Gay men and homophobia
Gay men who don’t get behind equality and dignity for LGBTQ people often object to accusations of homophobia. Who me? I can’t be a homophobe, I’m gay! I hear that all the time. But plenty of gay people (and other LGBTQ folks) are homophobic.
The phenomenon isn’t unusual at all.
Some gay men suffer from internalized homophobia. They have to cope with self loathing. Some, like the members of the Log Cabin Republicans, allow the loathing to manifest as external homophobia. They’ll do things like endorse political parties and candidates like Donald Trump who work against LGBTQ equality. They’ll organize against legislation like the federal LGBTQ Equality Act. They’ll support religious organizations that label LGBTQ people as sinful.
I know all about being a gay homophobe.
I was a homophobic gay teen —
Once in high school, I called the only other gay kid I knew about a faggot. I was really calling myself a faggot, of course. I didn’t know how to be me. I didn’t know how to stop loathing myself.
I didn’t know how to be mentally healthy. Equal rights? I’d have to stop hiding first!
I started to heal in a bar of all places, the dingy-fab Question Mark Bar and Grill in beautiful downtown Des Moines. If you never visited Des Moines circa 1980, I should probably explain that I’m using “beautiful” ironically.
The Question Mark was a gay bar —
The only sign on the outside was a squiggly punctuation mark that pulsed a hot neon pink. I found that sign glorious in all its tacky flamboyant fluorescence.
How my heart would speed up when I putted around the corner in my rusty, banana-yellow Pinto Pony and spotted that luscious glow of pink promise.
I was young, but the drinking age in my state then was 18. Rumor had it that one of the two gay clubs downtown was popular with guys my age. I had just graduated high school, and I was steeling myself to learn about who I was. To stop cowering!
I drove by the place now and then.
Just drove by, hands shaking on the steering wheel, and then home. One night, I screwed up my courage, parked at a meter, and walked in, not knowing what to expect.
It wasn’t really a club. I saw a bar. A small dance floor. Maybe a dozen guys. I smelled cigarette smoke and beer.
My heart was hammering pretty hard.
I perched on a stool at the bar, ready to bolt. I heard some guy dressed all in denim call some other guy Mary as he fluttered his eyelashes. This was a lot to take in for a teen from the Bible Belt. The beer smell alone made me feel like Lot poking through the gates of Sodom.
The balding bartender swaggered up to me. “Whaddya drinking, cutie?”
I swallowed hard. “Um, me?” I squeaked. “I’m not sure?”
“Tell ya what, hon. We got us a policy here. All newcomers get one Black Russian on the house. You wanna Black Russian, babe?”
I didn’t have any idea what he meant, but I nodded. He poured vodka and made small talk as I pretended not to choke. I’d never had hard liquor! The place started to fill up. The bartender introduced me to some guys my age.
Then I started feeling really good. The music pounded into me. The alcohol made me dizzy, and damn if I wasn’t popular.
This was nothing like school. I was normal! Everyone in here was like me!
Some cute guy grabbed me and hustled me onto the linoleum dance floor. I didn’t know what I was doing, but nobody seemed to care. He twirled me around, pulled me into a dark corner, and kissed me. Not seriously, but a thorough kiss and a smile.
I was on fire. Sexually? No. A joyful fire. I couldn’t believe this place existed. I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to find it. The feeling I had was of magical possibility. Like bursting into a Technicolor world after living a life of black and white.
And yes, Judy did play on the sound system that night.
That’s the night I first started to dream of Oz. I didn’t know it yet, but I would keep dreaming until I made it to Oz, until I found Oz, and until Oz found me.
I’d still have to struggle with self loathing, I’d still have to make peace with my masculinity, but for the first time I really got it that I might be able to stop hating myself one day.
Not a bad lesson for a skinny kid in a dingy bar.
I had a lot more work to do before I extinguished all the flames of external homophobia. I faced a serious mountain before I could vanquish internalized homophobia. But the battle began that night with a Black Russian cocktail and a fierce kiss.
I promised myself a “normal” life, a life filled with ordinary, joyful love and intimacy. I promised myself I’d BE normal. And gay.
I wonder sometimes about the gay men who won’t fight for full equality. I wonder what they missed out on. What promises they didn’t make. Which ones they didn’t keep.
I wish they’d found their own tacky bar with a luscious glow of pink promise — back when they were only 18.
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.