Homophobia Hurts Us All
Originally published on SexReally.com on January 31, 2011.
Lately it’s been difficult to turn on the news or the computer without hearing story after story about gay teenagers taking their own lives. This issue is pandemic, complex, frightening, and heartrending. And it’s not a coincidence. According to The 2009 National School Climate Survey released by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), LGBT youth were four times more likely than their straight peers to commit suicide. These numbers point to the war that our culture wages on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning youth.
While what is most recently and rightfully on our minds as a country is the rash of teen suicides fueled by homophobic taunting and relentless bullying, suicide is not the only health disparity LGBT youth face as a result of social stigma. The GLSEN survey, which interviewed 7,261 middle and high school students, also found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and that nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. A 2008 Canadian study suggested LGBT youth experience higher rates of teen pregnancy and earlier onset of first sexual activity. The study identified trends in risk behaviors that lead to pregnancy like lack of condom use and early sex (before age 14), often due to sexual abuse.
When it comes to STI risk, the CDC estimates that among men who have sex with men (MSM—this phrase is intended to include men who identify as gay or bisexual but also men who consider themselves straight) the rate of new HIV diagnoses among them is more than 44 times that of other men. Rates are especially dire in communities of color. Furthermore, many people don’t even get tested because to do so would mean owning an aspect of their sexuality they may have disavowed as a survival strategy in their day-to-day life. As stated on the CDC fact sheet about HIV among MSM:
Stigma and homophobia may have a profound impact on the lives of MSM, especially their mental and sexual health. Internalized homophobia may impact men’s ability to make healthy choices, including decisions around sex and substance use. Stigma and homophobia may limit the willingness of MSM to access HIV prevention and care, isolate them from family and community support, and create cultural barriers that inhibit integration into social networks.
So what can we do about it? In order to facilitate healthy decision-making and communication, we need to work towards a more accepting culture. The following is a list I assembled with my incredible friend and inspiration Luke. Luke and I are two (mostly) straight people who felt it was time to devise a list of strategies all of us can use to make things better for ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.
- 1. Start big. Beyond homophobia lives the taboo nature of sexuality in our culture. Make talking about sex a public act—not just from a hypersexual perspective, but from a perspective of love, eroticism, relationships, and health. This doesn’t necessarily mean talking about the act of sex each day, because that too is a strange beast—men talk about sex all day long. We make ads and movies and songs about it. We talk endlessly about having sex and who we’d like to have sex with, but never how we feel about it, and never when we fear it might set us apart from our friends. We need to create forums so that we can start to expose how complex sexuality (and sexual preference) can be. That complexity needn’t divide us.
2. Talk, talk, TALK to your friends (and family). Talk about homophobia and queer identity like you would about politics, like you would about a party. Offer up light speak and honest speak, not heavy confession. We need to take sex, sexuality, and preference out of the closet first and foremost and not be afraid to discuss a stereotypically blush-worthy subject. And if you notice friends or family making homophobic comments, consider calling them on it.
3. Respect privacy. On the other hand, it is perfectly okay to hold sex as a personal area to be respected, a true intimacy. We can do our best to make it clear to the people in our lives that we will respect their autonomy and privacy while also making it clear that we will love them no matter what their orientation or sexual choices.
4. Take the lead from your queer friends. Support the queer people in your life with love and respect. Listen to them. Stand up for them. If there are not a lot of openly queer people in your world, you can also show your support via media advocacy, or by becoming active in queer-friendly organizations.
5. Communicate with young people. Talk (and listen!) to the young people in your life. We need to talk about why calling things “gay” doesn’t make sense. Working in schools for one month will make you realize that middle and high school are very different and scary spaces. We can’t rely on ideas from twenty years ago about what kids say and how they act and “kids will be kids” as a rationalization is getting kids alienated and killed. We need to be strong role models and counsel and support all young people by reinforcing that they and their peers are normal regardless of sexual identity or orientation. A lack of community support for queer youth is driving the epidemic of self-harm and suicide. I don’t believe kids are bad inherently—they learn intolerance and cruelty from adults. Fortunately, change and evolution are possible at every step of our lives. But it’s even easier for young people!
6. Read books, listen to music, and watch films and television made by and about queer people. Learn about LGBT people in your culture and others, today and throughout history. Ask for queer studies programs at your college. Write to television networks about how you would like to see queer representation on your favorite channels. Watch shows in which queer life is made public and normal. Talk about these cultural products and share them.
7. Act politically. Do this as needed. Vote for laws that improve the lives of gay people. Donate to organizations that serve queer youth. Volunteer for organizations that reach out to gay populations with health and community efforts. Tell your friends and family about your efforts and why you want to be an ally.
8. Share this article with a friend, and write your own list of ally strategies to think about.
“Holding hands” photo by originallittlehellraiser.
Katy Otto is a social justice activist, writer and musician who grew up in the DC area. She works in nonprofit management and development.
This post was co-written with Luke Yablonsky. Luke is a musician, graphic designer, and social justice activist in Portland, Oregon.