I was in a café having lunch last week (brag) when I overheard a conversation that made me slightly uncomfortable. Usually I try my best to ignore what people are saying in cafes lest I feel ungracious towards someone ordering a quarter-strength latte with five sugars. But on this day I had forgotten my headphones and so was stuck listening to the world instead of the very cool and young music (Mariah Carey) I would usually be playing. This particular overheard conversation was being conducted by two mid-twenties (seemingly) heterosexual couples at a table next to mine, who were discussing a mutual acquaintance who is homophobic. I was all on board with their views as they chatted about how his homophobia was unacceptable. But then the conversation veered off course, as one of the group declared that all homophobes were secretly gay themselves, and the foursome all began speculating about the man in question’s sexuality.
This pervasive line of thought is one that I have heard many times before. Of course, there are circumstances where it is true that vehement anti-queer people have been hiding their sexuality, and it’s hard to argue that high-profile cases of religious leaders or anti-equality politicians being discovered having same-sex relationships should not be ripe for public discussion. But this kind of speculation can feel malicious, and it doesn’t then automatically mean that a broad stroke can be applied to all homophobic people. It is still very often not true that vehemently homophobic people are secretly queer, and applying this theory more broadly to homophobic people causes some prickly feelings to arise in me. Partly this is due to the way these kinds of discussions tend to play out.
I don’t particularly enjoy hearing heterosexual people speculate on someone’s sexuality regardless of the situation. But when it comes to speculation around the sexuality of homophobic people, there is often a weirdly gleeful ‘gotcha’ attitude that comes along with it. It’s as if, because the person in question is homophobic, it’s okay to mock them for possibly being queer. Confusingly, this is often done by people with their heart in the right place who would never ever think of mocking an out queer person for being queer. If you think a homophobic person would hate the idea of being called queer and you therefore use sexuality as a way of antagonising them, you are kind of throwing queer people under the (Priscilla) bus. Queerness is not some abstract notion that should be used as a weapon to win an argument and upset people you don’t like.
The other problem with this line of thought is that it removes the culpability for homophobia completely from the shoulders of heterosexual people. It suggests that homophobia comes mainly from queer people themselves, ignoring all of the casual homophobia that arises from our heteronormative ‘straight’ society. Most significantly, it ignores the facts behind who has held the political capital and has been responsible for legislating inequality. This is not a history of discrimination perpetuated by closeted queer people, it is a history perpetuated by heterosexual people. By using this broad argument, entire histories of violence and discrimination are neglected, as are the reasons why it could be understandable that some people might be so terrified as to remain firmly inside the closet, only coming out on occasion to prove how viciously and fervently not-queer they are.
To me, people who act out in a homophobic way because they are secretly queer are the only kind of homophobes whose reasons I can somewhat fathom, and whom I can even hold a smidge of empathy for. If you grew up in a time where been openly queer was illegal or dangerous, if you saw queer people being victims of violence, being thrown out of homes and told they were going to hell, I can see why you might be afraid to be open. In those cases I can more understand the qualms some people might have about living their life openly, and exploring those feelings that are swirling inside them. Perhaps this suppression isn’t even conscious. But either way, I could see how this terror, and these conflicted thoughts, and the certainty that your life would be over if you gave into those feelings, could combine to turn into a deep seated and spiteful anger at those who you perceive to be living the life you desire, being happy and fulfilled. I can see why you might come out swinging, instead of just coming out, and I can feel empathy for that position.
It isn’t helpful, and it doesn’t make me feel good to have a completely otherwise supportive heterosexual person swoop in to gleefully point at a homophobic person and accuse them of being gay in order to get under their skin. Trust me, there are plenty of different reasons a person might hate me for being a lesbian, and ignoring all of those (and the possibility of actually reasoning with someone) in favour of a flippant and slightly homophobic small victory will only leave you feeling satisfied. And that’s not the kind of help queer people want or need.