There’s been enough talk in the media this month about people wanting to round us gays up, put us in camps, beat us straight, take our rights away and otherwise treat us worse than animals. That’s not what this post is about. Instead, I want to think about the casual, everyday homophobia ingrained in our culture. Behaviour people don’t even realise is homophobic. Behaviour by people who, if you called them homophobes, would argue vehemently they are pro-gay and support equal rights.
What am I talking about? Well let’s start with a forum discussion about safe sex. With a conversation about when a condom is appropriate in fiction. As an author, this is addressed is important. Some publishers have rules about condom use, even if it doesn’t fit the story arc. One author told me about a scene she’d written where the character has unprotected sex and it’s a pivotal plot-point. Imagine her dismay when she saw her publisher had altered the scene to include a condom. Cue hasty re-write.
I’m a realist. I want to write real, flawed characters. We all know when we should use protection, but we all know that not everyone does. To my mind it’s absurd to read a scene with a hot, hasty hook-up in a locker room or an alleyway and yet at the crucial moment someone has a condom handy. You’re in the shower at the gym but what, there was a condom wrapped up in your towel, or in your gym shorts? As if.
Books are not morality plays. Authors don’t have to sermonise to the reader. No-one has to tell you that murder is bad when you’re reading a slasher, do they? That being said, I do think we have a moral responsibility to consider safe sex. And really, how many words does it take to write a condom in where it’s appropriate? About 4?
What does this have to do with homophobia? Because part of that discussion got onto gay and straight representations of safe sex. Straight people engage in risky sex constantly in fiction. It’s not just fiction, either. In straight porn condoms are almost never used, for vaginal or anal penetration. For gay porn, they almost always are. That’s a staggering double standard. The insinuation is you’re going to catch something from gay sex that you’re not from straight sex. The AIDS iceberg looms large.
Now we all know that’s a nonsense. New infection rates of HIV are highest and growing among the heterosexual populations of the world. But to read fiction, you’d think the only thing you can catch from straight sex is babies. Whenever straight couples do address unprotected sex in fiction, it’s usually in the context of, “it’s okay, I’m on the pill.”
One person in that discussion did recall an author who writes safe sex between her straight characters, but—and this really blew me away—she thinks that author probably does that “because she’s got a gay son, so she’s more aware of the risks.” I had to step away from that one before I said something I’d regret. What that person was basically saying was that only gay people (need to) know about safe sex. That safe sex between the straight characters was an anomaly explained by the fact that lurking in the background was a gay man, with a gay man’s sensibilities.
It makes me want to scream.
Male gay for you is another killer. When I’m reading an m/m GFY (or out-for-you) romance, I don’t want to read about two men with problems with women. It devalues the entire romance. It leaves it open to the interpretation that they’ve only “gone gay” because women have treated them badly in the past.
GFY should be about a connection between two characters intense enough to make them re-evaluate everything they thought they wanted. It should be deep and meaningful and significant. It should not be about turning away from an entire gender because of a few bad apples.
I read a GFY recently that was exactly that. Worse, when the MCs made the decision (spur of the moment, admittedly) to do away with condoms, they did so based on the fact that one of them had been tested, and one had been celibate. Celibate except for sleeping with his (by then, ex-) wife, that was. And he was well aware she cheated on him for the last couple of years of their marriage. But again, that’s straight sex, so you don’t catch anything from it, right?
The hypocrisy in such attitudes really, really grates. And the sad thing is the people voicing these opinions don’t realise the implications of what they’re saying. They’d be mortified if I pointed out how offensive their comments are. Not even all us gays get it. I saw a glowing review of the book I’ve just mentioned, on a well-respected blog run by a gay man, who called it “gay for you at its best.” I consider it GFY at its worst.
The problem is this kind of casual homophobia is so ingrained in our culture that people simply don’t see it.
Another gripe of mine can best be summarised by the expression sweet boys. I swear, if I never read that again it will be too soon. It’s become ubiquitous in certain circles to refer to a gay male couple of any age. I particularly hate this one because it infantalises queer couples and, by extension, queer sexuality. Like a fully-fledged and rounded relationship between two grown men is something that people go “awww, bless,” over. I’m sorry, that’s just condescending.
There’s been an interesting debate about straight attitudes to queer relationships this week, prompted by the banning of hen (bachelorette) parties from a very famous American gay bar. The bar’s position is it’s deeply insensitive of those women to enter a queer space and celebrate their entitlement to a ceremony denied to the bar’s patrons. I agree with that policy wholeheartedly, but I’ve seen arguments every which way.
Some people argue it’s discrimination, and just because it’s queerfolk discriminating against straights for once that doesn’t make it right. Others think that those women are our allies and we should be coveting closer interaction with them. And some people think that it’s straight money going into gay coffers, and that’s always a good thing. On the other hand some people think that those women aren’t allies at all, they’re only there because they think it’s “daring,” and that it’s a safe space. That they treat going to a gay bar like a field trip to the zoo. That they have no right imposing on our safe space.
I’m in the second category. Yes I’m the first to point out we’ve made our own ghettos and we really need to think about getting out of them, but the fact remains that there are precious few places where we can go and be ourselves without constantly looking over our shoulders or garnering unwanted attention—however positively meant—just because we’re indulging in the odd PDA.
Lines in the sand
So okay there are still lines drawn in the sand between gay and straight, and sometimes both sides get defensive when someone strays over to the “wrong” side. Perhaps we’re our own worst enemies, because we want inclusion into straight spaces, but we want to keep our places sacred. The truth is I think that gay bars are an important part of the socialisation process for young, newly out gay people and without them our community would be a lot more fractured and isolated than it otherwise is.
I’m not talking about the experience of drinking and dancing and copping off, I’m talking about the normalising experience of being in a place where the majority of people are like you. That’s something no straight person will ever understand, because that is straight experience. It means everything to us and nothing to them to be in an environment where you don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
I’m all for straight people trying to understand our community and our experiences—by going to gay clubs, by reading or writing gay romances, whatever—but I think more people need to bear in mind that most of the realities of our experiences are simply beyond comprehension for the majority of straight people, and that received wisdom about our culture and attitudes isn’t always right. More, I think the appropriation our our spaces and experiences by people who don’t really understand what they’re talking about is wrong, plain and simple. I’m not saying straight people can’t empathise, but I think they need to accept that a lot of what we deal with on a daily basis simply has no straight equivalent.
I think Cassandra Clare got it right in her latest Mortal Instruments offering, where Alec is explaining to his sister how he feels about people’s reactions since he came out. He says “it’s not a single stab wound that you can protect me from, but a thousand little paper cuts every single day.” Stupid, offhand comments and actions that the people who drop them often don’t even realise are offensive or even downright cruel. Belittling our relationships, insinuating that we’re rife with disease, invading our spaces and suggesting that we’re somehow lacking, or immature, or damaged. We’re none of those things. We’re just ordinary people trying to live and love in a world that doesn’t understand and often rejects who we are offhand. A little thought could go a long way towards making that experience a hell of a lot easier.