When I was young and innocent and went to school, maybe around 10-12 years old, a 'riddle' that came up from time to time was the one of ”should a gay man go to the men's or ladies' room to pee?” Barely knowing what that meant we'd all ponder this so seemingly difficult question and never reach a satisfactory conclusion.* Youthful ignorance, excuse it as, you may. I grew up and learned the ways of the world (and common sense); this was not so for all. Some still say weird, vile or simply ignorant stuff to anybody not fitting into a heteronormative conception of how people are supposed to be.
The world has changed in the last century. My law professor recently smiled at the mere thought of the old dudes writing the Human Rights Declaration in 1948 taking into account transgender people as, you know, people; thankfully, as professor and I agree, that is no longer so unthinkable. But even if legislation is catching up, sort of, LGBT-people in general still get to hear the weirdest stuff from regular people like you and me. [Note: I'll use LGBT as an umbrella term to include gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans etc. etc. people – basically everybody not being nice and square heterosexual. Over in the Americas things are getting a bit out of hand, in my opinion, on the whole acronym thing, since the exact amount of letters are not really the point in this case. In any case I'll mostly be referring to homosexual men this time around.]
A gay friend of mine has a favourite story of the time someone asked him, ”Why do you have to shave? I thought gay people don't have beards?” (”I wish!” as he says) – which.. huh? What do you answer to that? Another time he was watching a football match and the other (straight) guys were utterly surprised at his interest in the game: ”We thought gay people don't like football?” Again.. huh? I guess it's a bit like people being sooooo impressed that I (used to) know who're playing for Atlético Madrid. Because girls! And sports! No mix! Ignorance and stupidity, basically. Hard to get oneself worked up about it, or you'd spend your entire life facepalming.
Then, we have the ignorant assumptions that veer into the offensive. Another friend told me about the time he went with a bunch of mainly straight friends to a regular bar in the neighbourhood (as in, neither gay nor straight, just.. regular. Get drunk sort of place.) At some point he raises his eyes and looks around the room, as you do, only to have someone in the company point out that ”there are no gay people here.” He was indeed (justifiably) offended by this. Some of the reasons:
- Gay people can look around a room without being looking for people to have sex with.
- Even if that were why he's looking, it's really none of your business.
- How do you know whether there are other gay people there? Magic x-ray sight?
- Also, stop treating people like idiots.
Perhaps attitudes as the above are part of the reason why some LGBT people I know do not wish to have their sexual orientation spread out to the whole wide world. Because some people treat you differently, even if they shouldn't. People being afraid of coming out to their friends out of fear that those friends would not want to be their friends anymore, because the friend would think the gay friend would just be hitting on them. (Logical fallacy here imo, don'tcha think Bob/ette would have hit on you already if that were the case? Also, just as you would not normally hit on a person you knew for a fact is a attracted to a different gender than you, same thing goes for LGBT people. There are crazy, disrespectful people out there, but sexual orientation is hardly the determinant for that. Go figure.)
Some term these weird attitudes ”homophobia”. However, I think this would be the appropriate moment to bring up a tweet by, allegedly, Morgan Freeman, saying, ”I hate the word homophobia. It's not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.” We say homophobia for shorthand, but the guy's right. It hardly counts as fear being either a) unpleasant to other people or b) incapable (or unwilling?) to understand that they are also people. Maybe it all goes into a) anyway?
And yet. I think people who sincerely belong to b) exist. Take the title of this blog post. Someone said this to me, in real life, I kid you not. I called, shall we call him Jim, out on a rather lame joke about men talking to men in public restrooms with the frank statement, ”I think you hate gay people.” (Ok, ok, so maybe I exaggerated towards the poor clueless soul. It was for the sake of making myself clear.) He was flabbergasted, of course not! How could I think so! ”My hairdresser's gay!” as he exclaimed to explain why he's totally cool with gay people. My turn to stare open-mouthed. ”What has that got to do with anything???” (I got no satisfactory answer, btw.)
Thing is, I think in Jim's mind this was relevant information. By his logic, he's just fine with having a gay hairdresser, so that means he doesn't hate gay people. (Granted, he would have probably changed hairdresser if he minded said hairdresser's gayness. No?) However, I think Jim is missing the bigger picture. How would he feel about a friend of his being gay? Someone he actually relates to more regularly than the hairdresser? I of course don't know, maybe his good friend is gay and all is well. But the hairdresser-statement somehow stands in for a symbolic appropriation. Look how tolerant I am! Someone likened it to people saying, ”Look, I have a black friend! Totally not racist!”
It's lovely that you can have a gay or black friend, absolutely, but the need to point it out like it says anything particular about you makes it seem like something that does not come naturally to you. Like a symbol for your tolerance, but at the same time making it painfully clear that that tolerance does not really exist, when all comes to all. It's just something you try to make others and yourself believe.
So far, so good. But why the fuss in the first place? Gender roles surely play a role; all those LGBT people ruin our boxes and make us feel uncomfortable and we have to deal with gender assigned behaviours not fitting. In the case of gay men, it seems straight men freak the fuck out when a guy hits on them. (Dudes, relax, take it as a compliment. Someone thinks you're nice.) Someone has put out the theory that the straight men are afraid of being treated by a man as they themselves would treat a women. It's making its rounds on the internets; I'm pretty sure I also read it in a book by Bourdieu. I'll be getting a bit theory-technical here, ye be warned, but:
Basically, we have a society where penetration is associated with masculinity, so the more you penetrate, the more manly you are (notice also how this word is used in the weirdest of contexts; in war-language and such) – inversely, being penetrated makes you womanlike and by extension weak. And whatever reality looks like in people's bedrooms, guys imagine what's going on and the mere thought freaks them out.
To which I can only say: I don't care if that's what people have been thinking for several thousand years in relation to that. We are not living several thousand years ago and we have learned better. Get over ourselves. However, as long as such an imaginary stays within our hidden understandings and nobody talks about it, it can continue to grow and influence how we think and act, and maybe that to a degree explains all the uneasiness. On an intellectual level, lots of people know that they shouldn't mind; yet, they would rather not be associated with such a thing as homosexuality, for – gasp – someone might think you're being unmanly!
An anecdotal example (I like those): I was having a very heated discussion with a guy on the subject of female depilation. Basically, do (straight) men have a sexual preference for women shaving their legs because a million gazillion years ago when we all lived in caves, cave ladies did this so it's obviously biology; or is it something the men are socially conditioned to prefer, however indirectly? (We didn't even get to the “do men even always actually prefer women with shaved legs?” part, that was how intense it was.) The discussion ended rather abruptly with this pearl of a statement: “of course it's biology, else we would all be gay.” When I managed to recollect my jaw and gather myself, I made a comment on his dislike of gay people. Which, that was totally not what he meant, because blablabla. I cut him off. We no longer speak.
I'll grant that maybe he just hated women, and not gay people as such. But seriously, since when women with hairy legs = men? ??? I don't even..? (Gay friend's comment: “that is wrong on so many levels.” Thank you!) And this apparently means that you'd be gay and that that would be a bad thing, because hairy legs. It appears there is indeed an association between women and homosexual men in the common imaginary; some people are just more or less honest about being assholes, while others hold on to their token gay hairdresser friend.
* For the record. Obviously gay men go to the men's room, like all other men. Public toilets are segregated by genitals, not by what you choose to do with those genitals. [Edit: I don't mean to come off as trans-phobic with this comment. The situation for transgender people regarding public restrooms seems highly complicated, and I'm not actually sure if anybody anywhere has any official policy. Personally I'm all for using the restroom according to your gender, but unfortunately the world doesn't listen to me as often as I should like.]