When I encounter homophobia in strangers, I don't often stop to consider with any seriousness where that hatefulness comes from. I ship it out of my consciousness with labels like "ignorant" and "bigoted." If that hostility is aimed directly at me rather than offered at random, I add further labels like "sexually fragile" and "ego damaged," which are not insightful so much as dismissive. I am simply and sensibly protecting myself with a more adult version of "Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me" (which I'm not 100 percent sure is true).
But we are among those minorities who are confronted not only by the hostility of strangers, but by the hostility of our friends and relatives. I'll never forget the sense of pure fear I felt at fourteen when a couple of my school friends, staying overnight, began a conversation with, 'What would you do if you were in the same room with a lesbian?" "I'd throw up!" "I'd die." Nor do I forget my mother's trying to get a male hairdresser fired because he wore makeup.
The people we know, the people with whom we've formed our deepest bonds, are often as irrationally homophobic as the aggressive kids on the street or the self-righteous "Moral Majority" (how pleased I was to see the bumper sticker, "The 'Moral Majority' is neither"). Some of them, confronted with the choice between cherishing a family member or old friend and cherishing their prejudice, choose very quickly, but for most it is a very long conflict between love of a person and hatred of an idea.
Some of us choose quickly, too, react violently to the first criticism, reject family, friends, the whole straight world, and establish support systems in the gay world to supplant what has been lost.
Most of us have internalized enough of society's prejudice to begin our coming out with apologies, and we are patient, perhaps grateful for the first scraps of tolerance, even if a mother says to a son, "We'll share this secret because it would kill your father," or a sister says to a sister, "I pity you."
The difficulty is that as our own perception grows, as we learn not only to accept but to celebrate our lives, such limited perceptions of us are not only not enough, but are insulting. We want the people we love in the straight world to grow with us. Not enough of them do. As long as we are modestly ashamed and secretive, our families and friends can go on caring for us charitably without having to alter their basic values, but, when we begin to live openly and proudly, we become threatening.
Most of us don't intend to be threatening, at least not to the people we love. We try to explain what we've come to understand for ourselves, that we are no more trying to rub people's noses in our sexuality than a bride and groom do, than proud young parents do, that affirming ourselves is as common and healthy an attitude as it is for anyone else.
Since I have for years devoted part of my career to being a public voice for educating people about homosexuality, I may more often than most have to confront my failures with people I go on caring about. And with them, it does matter to me to try to figure out where all that hatefulness is coming from, why love and knowledge combined don't always irradicate it.
All our relationships are complex, jealousy tangling with pride, derailed expectations keeping company with unexpected generosities, ineptitudes coupling with remarkable grace. Sometimes homosexuality is no more than the handiest stick to beat with, on either side of the argument where something quite other may be at stake.
But what is it for some people of genuine good will that makes it so difficult to accept our sexuality? I come increasingly to believe that they haven't accepted their own. We can sometimes forget, working so hard in our own terms, that we have been required to by a society which is not simply homophobic but generally phobic about sexuality.
If straight people have the decency to be modestly ashamed of their own sexual natures, what right have we to be proud of ours? Marriage is for them not a flaunting but a legalizing of their sexuality. They don't think of children as a celebration of their sexuality, but as its redeeming result. St Paul said, "It is better to marry than to burn." But in that anti-sexual church, celibacy is still the ideal. Everyone is supposed to be ashamed.
This negative morality which pervades our society is the root not only of homophobia but of the punishing violence of much pornography. We won't move freely in the world until all people are required to confront their sexual natures in order to understand, take responsibility for and celebrate them, as we have had to. For no one who is disappointed or ashamed or frightened of his/her own sexuality is to be easily tolerant of anyone else's.
Anyone who lives in sexual shame with only the cold comfort that it is at least heterosexual is going to be a difficult person to deal with, unlikely to take kindly to advice from a blatant homosexual. What we may need to do is to persuade our liberated straight friends to help. If they would march under their own banner, "Straights for Peace" or "Straights for the Environment," maybe some of their closeted friends would be encouraged to come out, to repudiate the stork, the cabbage patch, and join us in the mortal sexuality that makes us all kin.
But even before that happens, we and they live in the often heart-breaking but hopeful knowledge that we love our enemies.