The key to ending homophobia might be to open the conversation and create safe spaces.
I remember the interview like it was yesterday. The year was 1984, and I was a oh-so-young, oh-so-green social work student conducting an interview with a veteran gay activist at our local GLBTQ center. (Mind you, many of those letters weren’t spoken of back then). I was 24 years-old, straight-define, and I literally quivered with nervousness at being, for the first time in my life, in queer-defined space. My purpose of the meeting—to research the history and advocacy of the centre for my studies in community development—belied my internal emotional state.
Let me be clearer: I shook.
Now, close to 30 years later, I look at this memory and I have pride and compassion for this young man who chose to face his discomfort so openly. Score: Rick, 1, Homophobia, 0.
Homophobia, that “range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” (according to Wikipedia,) is something that I grew up with, both in my home and in my community. The taunts of the boys who seemed effeminate, the jokes that they sat on their fingers, the bullying and shaming of any boy who seemed soft were all part of it. Were all part of me.
I think I was particularly drawn to homophobia, much like I was drawn to other attitudes in which I could be in the “long end of the stick” crowd. It was this: I was sexually abused as a kid. By a man. As with so many male survivors, I was stuck on two things: that I must have caused the abuse (children think this way—it’s how they and their developing minds try to make sense of the world)—and that the guy must have been gay (again, that wasn’t the word we used back then) to have done this to me.
Many male survivors of sexual abuse think this. Not surprisingly, research indicates that male survivors—both gay and straight—are more homophobic than men who have not been victimized. Yes, you read right. Gay men can be homophobic— it’s not just a straight man’s issue.
So now we need to partition the general run-of-the-mill type of homophobia that remains stubbornly present in parts of society and the trauma-induced homophobia that can be deeply set in many men.
We know that homophobia, like sexism, is a tenet of rigid, traditional masculinity, one of the four codes of the male identity that were first articulated in the 1970s by David and Brannon. This “tough guy” ideology is an extension of everyday masculinity, what we call “hyper-masculinity.” Both research and conceptual understandings suggest that some (but not all) male survivors take on hyper-masculinity as a protective stance against the shame of their victimization. Think about an image of a biker gang and you can see men who exaggerate their gender code, possibly to protect themselves from past wounds.”
But not all survivors are like this. For men who struggle in understanding their victimization, there develops a fascinating window of reformulating their masculinity and self identity. In doing this deep, deep work, there is no room for posturing their masculinity. For men in recovery, there can develop a wonderful openness to other men as they practice such openness—and compassion—with themselves. For men who are both straight and gay, this interconnection and transcendence would not be reached otherwise.
I see this in the treatment groups that we run, and how the men work hard at emotional intimacy with each other. I witness this at conferences and retreats with male survivors, noting how intertwined and affectionate many of the men are with each other, regardless of orientation. For men who learned fear and loathing at an early age, it is wonderful site to behold.
People often think that being a victim of violence is a hellish place to be. It most often is. But many gains, strengths and insights are to be had in the struggle to re-discover ourselves. One such gift is to see other men not as threats, but as brothers-in-arms, regardless of whether they are straight or gay.
Now, when I hear homophobic remarks by a man, I don’t try to respond by clubbing him with shame or judgement. Instead, I try to unearth the foundation to his stance. Chances are it just may be his way to protect his wounds. In my words, I try to create a safe enough place so he can disclose to me what drives this negativity. With patience and connection, he may be able to find a way out of this discomfort, and find out more about himself along the way. Indeed, by doing so, he just may be making some friends—and brothers—he thought he never had.
Rick Goodwin, MSW RSW is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Men’s Project, a sexual abuse treatment center in Ottawa, Canada. Along with its trauma recovery program, The Men’s Project also provides treatment and support on issues such as anger management, emotional intelligence and fathering. It is one of four such counseling agencies for male survivors in Canada. Rick also serves as an Advisory Board member to 1in6 Inc. He can be reached at [email protected].
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Photo credit: Flickr / zappowbang