Let’s Have a Serious Discussion about Homophobia.

When I was 7, I first heard gay used as a synonym for being stupid, unwanted, unworthy. “Ugh, that’s so gay.” It was thrown around casually on my elementary school playground to deride homework assignments, chores, and any other mundane item they thought was a waste of time. As if the tasks were beneath them.

When I was 10, I first heard friends mercilessly describe homosexuality as immoral, vile, a crime against God. As if when we did not obey the words written in a religious text thousands of years ago, we would be eternally punished by a cruel God who wanted nothing more than to destroy the afterlife of a person who just loved someone of the same sex.

When I was 12, I first heard faggot used, deriding another middle schooler because he dressed differently. “You’re such a fag.” As if you’re inhuman, less than, unworthy. As if the worst possible thing you could be was to act gay. Not be gay, but act gay. Be effeminate, dress differently, speak in a higher voice, and exhibit any quality we see as “gay.”

When I was 13, my dad joked about “flaming” gay men. As if being flamboyant or being gay was something to be ridiculed. I remember half-heartedly laughing along while my mom said nothing.

When I was 14, a friend made a joke — “How do you know if another guy is gay? When he’s blowing you, see if he has a hard-on! Ha!” As if the worst crime you could commit is not taking another life, or murdering senselessly, but being attracted to men.

When I was 15, I first flirted with a guy over text. I thought that if I told anyone, I would be ridiculed, marginalized, voted off the island, even by my own parents. Even by my own friends. My true identity lived secretively, hiding from the light of day for fear of not being accepted. This may not have been the reality of my situation — but how was I supposed to know different? I felt powerless in the face of prejudice.

When I was 16, I first witnessed a political candidate say he has nothing against gay people as long as they don’t show it off in public. As if homosexuality was something to hide, to shield the eyes of the innocent from because it was too disgusting or immoral or unnatural to witness.

When I was 17, I told my best friend I thought I might be “bi-curious,” testing the waters for a reaction that told me I shouldn’t say more, that I should revert back to being “normal,” to being accepted, to being straight. She said “I knew that. But are you sure you aren’t gay?” I knew deep down the real answer to that question.

When I graduated high school, both my parents told me in separate car rides that they loved me no matter who I was, who I loved, who I became — and I hadn’t told them anything.

When I was 18 and entered college, I finally felt comfortable enough in my own skin to find a boyfriend. And I did. And so started the long, difficult process of coming out to my friends and my family. The love and acceptance shared among my family and friends has replaced my fear of prejudice with power over it and the confidence to share my own identity.

Homophobia is a mindset that being gay is being less. Being unworthy. Being inhuman. Being immoral. It is ingrained in much of the public consciousness that homosexuality is not normal, not natural, and should be repressed.

Thankfully, that is changing.

It is changing because countless activists threw off the blanket of safety that societal acceptance provides and loudly declared “I am gay and that is okay.”

It is changing because the gay community has fought for decades to shift the public’s opinion of homosexuality.

It is changing because we are realizing homosexuality is not a “lifestyle choice” or a “disease“ to be cured but something as inherent as having brown hair or blue eyes.

It is changing because too many, far too many gay people have died.

The shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando is a terrible reminder that homophobia still exists. Homophobia did not disappear when anti-sodomy laws were found unconstitutional in 2003. Homophobia did not disappear when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was suspended. Homophobia did not disappear when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Homophobia lurks in the crevices and corners of our speech when we mindlessly use “gay” to describe something beneath us, when we use “faggot” to insult someone, when we ridicule flamboyancy. It hides in our culture of complacency when we do not actively combat the idea that being gay is being less. But it also rears its ugly head when gay men can’t donate blood, when there are kids on the street homeless because they were courageous enough to come out to their parents, when religious zealots protest funerals justifying the death of valiant soldiers with signs that read “God hates fags.”

We need to start having a serious discussion, as a society, about homophobia. It starts in our hearts as we begin to consider when we’ve unintentionally used “gay” to describe something we didn’t want to do, or when we’ve accidentally marginalized the LGBT+ community, or haven’t supported a friend in their coming out process. These are the conversations that will challenge us the most as we begin to discover how deep these prejudices are buried.

It starts in our homes, around the dinner table. We must be unafraid like the gay activists of the past and today to challenge our parents and our siblings and our cousins and our relatives and even our grandmothers and grandfathers to accept the reality that being gay is normal, that it is not something you choose, that it is not a disease, it is not a lifestyle, it isn’t a fad and it is not something to be ridiculed. These conversations are the most difficult as they are with the people we are closest to, but these are also the ones that are most important.

It starts in our churches and mosques and synagogues and other places of worship as we must begin to consider the relevancy of passages regarding homosexuality and weigh them against the passages of love and mercy contained within the same texts, and consider what is really necessary for spiritual fulfillment. These are the discussions that take the most time and sincerity as we cannot simply ignore or dismiss someone’s faith outright; instead, we must start with patience and an open-mind toward shared principles of compassion, love, and mercy. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided among religions or even within religions. Our path forward is one dedicated to humanity and our conversations should reflect that: not being dismissive or rude, but approaching each and every discussion as an opportunity to spread and practice love and tolerance.

And it is only complete when we are not afraid to become homeless after coming out to our parents, when we are free from fear of a hate crime, when we are free to hold hands in public without a verbal assault, when we can’t get fired for being gay, when our love is truly seen as love.

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