the implicit okay from a higher power.
Ironically, historically speaking religious organizations have employed a lot of gays and lesbians, especially if the members were supposed to remain bachelors and devote their life to their faith. This used to be an easy way to avoid getting pressured into marriage. It’s not surprising that a good many gay and lesbian romances blossomed behind closed doors at monasteries and churches.
The first association a lot of people have with homosexuality is two guys fucking each other up the butt. It’s an image that makes a lot of straight people uncomfortable. Anal sex is already considered somewhat taboo when it happens between a man and a woman, let alone when two men are doing it. The lack of understanding isn’t helped by the fact that the average straight male can’t imagine that it could feel good to get a dick up his butt.
In reality, anal sex is not just something gay men do; men do it with women, women sometimes may do it with women and men indeed do it with men. But not all gay men are into having anal sex, and even for those who are, it doesn’t have to be a daily occurrence. There are many other ways to make some satisfying love. Surprisingly, many straight men have ‘approached’ their girlfriend from behind at one point or another, or have at least tried to convince her to try it. Some religious — but not too bright —teenagers in America even stick to anal sex entirely to technically retain their virginity before marriage. Condemning anal sex and publicly shifting it exclusively onto the plate of gay men is both factually wrong and hypocritical. In total numbers, more straight people are doing it than gay people. And why judge something that many people greatly enjoy and is not negatively affecting anyone else?
While a guy expects a woman to enjoy giving him a blowjob, he will possibly be disgusted by a guy who enjoys doing the same. It challenges the classic concept of masculinity and that makes some straight men very nervous. Gay men are perceived to be taking on the female role, and women are still seen as inferior and weaker in a lot of cultures. That a man would choose to take on that role is incomprehensible, following that logic. In some cultures, a distinction is made between the active and the passive role. If you are the one on top or getting blown, you are still taking on the masculine role and you might even be considered über-masculine, because you don’t just conquer (i.e. fuck) women, but also men. If you are the one on the bottom, however, you are basically a woman in unfortunate packaging. All men who are openly gay are assumed to be on the bottom and are therefore not seen as real men. To make a scapegoat out of a whole community of people, generalizations are needed after all.
When a homophobe is hit on by a guy, this makes his insecurities rise to the surface. “Is he targeting me because I come off as gay, as someone who isn’t really masculine? Am I sure I really don’t have those feelings and what would it say about me if I did have them?” Especially if a guy sees homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, he might have the irrational fear that someone might be able to ‘turn’ him. The potential loss of status and honor can make him respond aggressively.
“As everyone knows, a fag is a homosexual gentleman who has just left the room.”
– Truman Capote, writer
In a society that puts a lot of stock in status and power, sexuality is an easy tool to use to show your own superiority over someone else. The lower the social standing of a homophobe, the stronger he will feel the need to have another layer of society beneath him to kick against. To be able to do this, it is important for him that homosexuality remains taboo. It keeps the power balance in favor of the homophobes and keeps the gays out of sight. In some very homophobic countries, casual and open physical contact between men (like a pat on the back, a hug, a kiss on the cheeks, and even holding hands) is surprisingly common. The fear is likely that, by acknowledging homosexuality, all this intimate, physical contact between men would become suspect. Then someone could mistake the homophobe for a homo, with embarrassing consequences.
It’s a sad fact that gays are sometimes their own worst enemies. Gays who have been forced by their environment or their upbringing to lead a double life or a life without sex, can be particularly venomous and open about criticizing the shameful gay ‘lifestyle’. A combination of self-hatred and jealousy can turn them into highly fanatic homophobes. The same goes for men who were at some point openly gay, led an unhappy life, found religion and now can’t stop ranting about the negative aspects of gay life. There are even organizations which were founded by these ‘former’ gay people, who are now leading a ‘happy’ heterosexual life, to help others unto the path of righteousness. That very few of them really believe that homosexuality can be ‘cured’ is swept under the carpet. Many so-called ex-gays have been caught cruising for anonymous sex with another man, and some will openly admit that, despite a ‘satisfactory’ marriage with a woman, they are still occasionally plagued by impure thoughts. Many ex-gays end up being ex-ex-gays.
In some — sadly not all — Western countries it is forbidden by law to discriminate on the basis of skin color, religion or sexual preference. If you are tied to someone professionally and are being kept back by him or her because you are gay, you can make an issue of it and even get a judge involved. However, it is often difficult to prove discrimination.
In the case of discrimination at work: in countries where employers could get into trouble for it, they probably won’t openly state that they dislike gay people and therefore want to get rid of someone. It won’t be official policy, but the prejudice of one or more colleagues — equals or superiors — can get in your way. It is fairly easy to make someone feel miserable at work, pretending that they just aren’t functioning well, while those directly involved know what the actual situation is. For instance, information that is critical for the harassed employee may be consciously kept away from him and he may be skipped when there are promotions to be had. Unless you manage to get one of your tormenters to state outright that your homosexuality is the real issue, preferably in writing which can be used as evidence, they will simply deny what it really going on, and it will be your word against theirs if you take them to court. If something like this happens to you and you think you have enough evidence to work with, then contact a local legal organization that can help you with the next step.
