Why straight people should worry the most about homophobia

Pride month can make straight people wonder: Why should they worry about homophobia, ranging from discrimination to violence against gay people? The reason is: homophobia is primarily a straight problem — that is to say, a problem for straight people. It’s a problem for straight parents and a problem for straight kids. Let’s look at each side at a time.

It might be obvious: almost all gay children have straight parents –homosexuals usually don’t have children of their own, and the ones they adopt by and large are straight. On the flipside, straight people have children all the time, and every time a child is born, it could be gay — nature has enigmatic ways to decide which ones but one thing is clear: No amount of testosterone in a father can prevent a child from being gay.

That raises the question: Is it a problem to have a gay child? It turns out: By itself not at all. In fact, parents of gay children often have to say a lot of good things about their children. In the end, being gay is just one attribute — just as having red hair, strong legs, blue eyes, or a height of exactly 5 feet. Being gay only becomes a problem if someone — usually straight people — decide that it is a problem. In the Middle Ages, some people also used to believe that having red hair is a problem — more precisely, a sign of being a witch. On the flipside, Hitler came up with the idea that having blue eyes is superior. Needless to say, all arbitrary nonsense.

Sadly, prejudice against gay people is still widespread. Homosexual sex is illegal in over 70 countries, including 10 countries that impose the death penalty. But even where homosexuality is perfectly legal, social acceptance can be lacking. The opposite of acceptance is ostracism — the exclusion of a person from society. Humans depend on the group for survival — since ancient times when humans still lived in tribes in caves, the fear of ostracism is a fear of death (although the term ostracism only was coined by ancient Greeks). For humans, ostracism is not just a danger like losing a leg — it’s the gravest danger altogether. Why does a soldier, ordered to leave the trench and cross over to the enemy’s side, obey even though he knows that he is facing certain death? Because the fear of being ostracized by his unit is stronger than the fear of being shot by the enemy seconds later.

This fear of ostracism is what we instill in gay children if they grow up in an environment that signals that maybe it’s not quite alright to be gay. If a gay child fears ostracism even more than death, he or she might commit suicide. Studies estimate that the suicide rate for gay youth is four times the suicide rate of straight youth; for transgender youth, the suicide rate is estimated an astronomical 25%. Russian roulette has better survival rates. Trevor, a helpline for suicidal LGBTQ youth, reported a fourfold increase in the call volume when Donald Trump was elected president. And even if a child doesn’t take his own life, the fear of ostracism can cause all kind of troubles and much suffering.

Now, it is bad enough that homophobia kills. But it gets worse — some of the perpetrators promoting homophobia are gay, and some of the victims of homophobia are straight. That’s right, any straight parent that doesn’t stand up against homophobia could be helping homosexual promoters of homophobia destroy the mental and physical health and happy life plan of a straight kid. How can this be?

First of all, gay kids fearing ostracism face an existential choice: do they accept themselves as gay — a route that most of the times leads to happy and fulfilled lives — or do they decide to pretend to be straight? The latter, fundamentally self-destructive choice means that for the rest of their life, they need to fight against their true self, denying their own homosexual tendencies. This is extremely hard, defying gravity. In fact, it usually is only possible if the fight against homosexuality becomes a dominant trait of that person’s personality and life plan. Have you ever wondered how someone could become so hateful of gay people that he or she would commit murder (and kill a gay person in so-called gay bashing)? It’s an old wisdom of psychologists: If we hate something strongly about another person, we carry that attribute also deep in ourselves but try to get rid of it.

So here is the first part to explaining the mystery: Only individuals suppressing their own homosexual desires have the necessary motivation and energy to engage in homophobia in its most violent and extreme forms. You may have heard about incidents of (usually deeply religious) men who have made the conversion of gays (into straight humans) their life goal being sighted in gay bars (suggesting that they might be gay themselves)— this is no accident but symptomatic. But are these people monsters? Not at all — my entire point here is that they are victims to begin with and ended up becoming warriors against homosexuality precisely because of the homophobia that they encountered themselves and that led them down this extreme path as an act of self-defense against ostracism.

The flipside is that when straight people deem someone to be gay, often enough they merely assume so. The only way you can know whether a person is gay or not is by observing that person having sex with someone of the same gender, and as most gay people have sex in private and straight people by definition don’t engage in sex with suspected gay people, barely can a straight man say: “I know that this man is gay because I had sex with him!” How do straight people then decide whom they assume to be gay? They go by all kind of prejudices — e.g., if a guy strikes them as effeminate.

The result: Many straight people are wrongly assumed to be gay — in fact, year after year surveys show that Americans overestimate dramatically the share of the population that is gay. Recent surveys indicate that Americans believe in average that one in four Americans is gay (which implies that many people even estimate more than 25% of people to be gay). My best friend is perfectly straight but faced homophobic harassment in the military because other soldiers deemed him too effeminate and refined. In a simplistic mind, gayness is mapped into a general and vague concept of being “different” — witness youth language applying the label “gay” to anything they don’t like, removed from any sexual connotation. The more broadly the concept of “gayness” captures contempt for people who are “different”, the more straight and otherwise perfectly normal children are exposed to the fear of ostracism — and as a result will need to make this existential choice if they accept themselves the way they are or choose to reject those parts of themselves that raise objections by their environment.

And the smaller that “objectionable” part of themselves is, the easier and more attractive is that path of conformity. “Toxic masculinity” is a new term to describe the rejection of “feminine” emotions and behavior in men. And as discussed above, men finding a “soft side” in themselves often need to fight such behaviors in others violently and aggressively in order to keep their own “soft” impulses at bay. Gay children may account for just a small portion of society — estimates range from 1 to 10 %; homophobia and the rejection of “feminine” behaviors in men casts a wide net catching almost everyone in a misguided effort to overcome the fear of ostracism. In the end, all men can become victims — and in an act of self-defense, start spreading homophobia themselves.

This is why homophobia is a straight problem that can affect every child of a straight person, and why all of us are called upon to fight homophobia. Pride month is over; the fight against homophobia goes on.

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