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A homophobe who supports gay rights

10 May

Note:  A shortened version of this blog post subsequently appeared as a radio commentary on KQED-FM in San Francisco:


It’s time I came out:  I’m a homophobe.

I’m not proud of it, and it pains me to imagine what my gay and lesbian friends might think if they read this admission, but it’s the truth.  It’s also a truth that I’ve long thought was important to acknowledge, if only to myself. I’m hoping I’m not wrong in thinking it’s time I acknowledged this more publicly.

In a week when President Obama made his momentous announcement that he supports same-sex marriage, it seemed a worthwhile time to consider what it means to be a man who is supportive of same-sex marriage and gay rights while still occasionally having the fairly typical heterosexual male “ick” reaction to some displays of homosexuality.

Again, not proud of it, but it’s the truth.

It’s hard not to have this reaction having grown up in a culture with its ubiquitous and very heterosexual markers of what was considered “normal.”  I was never a flaming homophobe (I use the adjective advisedly), nor did my parents inculcate any explicit or harsh anti-homosexual bias that I’m aware of.  The only boyhood memory I have of anything related to my parents’ attitudes towards homosexuality was when my family was driving through San Francisco one day, and I shouted from the back seat, “Ewww, gross! I just saw two men holding hands and kissing!!”

To which my mother replied, “Now, Michael, don’t stare. Some of those men are quite big and they could beat you up.”

Gradually, my awareness grew of homosexuals as actual people.  Suddenly they were my friends and classmates and coworkers and family.  But it took a while for me to admit to being a homophobe and to admit that this was a problem.  What finally did it?

It wasn’t having a very likable youth minister who fell ill with AIDS and had to leave (was forced to leave?) my church when I was a teen.  It wasn’t the friend from high school whose mother wrote a moving memoir about bringing her ex-husband home to her and their four children to care for him as he died of AIDS.

It wasn’t the several friends who came out as gay just after college. (“Mike, you idiot, duh!” I thought.)  And it wasn’t the discovery that my best friend’s hilarious older brother had been gay the whole time I knew him.  I shudder to think what stupid “that’s gay!” type of comments I might have made in his presence over the years.

No, the thing that tipped me into acknowledging the problems with my own homophobia was being the target of homophobic prejudice myself.

Just after college, I took my first “real” job as a PR flak for Wells Fargo. About a year after I started working there, the bank made the surprising, principled decision to stop giving money to the Boy Scouts of America after the BSA announced it wouldn’t allow atheists or gays as troop members or scout leaders. This made perfect sense to me:  the bank couldn’t very well give charitable donations to a group that would exclude many of its employees and customers.

And then the calls came. For two weeks, my job entailed nothing but picking up the phone and being called a faggot. Two weeks of nothing but vitriol and threats and startlingly convoluted logic about what was wrong with gay people. The kindest thing anyone had to say seemed to be along the lines of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” (The sin everyone was concerned about was homosexuality; strangely, few of the religious-minded callers seemed to be bothered by the atheism.)

That was what did it.  I finally got it.

The years passed.  Like most phobias born of ignorance or lack of exposure, my homophobia slowly abated as I became aware of more and more actual, wonderful people who were leading lives that complicated easy notions of what was appropriate behavior, what an acceptable “lifestyle” was.

More friends and acquaintances, now openly gay and lesbian, not having to hide in the closet anymore.  Friends in long, committed relationships, some of them raising wonderful, well-adjusted children. People struggling with work and parenthood and love and going through the ups and downs and joys of life like anyone.  People who should have the same rights as the rest of us, including the right to marry.  People who are, in a word, normal.

And yet if I were driving down the street in San Francisco today and saw two men passionately kissing, I might still have a glimmer of that little boy’s “ewww” reaction, even if I wouldn’t ever say it out loud now, and even if the thought would pass as quickly as it came.

The old prejudices inside us don’t die on their own. We have to make a conscious decision to fight them, to acknowledge the ways in which they skew our view of the world, of other people, and of ourselves.  It does no good to deny them. (“I’m not racist! I have lots of black friends!”)  Only when we do this as individuals can we make progress and overcome prejudice as a society.

So there you have it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go kiss my very hot, very female wife. Because I want to make it clear that I am an open-minded heterosexual male who is most certainly not gay.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Postscript:  The famous end scene from Cinema Paradiso, in which all the kissing scenes that had been edited out of films shown in an Italian boy’s small village are spliced together so he can see them as a grown man. (Also happens to be the film my future wife and I went to see on the night we shared our first kiss. No lie. Cue the violins.)