That’s the response I get in my workshops and lectures on gender and homophobia from college-age adults today. In some ways that’s surprising, and in others it’s not.
Maybe it’s because most of my work isn’t in the big cities on the coasts. But then, again, much of what passes as entertainment out of those cities exploits a love-hate relationship with gender roles and their accompanying homophobia.
And in every part of the country one still finds loud religious personalities who use the fear of homosexuality to stir up their crowd, increase what’s deposited in their offering plates, and attract undue attention. Even with progressive churches coming out of the closet, the backward ones act as if they hold a monopoly on truth.
Pat Robertson explains in his senile mind how gay people purposely spread AIDS to each other by maintaining an open wound on their hands and the use of a "scratch ring" to open up wounds on other gay men whom they infect. As soon as the live broadcast of "The 700 Club" was over, the producers and sponsors hurredly tried to remove that segment or edit it out but it was too late. When that failed, they tried to sue everyone who posted Robertson's insane ramblings but that also failed so they're stuck with an over 80-year-old host who requires people to help him dress himself before each segment and may or may not place the broadcasters in liabelous ground.
Historically a lot has changed, and that’s an important reason why knowing history provides hope. Much of the change has been in the legal arena with the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and a part of the Defense of Marriage Act as well as the number of states that have embraced marriage equality.
There’s also the fact that people now know more LGBT people and that young adults accept that there is something called “gay.” Older generations hardly knew there was such a thing.
Gay is all over the news as much as it’s found in entertainment. And it especially all looks better to those who’ve risen highest in America’s class structure.
But those who say that what I wrote in 2001 in Scared Straight about the relationships of homophobia, gender expectations, and the acceptance of LGB and T people still touches on systemic attitudes are looking at something deeper that fuels their uneasiness.
Now, it isn’t news that gay slurs have functioned for generations to keep men in a tightly-defined masculine box that celebrates all that’s self-destructive about machismo. It was assumed that gentle, caring, effeminate boys were gay. So, calling them fags and queers was meant to butch them up.
Religious ministries that brainwash gay people to try to get them to act, and maybe become, straight, taught boys how to be real men and girls how to be demure ladies. The common criticism of accepting LGBT people was that it’ll destroy our supposedly definitive gender dichotomy of opposite sexes.
It’s therefore seen as some kind of progress when an athlete comes out: “Look how macho he is! He fits our idea of what a real man is and he is gay. Who would have thought? Can you believe that he’s gay?”
Though it seems important (almost a relief culturally) to know that there are gay men who fit our concepts of hyper-masculinity and lesbians who wear lipstick and dress like ladies, young people in my workshops sense that something crucial still hasn’t changed.
The May Atlantic pinpointed the issue in an article entitled “What About the Guys Who Do Fit the Gay Stereotype.” It began with the report of the fatal shooting that month of Mark Carson who was walking with a male friend just blocks from - of all the enlightened places - the Stonewall Inn in New York City.
Reports say that the killer taunted the two for blocks with, among others, the well-worn “faggot” slur before shooting the 32-year old gay man at point-blank range. Coincidentally, the article reports, anti-gay crimes in New York City are on the rise while over-all hate crimes decline.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel reminds us repeatedly that: “homophobia is a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood.” It “keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women.”
And that’s what these young people still see. They know that the gender roles for both men and women (Women athletes are assumed to be gender non-conforming.) are still there and that no matter how much they’re told they can be themselves, society still tries to squeeze them into an acceptable masculinity and femininity.
Unless the gay boy or the lesbian girl fits the gender stereotype, they’re more likely to suffer at the hands of those around them even as gay people are becoming increasingly accepted by younger generations. Gender non-conforming students are still as likely to experience negative comments and harassment as they’ve always been.
This comes down hard on transgender young people as much as it does on their elders. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs in 2012 reported that trans people were 28 percent more likely to be physically assaulted, and that trans women specifically made up 40 percent of hate murder victims.
So the worry among young people who say not much has changed is that as the question of sexual orientation becomes less an issue for some, what remains intact is a version of the strict male and female gender roles that today define who thinks, feels, and acts straight enough to be acceptable. In fact, they report that on campuses there may even be a resurgence of gender performance, especially among the elite of college Greek culture.
So celebrating the coming out of those who don’t fit a gay stereotype could actually be further enforcement of gender roles. And while these remain, acceptance will depend on how willing lesbians and gay men are to conform, to play the gender game.
This will mean that the men who don’t fit the macho role and women who don’t seem feminine enough will continue to be harassed no matter what their sexual orientation. And if it’s true that those males who do not fit society’s on-going definition of a man are more likely not to conform to heterosexuality and those females who don’t fit the strict feminine gender role are more likely to also identify as uninterested in coupling with men, we still have a way to go to get to the point where both sexual orientation and the often accompanying gender non-conformity are insignificant matters for society at large.
These young people who say things haven’t changed that much want us to break free soon.
Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human: and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org.
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