Before I start with this, there are two things I need to make clear from the beginning. First, throughout this post I use the word ‘homophobia’, I’m using this to mean against any of the LGBT+ community because I don’t know a better word to use, please tell me if there is one. Number two, I really hope this doesn’t come across as me generalising or implying that all people of any specific orientation do the same things. I hate it when people write things like that, so it’s definitely not what I’m trying to do here.
Last week, with the Orlando massacre, the western world saw what homophobia can lead to, even in today’s comparatively liberal world. I’m not going to write much about this, because my words are so inadequate to express the horror of this attack, or my anger that so many people, in a country which is so discriminatory against LQBT+ people, refuse to accept that this came out of problems in their own society and laws.
I am very lucky in that I have never really had a conversation with someone who is expressing actual homophobic views. To the best of my knowledge, all of my friends and family are fine with all sexualities, and believe in equal rights. But there is a big gap between not being homophobic, and actually understanding different orientations, and I’ll admit that it’s a gap I’m still in the process of crossing. And with the best will in the world, if you don’t have much exposure to non-straight people, and you don’t read and watch things and educate yourself, you often end up saying things that make you sound at best ignorant and at worst rude and offensive. Recently I’ve kept noticing examples of this, so that’s what I want to write about today.
Firstly there’s my own personal experience. I have only come out as asexual to five people so far. When I told a friend who is a lesbian she didn’t make a big deal of it, she just said how she always likes it when people discover a name/label and realise that it fits them perfectly. She hasn’t said much about it since then, but there was one time when I was talking about guys from high school, and she said something about me being romantically attracted to them. It’s a small thing, but I can’t explain how good it felt that she specified romantic, but did it so casually. I was surprised at the effect it had, how even now, remembering it makes me feel so validated, and makes me realise how uncomfortable I am comparatively when people try to get me talking about sexual attraction. Which brings me on to our mutual friend, who is straight, who also didn’t react much when I came out to her. But I’m not sure she really took it in. Things she says imply she doesn’t really understand it, for instance when we saw some topless men, who were in good physical form, and she said to me and the lesbian friend (that’s not how I generally refer to people, I just don’t like using names) ‘even you guys enjoyed that’. I keep quiet because it’s easier, but I want to say ‘neither of us are sexually attracted to men! It’s fine that you are, but you have to understand that we aren’t.’
Two of the other people I’ve talked to about being asexual are not straight. One of them said ‘thank you for telling me’ and politely asked for a bit of clarification (I’d just said I came under the ‘A’ heading), then we had a nice conversation about, well, most of the stuff I’m writing about in this post. The other was when she was talking about the university LGBT+ society, and I asked whether there were many Ace people there because I was thinking of getting involved. She got very excited, added me to the Ace Facebook group for the society, and said I could go along with her next year.
So that just leaves the most recent person I’ve come out to, my best/oldest friend. I love her to pieces and she’s always supportive, and wants to be very forward thinking and liberal. But she also can sometimes be a bit clueless, and I’d guessed that this would be one of those times. But I wanted to tell her, so had been waiting for the right moment, so when she asked me whether I thought I would have sex before marriage, I decided that was the right moment. I explained it to her a bit, but her main response was just ‘yeah, but you’ll change your mind when you’re older’. I would like to put out a very clear message to anyone reading this, NEVER tell someone that their identity is ‘just a phase’. There are three main things wrong with doing this. 1. It often takes courage to share these things with someone, and is completely crushing to have someone you care about dismiss something so important. 2. Sometimes people’s orientation or the label they choose to use can change over time, but that doesn’t make it untrue at the time. 3. The only person who can understand someone’s identity is that person. However well you know them, you are in no position to tell them what they do or don’t feel.
On a less personal level, there’s the fact that a lot of people still just expect everyone to be straight and cis. They know that not everyone is, but to them these are distant concepts of people on the internet or the news, they’re not real life people that you’re friends with. This leads to conversations I’ve had such as:
‘She’s visiting her girlfriend.’ ‘Oh. Did you mean to say her girlfriend?’ Yes, that’s why I said it.