It’s best to be pro-active when it comes to avoiding discrimination. When you’re interviewing at a company, it’s advisable to make an estimation of attitudes about homosexuality and — if you’re unclear — to ask about it explicitly before signing a contract. The prevailing attitude is not just different from one company to the next, but also between branches. You may have to fight harder to be accepted in companies and sectors where machismo prevails. If you suspect that certain influential colleagues won’t be okay with your homosexuality, but you still really want a certain job, you might have to be pragmatic and put your private life under lock and key. Once you have been there for a while and have hopefully learned that they aren’t immutably homophobic, you can carefully work your way out of the closet. People with negative assumptions about gays as a group are more likely to put these aside when someone they have already started to know and like, turns out to be gay. But keep in mind that being very pushy about your homosexuality, in a workplace that doesn’t encourage it, may be admirable for promoting acceptance, but will ultimately not lead to a pleasant work environment for you.
“Nothing in this world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
– Martin Luther King Jr., human rights leader
It can be a tough balance to reach: how much should you adapt your behavior in public to avoid aggression or verbal assaults? For a straight couple, it’s not very noteworthy to be walking along the street hand-in-hand. But if a gay man holds his boyfriend’s hand or kisses him on the lips, it’s all too often seen as a political statement and a challenge. Unfortunately, it can end up feeling like that for the participants as well. The awareness that the people around can respond with a verbal or physical attack, takes away from the romance.
But it’s important to not completely yield to the tyranny of homophobes. The more invisible gays are, the more a kiss, hug or holding of hands between men will stand out and the less people will get used to it. When you are in a place where you are not in any real danger of getting hurt, you should let your romantic impulses get the best of you and be prepared to shrug off any negative comments you might catch for it. It will stop you from becoming more and more paranoid about responses from the people around you, and it exposes your surroundings to intimacy between men, from which ultimately other gay guys will profit as well. Don’t let someone goad you into a physical confrontation through a verbal assault, and ignore it if possible. Keep in mind that you should, of course, stick to the same physical boundaries that apply to everybody else in public; don’t, for instance, start humping each other’s legs in front of strangers. And getting into a really deep French kiss will generally also not be appropriate.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take a touch to lead to aggression; the simple suspicion that you may be gay could be enough to lead to violence. The risk of such a random act of violence is the greatest when you’re dealing with a group of two or more aggressors. These groups tend to consist of insecure guys with a herd-mentality, for whom it is important to prove their masculinity. Especially when alcohol is involved, attacking someone who is not perceived to be a real man could seem like a good way to impress the rest of the group. A victim is often selected who they assume won’t put up too much resistance, as getting beaten up in front of your peers and by a pansy, no less, would be bad. Most of these offenders would not strike out if they were solo, but feel safer because they have back-up, just in case they do run into trouble.
When you encounter a group that seems aggressive and rowdy, be on your guard but don’t panic. Glance in their direction to make an estimation of the amount of people and the distance between you and them, but don’t stare and do not make eye contact, as that encourages the person you are looking at to react verbally or physically. Keep your back straight, your shoulders back and try to look confident, but don’t make a big show out of it. The more imposing you look, the less likely it is that you will have to defend yourself. If it’s possible to cross the street or otherwise distance yourself from the group by heading in a different direction, without drawing too much attention to yourself, do so. If they are behind you, keep your ears open and take out your earbuds for a moment if you are listening to music. Should someone try to attack you from the back, he will likely not have taken Ninja classes; you should be able to hear him coming and dodge him.
If there is an assault, you will almost always be outnumbered, whether you are alone or with a (boy)friend. Unless you happen to be Rambo or The Karate Kid, it’s better to run off at full speed than to stick around and fight. Even if you manage to beat down one of the group, the rest of them will not be fair enough to grant you your victory. It’s preferable that you run to the nearest public place, be it a café, store or restaurant, where there will be other people around. The chance of hassle with the police will often be enough to discourage pursuers. Fleeing doesn’t do wonders for your ego, but it beats physical damage. If you live in a country where the police are gay-friendly, be sure to report the (attempted) violence and state that it was likely because you are gay, if you suspect that is the case. Even if the police fail to find the perpetrators, it will make it clearer to them where and by whom these hate crimes are carried out.
“An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”
– Mahatma Ghandi, political and spiritual leader
The erosion of discrimination
The discrimination of gays and lesbians will not disappear overnight, even though steps are being taken in the right direction in many Western countries. Prejudices are still being spoon-fed to people and the resulting mentality is hard to undo. By staying visible and fighting for equal rights on all fronts, we are slowly eroding the preconceptions that lead to discrimination. It isn’t an easy road ahead, as gays are a convenient scapegoat, used to unite followers in their shared aversion, for many groups. These groups will resist losing their convenient, fictitious enemy. The current generation of gays and lesbians will likely not experience a complete acceptance of homosexuality; that is to say not only equality by law, but also in the mind of the average straight person. But by keeping the lines of communication open and not withdrawing into a ghetto, we can slowly topple misconceptions and stop these from being passed on to coming generations.
Dutch version here. Last edit: 11-08-2018