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Jessica Joseph Headshot

Getting Up Close to Homophobia

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HOMOPHOBIA
Photodisc via Getty Images

I live and work in an intensely homophobic part of the world: the Caribbean.

What looks like paradise can often be an archipelago of hell for many of its gay citizens, particularly those in rural and/or impoverished communities. The more hellish places tend to be dominated by communities that are trapped in a cycle of poverty, are less educated, have limited world experience, belong to fundamentalist and/or monotheistic (male-deity-only) religions and hold hyper-narrow views of gender roles.

Miss Bernadette of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert said that suburban sprawl, which gay Australians vilify, literally protects them by providing a buffer between their city sanctuary and the more homophobic Australian Outback. I reluctantly feel the same way about the "class-bracket buffer" that the Caribbean has inherited from the British.

On a social-consciousness/spiritual level, it boils my blood to see the way Caribbean people treat those whom they perceive as "stush" (of a higher class bracket) and/or tourists with a lot more courtesy and tongue-holding than they treat their own. But on a practical level, I have to admit that my partner and I now benefit from the protection of this unenlightened thinking. It was not always like this.

Back in 1997 I was a struggling intern at Lonsdale Saatchi & Saatchi, and my girlfriend was a recovering party girl and the black sheep of her family. Together all we could afford was an apartment in the rougher part of Port of Spain, Trinidad. Each morning, on our way to work, we had to run the gauntlet of homophobic abuse. Just sitting out on our front porch provided a firing target for passersby.

(One of the reasons that I take apologists for homophobic bullying to task is that they always try to make it seem like you invited the abuse with inappropriate PDA. I can assure you that no PDA was required to spark those hate-bots into action. Just the sight of us was enough.)

We moved around quite a bit while stuck in this class bracket. We had to. The fact that Caribbean people tend to be "macocious" (gossipy) meant that if you stayed in one place for too long, your laundry would be out on the street for everyone to see, inviting unwanted attention and abuse. The emotional toll of aggregated verbal abuse and three separate incidents of physical assault made us flee the Caribbean altogether.

Never in a million years did I think I would say that I am glad I returned, or that most days I love living here. It took a lot of hard work, but I can finally afford to live in one of the rare pockets of acceptance where the gender of the person you love just does not matter to most of the people around you, and where even those who disapprove have too much "upbringing" to act in a discourteous or unprofessional way. What this means, in a practical sense, is that we can do all the following things together with a lot less fear, looking over our shoulders, being asked inappropriate questions about our relationship and suffering people's unwanted opinions:

Enjoying our porch:

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Taking in a concert:

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Enjoying some road trips and connecting with nature:

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Having a good time with friends:

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Walking our dog:

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Being the first person the other sees after coming out of surgery:

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Spotting a "flamboyant tree" ablaze in the afternoon sun while driving home from work:

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And stopping to appreciate it together:

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Of course, there is always the occasional homophobe. They are usually the touched-in-the-head, ranting, frothing-at-the-mouth types who become the subjects of viral videos from the New York Subway or the London Underground. My dark skin and long dreadlocks always attract the Rastafarian beach hustlers, though I must say that quite a few are surprisingly world-wise and open-minded, having been exposed to tourists of all kinds, and actually have a good rapport with me and my partner, whose effusive, down-to-earth personality and unmistakable Trini accent are unexpected and disarming to people in the smaller Eastern Caribbean islands.

My job involves conceptualizing communications strategies and public-education programs for EU, World Bank and United Nations Development Programme projects relating to climate change and socioeconomic issues. Most of these initiatives benefit disenfranchised women, farmers and young people, so I'm often thrown head-first right back into the spheres of society where people have no hesitation about prying and volunteering their opinion on your personal life: "Nice darkie like you, yuh have a man?" ("Darkie" is a Caribbean term of endearment for dark-skinned women.) "No? Yuh have kids? No? Gyal, doh worry, yuh looking young 'n' fresh still! What? Yuh almost 40?! How come ah nice gal like you doh have a man and at least three chirren? Nah! Somtin' wrong wit dat! Yuh better not be a zamie!" ("Zamie" is a term for lesbians.)

These days, instead of running away or lashing out, I've actually started engaging homophobes in deep conversation, looking for the reasons, spoken and unspoken, that they feel this total incomprehension, disgust and dislike when it comes to gay people, especially gay men. My findings have led me to a sort of classification of homophobia into seven (often overlapping) types based on its source: gender norms, religion, ignorance, misogyny, personal experience, sexual insecurity or what I'd deem sociopathy. Just remember the acronym "GRIMPSS."

