Back when I worked at the gay and lesbian centre in University, I was one of the two “outreach” co-ordinators. The other half of what was supposed to be a duo had to leave the position during my time, and there was a stretch where, although we always tried to give discussions as duos from among the various volunteers, sometimes I ended up doing them alone. I never minded, public speaking was an enemy I’d fought off successfully.
At one of the discussions where I was alone, all I knew was I was going to be speaking with “teachers and related staff.” I brought my usual discussion pattern, not knowing what grades I was speaking with, and what level of knowledge they’d be coming with.
It turned out to be a group of teachers, guidance counsellors, and the principal of a Catholic school board school. They’d been “voluntold” to go to this discussion group. The vice-principal had refused, if I’m remembering correctly. It was, without a doubt, the most hostile room I’ve ever walked into to speak on two fronts—one, from those who disagreed with my “lifestyle,” and two, from those who believed it a pointless message, as if they followed the teachings of their faith, they would never treat me differently. It was, to put it mildly, a chilly reception.
I always introduced myself, gave a background about the centre, and then asked for a “parking lot” of questions in-advance, so I could figure out what people wanted to know. That went okay, if without much enthusiasm.
Then I started to define my terms. The moment I said “homophobia” a man’s hand shot up. and he started speaking.
“That word is stupid. It means fear. I’m not afraid of gay people.”
Rumbles and grumbles made it clear that others agreed. So I halted, looked down at my notes, and remembered a discussion I’d heard once.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s talk about that. But let’s step away from the gay thing first. Let’s talk arachnophobia.”
A few frowns, but they seemed willing.
“I’m going to ask you to put your hands up if you’d say you’re an arachnophobe.”
A bunch of people put up hands. More than half, I’d say. And, to illustrate the point, so did I.
“Now, a phobia is an irrational fear, which I think we can all agree to, right?” Again, the room seemed willing. “So, if you have a legitimate reason to be afraid of spiders, drop your hand. I mean, if you’re allergic, or you woke up covered in spiders when you were a kid, or something like that, then there’s a reason you have this fear, and that stops being a phobia and starts being a rational reaction or a trauma.”
Someone lowered their hand, and I remember joking, “Please never tell me that story.” A couple of people laughed, including that person, which was good.
“Okay, now, those of you with your hands up in the air, drop your hands if you’ve never swatted or smushed a spider.”
A few hands went down.
“Now, I’m going to ask you to put your hands back up if you’re doing so on a technicality—did you get someone else to smush the spider?”
One hand went back up.
“Okay, so, here’s the thing: Do you think it matters to the spider what word we use?”
I could tell the guy was not happy with that answer, so I went on.
“I’m going to use the word homophobia, but if it makes you feel better, when I say the word, imagine what I’m saying is, ‘people who’d rather the gay kid not exist, by whatever means that might be.’ I didn’t even cover the arachnophobes who are ‘kinder’ and just take those spiders and throw them outside somewhere. The ones who are okay with spiders, just not where they can see them, and not in their house.”
By this point, people were shifting in their seats, visibly uncomfortable.
At the end of what still stands as my worst homophobia workshop ever, that guy with the problem about the terms came up to me and repeated himself. He wouldn’t use the word. Not ever. It was a stupid word. I’m absolutely sure I did not reach that man in any way. But when I got the feedback slips at the end of the night, more than a couple of the pieces of paper mentioned the “arachnophobia thing” and how it helped them see things a bit differently.
When I think of hate crimes like what just happened in Florida, I always go back to that room and that discussion group, and I remember how in a room full of people who absolutely didn’t want to hear what I was about to say, there was that one guy, up front, saying loudly that he didn’t like the terms I wanted to use to even begin the discussion.
People will always attempt to derail the conversation. They will nitpick terms, and trip up conversations with tiny details. They will look for loopholes, and exceptions, and just like “I Don’t Think Like That,” “Not All Men,” and “Not a real Christian,” it will often come from a place where someone who truly does wish nothing but the best for queerfolk will feel like they’re being painted by the same brush decrying the homophobia, misogyny, transphobia and racism at play.
The victims will still be dead.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed? You don’t have to hurt yourself to help another. Take a breath. Step back. We may be a weird and fucked-up and barely functional community a lot of the time, and as prone to our own trouble from within as without, but until you’re in a place where you can speak your truths, take care of yourself. Self-care matters. I know when even our safe spaces aren’t safe, when the hate comes inside the very places we count on to feel secure, that it’s devastating.
If you can, keep talking. If you can, keep donating your time, your effort, whatever you can. Keep trying. Keep voting. Keep speaking so the ones watching the conversation—not the ones who you know full well have zero intention of ever changing their minds—might hear another point of view.
The irrational fear was learned.
Teach something else.