Note: All names have been changed, and stories have been truncated when appropriate to avoid the possibility or implication of repeating the message relevant in each encounter.
As a student at the University of Michigan, I’ve rarely witnessed overt homophobia on campus, though I know it exists. Still, I feel inexplicably unsafe in most spaces on campus. Sometimes, I even slyly shuffle back into the closet to protect myself (the morality of which I cannot stop thinking about). But why do I feel safer there? It can’t be because of my clothes — they’re not that cute.
There is a reason I constantly bite the tongue that only wants to defend my identity. The following three instances, all of which seemed relatively harmless at first, upon closer examination revealed deeper, harsher truths about how casual homophobia can still corrode, and what steps we can take to prevent it.
Backlighting this entire narrative is French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye’s horseshoe theory. Introduced in his 2002 book, “Le Siècle des idéologies” (The Age of ideologies), Faye posits that the far-left and far-right ideologies are more similar than the traditional left-right spectrum suggests. Though horseshoe theory generates lots of criticism (and some praise), it will work to frame my central point; on-campus homophobia usually starts with intentions of normalization, but the execution swings it around the horseshoe, resulting in some wholly homophobic encounters.
To begin, I want to take you to the East Quad basement. The pale yellow walls coupled with the basic school building lighting produces an awful orange glow, but I want you to ignore that. That innocuous Monday evening, my freshman friend group was studying at a table in the main lounge, hunched over our respective computer screens. After making some progress, I predictably got up for a dance break — Spotify shuffle had blessed me with a Taylor Swift song. Then my friend, a white, straight and affluent sorority girl, looked me up and down and proceeded to call me a “fairy.”
The weirdest part of this encounter was that I genuinely laughed. We all laughed, and then documented the comment on our list of “out of pocket” quotes. I still find it funny now, just in a darker way.
I do not think that what happened here was malicious, or that she meant to belittle my identity, even though she did. I think that ignorance allowed two things to happen: an uneducated use of offensive terms and a humorous attempt to mimic my own language.
With all the niceties stripped away, the word “fairy,” when directed towards someone in the LGBTQIA+ community, is a slur. The reclamation of slurs by targeted communities is a storied endeavor. But a weird thing has happened with homophobic slurs: they have been adopted by all, not just the offended community. So when my friend called me a “fairy,” I almost think she meant it as a compliment — I think she was happy I felt comfortable expressing my identity around her, and wanted to show she was just as comfortable. But the execution was jarring and corrosive.
She never made that mistake again, and apologized profusely. Nonetheless, it happened, and it hurt.
Our next story involves a living room on East University Avenue and, predictably, a drinking game: Kings. From the deck of cards sloppily forming a circle around a forgotten Whiteclaw, my friend (let’s call her Mira) drew a king. When you draw a king, you get to make up a rule. Mira decided to direct two straight men in the group (let’s call them Dan and Caleb) to kiss and slap Caleb’s butt every time an odd-numbered card was drawn. Without skipping a beat, Dan said something to the effect of I would love to, we’re basically already a couple, as if gay romance and sex is some kind of joke, or something to claim as bait.
Again, Mira, Dan and Caleb did not intend to belittle my identity, even though they did. What happened here was quite simple, and possibly a good thing executed poorly. I’m glad we feel comfortable enough in our social circles to allude to sexuality in a joking and light manner. As I’m sure you know, this hasn’t always been the case. Now, however, my friend group can talk about gay people, romance and sex so casually — which is fantastic. But for my community to become the butt (like the one Dan was instructed to slap) of jokes made by straight people is not okay. Pretending to be gay is not funny, it is hurtful. And it happens too often.
For the third and final campus encounter follow me to the G.G. Brown Building. In this North Campus building, a few feet from the 1,500 pound Rubik’s Cube, there is a table that routinely occupies a group of me and my class friends after our lecture. In an effort to elevate our group to friends sans the class label, we began talking about our love and sex lives. Feeling safe enough, I started spilling about the triumphs and tribulations of being gay on our campus. As we went around the circle, one of the guys tried to launch into a monologue about how he was struggling to meet girls he liked. But before he got too far, another girl in the group chimed in:
“Aren’t you gay?”
It might take you a second to understand what happened. It took me 20 minutes and a Commuter South ride. But my friend, despite how well he played it off, was outed.
There were only six of us at that table, so you might be inclined to think something along the lines of ‘no big deal.’ But you would be dead wrong. Coming out is something so radically personal that to lose agency over the decision of how, when, where and whom to come out to is truly heartbreaking.
Still, outing happens entirely too often. Many people assume that because I am gay, it’s okay to out other people to me. But that’s weird, right? I mean, if my friend told me she was pregnant, no special moral permission is given for me to tell someone else this reality just because the person I told also happens to be pregnant. Both being pregnant and being gay is something that I would call radically personal. Somehow, people have lost that level of respect for the agency one has over speaking to their experiences, or their identity. Again, why?
I keep wondering why these encounters happen in a way that makes me think the intentions are good. Here goes my theory: I think that my peers have tried so hard to normalize being gay, that being gay has lost the basic respect for agency that all identities deserve.
In my eyes, each encounter was an effort of normalization gone awry. The ‘fairy’ comment was endearing if you can look at it as her trying to step into my gay world. She was trying to talk how I talk in order to make me feel more comfortable — it just did not go well. Mira, Dan and Caleb felt comfortable enough to pretend to be gay, something that would not have been acceptable in decades past due to the levels of visceral homophobia. And finally, my friend’s outing of another could be looked at as a much too loud dog-whistle that was trying to signal personal and communal acceptance of gay people at that table.
All of the people in these stories were making an effort to normalize my identity — they just executed it in an unacceptable way (do you see all of the horseshoes?). This is why I think I feel uncomfortable on campus, because this happens all the time.
As I hope you are expecting, my solution is nothing grand or enlightening. It is, however, important, simple and worth reading:
Be aware of what you are saying.
Don’t employ language for communities you are not a part of. Don’t make my love a joke. And remember that you can create safe spaces without outing people. Beyond the specificity of that advice, be aware of the connotations of your words, because as cliché as it is, words — and the context in which you use them — matter.
It’s also important for me to take a moment to acknowledge my own limitations. It has been proven that these sorts of microaggressions harm people of color to a much greater extent than queer, white people. As a white man, I cannot share these experiences, but many queer writers of color have.
The reason my tongue is lousy with metaphorical scars is because I refuse to be the moral authority on all things gay. It’s unfair for me to both take the blunt of microaggressions in stride and fix them. Sometimes, I’m too focused on being hurt by people I care about to call it out. It’s up to all of us to prevent these overcorrections, even if they are coming from an intent to normalize. Call people out, have conversations and think before you speak.
Statement Columnist Sammy Fonte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.