Type G: This homophobe's stance is primarily rooted in an unnatural, simplistic, narrow, binary conception of gender. These gender norms shape their identity, their sense of pride and their understanding of how much power they wield in the world. They believe that anatomy determines psyche, purpose and personality, and that all men are supposed to be one way, want the same thing and have the same range of expression, and likewise for all women. Essentially they believe that gender is like this:

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When it is really like this:

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When you look at a map of the most homophobic places in the world, those places also tend to be the most gender-oppressive places, where women are often not allowed self-determination or the ability to achieve their fullest potential. This is not a coincidence.

Type R: This type of homophobe can be seen as a subset of Type G. They just believe that the aforementioned rigid and narrow gender molds are ordained by God. They usually don't believe in evolution or put much stock in science in general, so they don't believe in naturally occurring diversity, complexity and anomalies. They believe that once upon a time, everything was uniformly utopian in a garden paradise somewhere in the Middle East. They see gay people the same way that people in medieval times saw left-handed people: as manifestations of an evil generational curse called "sin" and/or being possessed by some kind of sinister force.

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Type-R homophobes often deeply resent being called "homophobes." They may actually believe that they are loving gay people even while saying defamatory, demeaning and discredited things about us. They refuse to recognize that their words and actions actually cause serious harm. Type-R homophobes claim to know that God shares their exact views on homosexuality, so for them, rejecting homophobic religious views is akin to rejecting God.

Type I: This homophobe's antipathy toward gay people comes from preconceived notions, stereotypes and propaganda.

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That is, until they meet someone who breaks all their presumptions, usually a family member, colleague or personal hero whom they already love and respect. This may or may not change their minds about gay people in general.

Type M: This type of homophobe can also be seen as a subset of Type G, but he is specifically male. He objectifies every sexually viable woman he meets and treats her like a piece of meat. He finds lesbians titillating as long as he can entertain the idea of their lesbianism being a performance for his gratification. If he is sexually rejected by a lesbian, he can be particularly abusive, as he believes that women are for his enjoyment, and that women he finds attractive must take heed and welcome his attentions if they know what's good for them. And he simply cannot respect any gay man, because he sees gay men as taking the "degrading" position of "the woman," and for him, being like a woman means being lower than a man. For this reason, the mere idea of a man ogling him and thinking about him sexually the way he thinks about women makes him violently angry.

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Type P: This homophobe's views arise from a bad personal experience with a gay person or a few gay people, which makes them paint all gay people with that same crappy brush. This bad personal experience can range from minor things like being insulted, snubbed or sexually rejected to severe misconduct like assault or betrayal. Hey, we have bad eggs too, but many negative behaviors in our community are manifestations of the psychological toll of our struggles. Even gay people can become type-P homophobes if all they ever meet are the worst kinds of gay people, or if they only frequent the worst corners of the party/pickup culture, which, like the heterosexual party/pickup culture, is full of pimps, pushers and assorted predators. The naive and/or needy for love enter at their own risk.

Type S1: This homophobe has insecurities regarding their sexuality or sex appeal. They themselves might be gay and in the closet. Often this type of homophobe is wallowing in so much denial and shame that they can be particularly violent and dangerous bullies. The character of Dave Karofsky on Glee is a classic type-S1 homophobe.

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Type S2: This person knows damn well that homophobia is a baseless fear. They may even be gay themselves. But the money and power to be had by exploiting the homophobia of others is just too good to pass up. As the virulently anti-gay (and secretly closeted) pastor in the movie Children of God says, "sometimes you need to give people something to hate." Homophobia is often used by politicians and other leaders to divide and conquer electorates and distract the populace from more pressing economic or environmental issues. Others knowingly deal in snake-oil scams like ex-gay "therapy" to make fortunes. From Russia to Uganda to Tennessee, with its oft-proposed "don't say gay" policy for public schools, one of the first things type-S2 homophobes try to do is suppress open discussion of homosexuality and issues of gender and sexuality and reduce the visibility of gay people. Why? Because in every society where there has been an extended period of continuous reasoned dialogue, scientifically valid research and gay people living openly and visibly and actively participating in civic and cultural life, homophobia begins to wane at every level of society, not just in the "stush" classes.

Of course, most homophobic people harbor several overlapping types of homophobia that are reinforced on so many levels. That does not mean that you should not try to make them see scientific truth and your humanity. If I can do it in my corner of the world, so can you. The type-S2 homophobe is the only type whom you should not waste your time trying to convince.

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