‘Do any of them have boyfriends?’ ‘*girl’s name* has a girlfriend.’ ‘Oh right, so she’s a lesbian.’ Well, she could be bi, but either way all you need to know is that she has a girlfriend.
‘One of my friends, who’s trans, was having difficulty with which bathroom to use’ ‘What, you actually have a friend who’s trans? I don’t think I know anyone who is.’ (I have actually said something similar about a gay person, but I was a lot younger at the time, and now know better).
‘This will really shock you though, her affair was with a woman!’ So she’s bisexual, whatever, I’m more shocked that she’s left her husband.
‘Her and her girlfriend -‘ ‘Ooh, you’re friends with lesbians now?’ ‘Well, some of my friends are, what’s wrong with that?’ ‘Nothing, I just don’t really know anyone who isn’t straight.’ I’m not straight. I could list other people you know who aren’t straight. It’s more likely that no one’s telling you because they know you’d act so surprised.
I do get that if you haven’t knowingly met anyone who isn’t straight, you don’t really think about people’s sexuality and might start to assume that everyone’s straight. But as long as people make a big deal about it, it’s going to keep being a big deal. If you hear about someone’s sexuality it doesn’t need commenting on, just accept it like you would any other detail which is part of the conversation. When it’s made into a big deal, it just makes it harder for people to talk about identities, which they should be able to talk about openly.
Finally, the thing I’ve noticed most is the way many straight people talk about all things LGBT+. In my usual group of friends at home, everyone is presenting as straight and cis (I don’t know whether others, like me, just haven’t felt comfortable coming out to the group, or if they actually are all straight), and I don’t think there’s a single one of them who would ever think or say anything homophobic. But there are things they say which I just don’t think are ok. It’s things like getting the acronym wrong – either accidently putting L G B and T in the wrong order every time, or talking about the ‘new letters they keep adding on’, or saying a random string of letters because you can’t be bothered to learn what they all are. And then people think that that, or comments about gender (I’ve heard it with gender more than sexuality) are funny jokes. Similarly my friend who refers to asexuals as ‘Asexy’, and, when I told him that I stood for intersex, replied ‘I’m into sex’. I mean, I’m all for word play, but that was all he had to say. And then another friend chimed in to say that he didn’t get why there needs to be so many labels, that it would be better if people just did what they want without worrying about what to call themselves. Now this is actually something which I thought for a while, and I still don’t think that everyone needs to decide exactly what labels they fit into and rigidly stick to them for their whole life. But when you are ‘normal’ and fit into the majority, it’s easy to glide through life, conversations and relationships without ever examining your own – and therefore others’ – identity. I spent months with something in the background not feeling right, wondering what was wrong with me, why I was different, before I discovered what asexuality actually was. And it was in that moment that I realised how important labels are. They tell you that you’re not alone, you’re not alone. They give meaning to your feelings which didn’t seem to fit in with wider society. They allow you to discuss and describe your feelings, and people who will understand what you’re talking about.
It’s understandable that people are always going to know more about the group that they fit into than others. And it sort of makes sense that once you’ve realised how neglected your own sexuality can be, you might be more sensitive to how you treat other orientations. But something being understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. I know that I am part of the problem, when I hear people saying these things but feel too uncomfortable to point it out to them. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be my job or responsibility as a member of the LGBT+ community to educate people who don’t want to find things out for themselves.
Whatever your orientations, if you have honestly never done any of these things, then that is fantastic and I apologise if this has at times sounded accusing. If you have done or said things like this, that’s fine, I just hope you can recognise why these things contribute to homophobia in society. Try and think next time you’re discussing it with your friends, and try reading, watching videos, or talking to people who have more experience with these issues. And if anyone you know has said these things, feel free to passive-aggressively send them this post. Please let me know in the comments if you have experienced any of these things, or if you completely disagree with what I’m saying.