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Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.
A gay pride march in London. (Photo: Nando Machado/Shutterstock)

A gay pride march in London. (Photo: Nando Machado/Shutterstock)

“Please God, don’t let me be gay.”

A student in my LGBT literature class told me those words were his nightly prayer throughout high school. Where had he grown up?

In Dallas, which has a vibrant gay neighborhood. There was a Gay/Straight Alliance at his school. But in his family, and in his own mind, being gay was the wrong way to live.

Has the tide turned on LGBT rights in the wake of what the New York Times referred to as their “stunning advance”?

Recently, the Supreme Court decided to leave in place lower-court decisions ruling state prohibitions on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. And they refused to hear Alaska’s case to ban gay marriage. Separately, in Arizona, a federal district judge declared the gay marriage ban unconstitutional and the state attorney general said he would not appeal and waste taxpayer money.

There are 31 states now—and the District of Columbia—where gay marriage. We’ve reached a tipping point where same-sex marriage will soon be legal in more than half of the country.

The Center for American Progress reports that up to 43 percent of gays and lesbians, and a staggering 90 percent of transgender people, have experienced harassment or discrimination in the workplace.

Advocates are understandably jubilant as wedding pictures flood front pages and Facebook feeds. Will homophobia disappear as a new generation that grew up seeing visible legal protections like this put into place for queer people? The idea that being gay is sinful, shameful, wrong, or just sad will seem as antiquated as a 1980s cell phone the size of a shoebox.

I wish this were true. A major component of the marriage equality movement’s strategy has been to demonstrate that LGBT people are just like straight people—that we want the same rights to love and family as everyone else. Of course we want and deserve those rights, but we are also different.

Our butchness, our effeminacy, our sexual intimacies—the things that mark some of us as different—can still make well-intentioned heterosexual people and mainstream gays uncomfortable. Those are the things that draw the attention of bullies and the angry insecure. But until those things are seen as benign differences instead of weird, embarrassing behaviors to be stamped out, outgrown, or hidden, we have not been liberated.

The Southern Poverty Law Center analyzed 14 years of FBI data and found that LGBT people are targeted for violent hate crime more than any other group. We’re more than twice as likely to be targeted for who we are than African Americans or Jews, four times more likely than Muslims, and more than 10 times more likely than non-immigrant Latinos. Of course, many LGBT people fall into two or more of these groups, making them even more vulnerable.

The Center for American Progress reports from aggregated surveys that up to 43 percent of gays and lesbians, and a staggering 90 percent of transgender people, have experienced harassment or discrimination in the workplace. A PEW Research Center survey of around 1,200 LGBT adults found that 21 percent were treated unfairly by an employer because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 30 percent reported being threatened or personally attacked in their lifetime.

No wonder an isolated young person might try to pray away the gay.

The challenges faced by the majority of LGBT Americans, most of whom do not live in big cities or on the coasts, should not be viewed through a time warp. Steven Elmendorf, the board chairman of the Victory Fund, which works to elect gay candidates, has said, “The only way is to remember what it was like in Washington and New York in the ’80s and ’70s, when people came out and were visible.”

I have a problem with this view. There’s the obvious—it’s condescending to assume that the entire country aspires to be New York and Washington, D.C.—but it’s also dangerous to assume that homophobia is something we’re naturally growing out of as we move into the future.

We need a strategy that celebrates difference, not one that says we’re all the same. We want the same rights—but that includes the right to be who we are as individuals.

That kind of prejudice isn’t something you just outgrow. After all, my student’s parents are likely in their early 40s—not just post-Stonewall, but post-ACT UP, post-Will and Grace, post-Ellen. If time alone was enough to make being gay OK, my student would be fine.

It can be dangerous to assume that greater visibility, the main strategy of the LGBT rights movement since the 1970s, always results in a decrease in homophobia. The idea that “the gay agenda” is taking over is an old story, but recent wins like the Supreme Court’s action can make it seem more urgent to conservatives who fear a society openly accepting of sexual diversity.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis of North Carolina has vowed to fight against gay marriage in his state despite court rulings. Social conservatives are also targeting pro-gay marriage Republicans.

The more visible and successful queer folk seem to be, the more opponents fear for the “traditional family.” That can result in new vulnerability for LGBT people isolated in hostile neighborhoods—or hostile families. And those can be found anywhere.