“So I’ve decided that I’m not gay,” my friend said.
“Wait, what does that mean? You’re in a relationship with a man,” I said back.
“Well, yes, but I don’t have to call that gay. I’ve dated women before, so why can’t I just be dating a man now? It’s no one’s business, and if I’m just dating a man, then I don’t have to do the whole coming out of the closet thing. That is exhausting, and it is nobody’s business.”
I gave him a skeptical look. I’d only been out of the closet a few years, but I could feel my defenses rising internally, unexpectedly.
“Well, you can. It’s just–”
“I mean, gay is just a label, right? And I don’t like labels. Labels carry weight and connotations with them.”
I swallowed, annoyed. “What kinds of connotations are you talking about?”
“It’s just–well, the word gay makes people think of rainbow flags and marching around in your underwear. It makes people think of fags and sissies who talk with lisps and have limp wrists and who carry purses and can’t play sports or whatever. I just don’t want to deal with all of those stigmas in my family or in my professional world.”
I leaned back in my chair, a wave of discomfort passing through my stomach. All of the years of programming passed through me, all of the times I had been taught to be ashamed of the word gay. Deep internalized homophobia that for years wouldn’t accept that word as part of me. During those years, when I wasn’t denying being gay completely, I would adopt safer terms that didn’t feel as dangerous, like ‘bisexual with a preference for women’, or ‘same-gender-oriented’, or ‘same-sex-attracted.’
Once when a therapist had told me I might be gay, I had walked out of the office in anger. When my little sister came out of the closet as lesbian to me, I’d told her she was just going through a selfish phase and that she just had to try hard to change. When I’d finally come out my self, and told my stake president at the time, he’d warned me against using the word gay to identify myself as it might make others think things about me that weren’t true.
Now I was an out, proud, gay man, a father with kids, and here was a friend, one who had a boyfriend with whom he was having regular sex, that the word gay made him uncomfortable.
Over the next hour, we had a long conversation about the word, and why it was important to me. He listened, a bit impatiently, understanding that this was an important thing for me.
“There isn’t so much a gay identity,” I had said. “Or even a definable community. Gay people are every color, every socio-economic status, every profession, every religion. We are a cross-section of all of humanity. And yes, bisexual is a thing, but being disgusted by the word gay just reinforces the very thing that unites us as a community: our disenfranchisement by the majority population. Whether you are a medical doctor in India or a cocaine addict in Los Angeles, if you are gay you very likely grew up knowing you were different than others and experiencing pain from that. And for those who survive that, for toss who come out, to be treated as less than for being feminine or outrageous or flamboyant, it just reinforces stigmas and triggers and pain. And we all carry that pain around inside of us, we are homophobic for ourselves. We are ashamed when we feel rejected, we are ashamed when we feel different, we play little games in ourselves that tell us we are better than others or not as bad as others. Instead of accepting each other, we divide each other. We body shame, we reject, we push away.”
I went on with my impassioned speech for a time until I ran out of steam, and he listened, patient but frustrated.
“I hear you, but it sounds like you are reading from some textbook. But that isn’t me. I don’t judge other people for being gay, or trans, or feminine or whatever. I think everybody should just work about themselves. But none of that is me. I’m not gay, I just like men, so your speech just doesn’t apply to me.”
Later, as I walked, I gave more thought to the label gay and what it means. It’s a part of my identity, and it influences every part of my life, because of what I went through to come out. But it was also unfair of me to expect everyone to have the same connection to the word. I had to find some sort of balance in being secure with using gay as part of my vocabulary while letting others not use it as part of theirs, and not feeling personally attacked when they chose not to. Homophobia was inherent in society, just like sexism and racism ageism and transphobia and body-shaming, and I couldn’t delete that outwardly.
But I could own it inwardly, and accept all of the complexities of the reality of the world around me, with myself a part of it working to make a difference one conversation at a time.