As someone who has always passed as a straight man, I’ve never experienced explicit homophobia directed specifically at me. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve never been the recipient of homophobia as a closeted queer person.
The most obvious source, of course, was my church. I grew up being told that homosexuality was a sin, that I needed to marry a woman. And it wasn’t all explicit either. Everything is gendered in my church, and the heterosexual couple is idealized through its portrayal in sermons and media.
But church wasn’t the only source of homophobia.
Society in general was homophobic. Growing up, I never saw gay couples portrayed in the media. Gay people were either comedic tropes or sexualized fantasies. I never saw gay relationships normalized. Every couple I saw in the media was straight. Every boy pursued a girl, every girl crushed on a boy.
Heteronormativity was standard in my family. I had no queer relatives that I knew of. Everyone was straight, and those who married did so with “opposite” genders. Discussions around my future relationships assumed I’d date girls, marry a woman, and have children. If I missed a birthday cake candle, everyone yelled, “Kim has a girlfriend!”; never a boyfriend. When I brought a classmate home to borrow our phone, my parents asked me if she was my girlfriend, but they never asked if any male friend I brought home was my boyfriend.
When my brother and I grew rat tail hairstyles, they were ridiculed as “fag tags” by friends and family. When I wanted to get an earring, everyone was quick to make sure that if I did, it was in the left ear, otherwise everyone would think I was gay.
School was no exception either. Even though I know now that I went to high school with at least one gay person, I had no idea he was gay at the time. As far as I knew, everyone was straight. The only couples I ever saw were straight couples. The only affection I ever saw at school were between straight people. When classmates bugged me about having a crush, it was always connected to a girl. If I walked home from school with a girl, classmates would razz me about her being my girlfriend, but never do the same thing when I walked home with boys. School dances paired up boys and girls, never boys and boys.
And while none of these were directed at me specifically to explicitly erase my queerness, it still had the same effect. Combined, these various environments taught me to repress my gay identity, to dismiss my gay experiences as merely experimentation. And while I have always been attracted to women (well, and girls, when I was younger), these environments collectively taught me that I should pursue women exclusively, that my gay experiences were meaningless and fleeting, merely a teenage phase.
I never had to experience damaging actions, such as conversion therapy, because until recently, everyone assumed I was straight. No one thought I needed fixing. I never had someone call out homophobic slurs from a passing vehicle because I don’t “look” gay.
The homophobia I experienced was never directed at me. It was always directed at others, either explicitly or implied. But it still affected me, so much so that I internalized it myself and parroted it back in my own language and expression.
And it’s a reminder to me that we must all watch how we talk about sexuality and gender, not only because homophobia and transphobia are wrong, but also because someone around you is closeted and internalizing your messages each time you repeat them.
Maybe like me, they’re forcing themselves to be straight.
Maybe like so many others, tragically, they’re interpreting them as messages of hate, lowering their self esteem and leading them to depression, anxiety, or even suicide.