This Friday, May 17th is IDAHO, changing to IDAHOBIT, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. Established in 2004 IDAHO aims to raise awareness about homophobia. In almost 80 countries around the world, loving someone of the same-sex is still considered illegal, at times involving lifetime imprisonment and, in nine countries, it is even punishable by death! When I think about that I think how lucky I am that I live in a country where being discriminated against means I can’t get married or if I worked for a church I might get fired.
Homophobia comes in all shapes and sizes and while it may mean a fear of homosexuals the reality is that homophobia is used to cover so much more these days. It’s more about how people react and behave in relation to others sexuality and if that reaction is negative then the use of the word seems appropriate. Julia Gillard is a really good example, she isn’t really scared of gay people, but her stance on marriage equality means she’s labelled a homophobe. I think that’s fitting.
Much work is being done by No to Homophobia in Victoria and their website is worth a visit.
Homophobia can also happen when people are completely unaware of your sexuality, as I came to grapple with who I was I was acutely aware of the attitudes of those around me.
I started working in 1999 at a non-profit counselling agency. Not that long ago all things considered. When I started there I was still pretending to be a happy heterosexual. I had started on my journey to embracing my sexuality and it was slow and at times very painful.
The Agency was very welcoming, I wasn’t ‘out at work’ but I was working towards being honest with those around me. There was no outward homophobia within the Agency. That’s a good thing. There was however plenty of little things that to someone struggling with their sexuality can be quite confronting. And it’s the small things that made me squirm. There was the payroll joke about Michael Fitzpatrick something along the lines of “Must be gay, Michael Fitzpartick and Patrick Fitzmichael” or when I won a competition of a weekends accommodation. It was known I was single and people teasingly asked who the lucky lady would be.
As I began to get more comfortable in my relationships and started dating I had a few boyfriends, looking for Mr. Right. I had to keep track in my mind about whom I had told about my sexuality and who I hadn’t. It was always a decision to make about whether or not to share it with someone. In my mind I imagined some people would reject me, I don’t like to feel rejected. When I bought a footy hat from the Op Shop, it was well-known that I wasn’t a fan and when I said it was for my partner I surprised the fellow staff member who asked what her name was. At times I’d use gender neutral language “My partner and I went away for the weekend” instead of “My partner, Michael”. Using this language at times makes it really difficult to maintain conversations. “Oh, did she like it?” to which the response is “Well, yes, my partner did like it”. Just sounds crazy!
Then there is the expectation that everyone you know is a heterosexual, this for me was compounded because I was married and I had children. People would often say things like “You don’t bat for the other side” or even worse when I finally do say “I’m gay” the response is “No you’re not”
Times have changed, over the years I’ve become more confident and able to talk about my relationship. Now I make the assumption that everyone knows. (Apologies to those who just went – “He’s gay?”)
My point here is that I was struggling to come to terms with a new world with a new me. It was really stressful. It takes a lot of energy to contain and hide yourself.
It wasn’t that work had an entrenched homophobia. In fact, it was and is very diverse. This was my personal struggle.
Imagine how hard it is to come to terms with something as innate as your sexuality when those around you are making assumptions that you’re a heterosexual. It’s not intentional and even I have to challenge my perceptions about people, because underneath you just don’t know how life is for someone else or what their life is like away from your limited interactions.
For me, the Agency has been a safe haven. Jo the CEO was quick to twig that things were happening and showed her support and quietly helped in her own way by making sure that things like our code of ethics included mentions of sexual orientation and would deflect people’s questions such as the weekends accommodation by saying “I don’t think we need to ask if he’s taking anyone”.
If you’re looking for the impact you have on people, here it is. I remember conversations about sexuality. I have lots of conversations every day and hardly recall most of them. But I do remember every single conversation about sexuality I’ve had with people in my ‘pre-out days’. I think I remember them because they didn’t sit well with me and made me uncomfortable. I remember the slurs and jokes, the assumptions and the denials.
Words matter. But, I guess you already knew that.