The other evening something remarkable happened. I learned that my mother had never heard of the word "homophobia," and when I told her the definition, she actually went to the dictionary to see if I was telling her the truth.
I had been talking with her on the phone about how important it is for people to share their stories and support gay rights, because the battle for equality is far from won, and there is still much prejudice against the LGBT community. As an example, I shared a conversation I'd had at a recent party. A friend of mine had told me that her young son had become homophobic. He wanted to be like the other kids in his neighborhood, so, like them, he had begun to target gay people with insults and anger and call homosexuality "unnatural."
"What do you mean?" my mother asked.
"This young kid -- I don't even think he's 12 -- is very homophobic, and it's growing into a real problem."
"But what are you saying?" my mother asked. "He wants to stay home?"
After catching my breath I clarified that I hadn't said home-phobia but homophobia, which means a fear of homosexuals. The young boy was developing an irrational phobia of people who identify as gay.
'"I've never heard of such a thing," my mother said in complete and sincere amazement. "You mean people are afraid of homosexuals? Why? And there's a word for that? I don't believe this. Are you serious?"
She then pulled out her "great big Webster's dictionary," which is never far from wherever she is, and after she'd flipped some pages, I heard her muttering, "Homo... Homo... Homo... How do you spell it? I got 'homoplastic'... 'homophonic'... I don't see it... It's not here... It's not in the dictionary... Oh... Oh, yes, it is... 'Homophobe: one who hates or fears homosexuals'... 'Homophobia: irrational fear of homosexuality or homosexuals'... Oh my gosh! I didn't know that... How stupid of me."
My mother is 73 years old. She's traveled the world, been in the workforce and raised three children, one of whom is gay. Yet somehow this word was not in her vocabulary. More significant still, she had no immediate acquaintance with its meaning. She was as shocked as I was.
If my own mother didn't know what "homophobia" meant, how many other people didn't know? The sad truth is that there are probably many who don't know what "homophobia" means and perhaps don't even care. Most people don't pay attention to gay issues unless they have to. How many people are aware of the fact that 21 percent of all hate crimes are committed against members of the LGBT community? Or that hate crimes against gay people increased last year? Or that 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT, the majority fending for themselves due to rejection and abuse?
With her confusion, my mother had inadvertently proved the point I had been making earlier. It's critical for people to share their gay experiences so that fewer Americans are ignorant of what it means to be gay. Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court considers homosexuality to be "immoral and destructive." What is destructive is to be silent and let such unconscionable voices reign supreme. It is vital to speak out, openly and fearlessly, about the issues that members of the LGBT community face, to inform people about the inequalities and the irrational fears that can cause all kinds of unnecessary harm.
While my mother may have felt stupid for not knowing what I was talking about, I had to look at my own part in this breakdown of understanding. How often do I discuss these things with my parents? Had I never discussed homophobia with my mother before? Obviously there are a great many things we have not discussed, because I also learned on this phone call that my mother's godfather had been gay. She couldn't believe I'd not known this.
He was a bachelor with the dashing name of Charlie Alexander. But my mother never knew him, because he committed suicide when she was a young child. "All of a sudden he was gone," she said. She hadn't known how he'd died, or why, until my grandmother felt that my mother was old enough to understand. My grandmother was very close with Charlie and was devastated by his death. She loved him for who he was and never understood why anyone cared that he was gay. A woman far ahead of her time, my grandmother was not at all homophobic.
A few days after our phone call, my mother went through old albums and pulled out some photos of Charlie and my grandparents on the beach in Cuba in 1941, vacationing with family and friends. In the photos Charlie is tall, thin and quietly handsome. He radiates a fun, gentle soul, and it is devastating to look at him smiling and know that he killed himself not long after these photos were taken. In a world that wanted him to be anything but himself, a world that didn't value him but feared his difference, he couldn't survive on his own. It was easier to die than to live.
Today, suicide is still a very real threat to members of the LGBT community. Why? Because of the fear and hatred that so many experience on a daily basis. What some people take for granted, their sexuality, is anything but safe for others. Homophobia persists. One can feel it when a group of boys calls homosexuality "unnatural," or when a homeless man is beaten for being gay, or when a justice on the Supreme Court believes it is OK "to exhibit animus toward [homosexuality]."
"Homophobia" didn't enter the English language until the 1950s. I hope in the future it will become an archaic term. To that end I will continue to share what I know about being gay and strive to contribute to a greater understanding of the human experience. Thanks, Mom, for listening, and for a phone call that reminded me just how important it is to talk.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-488-7386 for the Trevor Lifeline.