We call them the "on-the-fence folks." They've never said outright that "gay is wrong," but they certainly have not positioned themselves as LGBTQ advocates. They live in small towns and big cities and are of all shapes, sizes, origins, and creeds, yet they remain mostly silent on issues of equality for LGBTQ people. They themselves are straight or questioning, and many of them say they are apolitical (I'd argue that there's no such thing), and, when asked, they say things like, "I don't mind if people are gay, so long as they don't [hit on me, convert my children, make a big scene, act too gay, etc.]." These folks make up the majority of our country and much of the world, and we largely excuse them, because they warm the bench and don't overtly stir the pot. But they are not on any fence nor in the middle of any road; they are homophobic and are enforcing inequality every minute of every day.
Yes, it's worthwhile for us to target the loud hate mongers who say gay people should die, rape us, bully our kids, carve epithets into our bodies, or set fire to our homes. These criminals should be lifted by the scruff of their necks and dropped solidly into cold, cement cells where they're forced to think about why they are hateful. The problem with ignoring the quieter voices of misunderstanding, though, is that it is precisely the tepid and subtle ignorance that prevents equality in its truest form.
Whatever the cause -- lack of exposure to diversity, struggles with one's own identity, or peer pressure -- the type of homophobia that permeates much of the country and the world doesn't reside in people who want to maim and kill those who prefer same-sex partners; it resides in people who are "uncomfortable" with notions of sexual diversity. These are the folks whose hearts and minds we need to target and educate. They are the majority.
As the Anderson Coopers of the world come out and more people realize that they have a gay uncle, cousin, boss, friend, mailman, senator, or favorite movie star, the mentality of those considered to be "on the fence" is shifting, if ever so slightly, toward "gay is OK." But much is left to be desired. Parents whose kids bully others at school for being gay may not be overtly homophobic themselves, but they probably haven't ever discussed with their kids over dinner whether LGBTQ people deserve the same rights afforded to straight people. The business leaders and elected officials who write the rules about what ventures to pursue probably don't sign anything with homophobia in mind, but they likely aren't thinking about how their contract or legislation might affect LGBTQ folks.
We need to infiltrate every pore of American ignorance, from the grandmas in Fort Lauderdale who smile but don't really understand to the farmers in South Dakota who might never throw a fist but who think "gay" means "hypersexual," and reach each and every person who might be well-intentioned but just doesn't get that being LGBTQ is more than OK and that we all deserve equal rights and protections. We must educate not just kids but their parents and their parents' parents. We must throw tea parties and invite Tea Party members to nibble on biscuits alongside us. We must leave no homophobe behind.
Progress is about so much more than policy and legislation, marriage rights and political platforms. It boils down to the most basic human connection: understanding that a person is a person is a person, and that no one deserves to be treated differently or worse than any other. Success comes from making those connections and educating through personal interaction; that's how we're going to change hearts and minds, and, one day, perhaps, reach a truer equality.
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