Kind of a Weird Question

6 Mar

Being the good son that I am, I talk on the phone with my mom pretty frequently. Not as often as she’d like, but enough to keep her up to date. This weekend her sister and brother-in-law (my aunt and uncle) are in town for a conference. Today my partner and I went to lunch with them and some of their friends (a couple; let’s name them Jeff and Susan). As I was talking on the phone with my mom, she indicated that she knew this couple. She then proceeded to ask me:

“I know it might be kind of a weird question to ask a dude, but — is Jeff still ridiculously handsome?”

What’s striking to me is not that my mom asked if Jeff is “still gorgeous”. Based on her eternal Hollywood crush, I’m not surprised that she finds him attractive.

well hello, ladies

What did strike me was that she considered it “weird” to ask a “dude” to rate the attractiveness of another male. “Weird,” it seems, was serving as a placeholder for any number of potential adjectives in her mind: offensive, uncomfortable, “gay,” feminine, wrong. The other, sadder thing that struck me was my own silence.

I’m both surprised by and feeling resigned to this homophobic statement. I’m surprised, because my mom has evolved a lot since the days when “queer” was a regular word in her vocabulary (last heard c. 2003?). She’s a good person. She votes, and votes Democrat. She works with children on the autism spectrum. She’s active at her temple. We’ve talked about Proposition 8, and she supports LGBT rights. And she raised some fine children (hah). For her to morally judge one male rating another’s attractiveness seems to me very out of character.

And yet I’m not the least bit surprised. The majority of “well-meaning” people harbor deep prejudices that they haven’t come to terms with. As Thompson says, many of them consider as their peers “progressive and liberal”people [1]. Despite the moderate or left-wing policies for which they stand and perhaps even vote, internally these people are trapped in cages of prejudice. They hold onto tightly engrained prejudices, ever fearful that an offhand comment will cause them to be judged as a bigot, offend someone, or cause them to question their own privilege.

This particular manifestation of homophobia was relatively covert, a trick that those in power use to maintain their privilege and subjugate others. She wasn’t calling someone a fag, ranting against gay marriage, or discouraging me from having male friendships. She used that eternally ambiguous word – “weird” – rather than saying, “I know it might be kind of a gay/homo/queer question to ask…”. In this case, although the topic revolved around homosexual attraction, “weird” could have been replaced with “uncomfortable,” since this is the exact emotion she was probably feeling while introducing the question. That is, the uncomfortable phrasing of the question parallels her own discomfort, caused by her homophobia.

The suggestion that I, as a male, would not be comfortable rating the attractiveness of another male, reduces down to both a misunderstanding of sexual orientation as a spectrum, and, homophobia. First posited in the academic tradition by Alfred Kinsey in 1948 (although the two-spirit custom has been practiced by Native people since before we White people ever stepped foot on the continent), the Kinsey Scale suggests that no human is exclusively homosexual (6 rating) or heterosexual (0 rating). Rather, each of us is situated somewhere between these extremes (a rating of 3 is “equally homosexual and heterosexual”). I would guess that mom’s difficulty (or inability) to acknowledge that I may not be 100% straight (and I am not) is a symptom of her homophobia. Or rather, it’s a symptom of having been raised in the 50s and 60s, in a suburban Midwestern city, and been taught her whole life that men should not be attracted to men. It makes me sad that my own mother holds this prejudice. It makes me even more sad that I feel I can’t call her out on it.

As I mention again and again, my favorite analogy in social work is the “moving walkway” metaphor [2]. If we’re not actively, quickly, intentionally walking against the walkways of oppression, we’re all being led to the same societal end. This is how I’m feeling right now about not talking to my mom about her comment. Like I did a disservice to humanity (particularly the gay fraction of it, but in reality all of us) by not saying something. Like I am single-handedly perpetuating homophobia in this world. I’m recalling W.J. Blumenfeld’s article, “How Homophobia Hurts Everyone,” in which he notes that it “restricts communication…limits family relationships” [3]. Thinking more about it, I know exactly why I remained silent: because I didn’t want to hurt our relationship, which has never been perfect. I feared that by opening this can of worms, she would feel attacked. Because of my lack of skill and training in facilitating these kinds of discussions, I would botch the conversation. She would go on the defensive. And our relationship would suffer.

Did I do the right thing?

[1] Thompson, Cooper. (1997). “White Men and the Denial of Racism”.

[2] Tatum, B. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”

[3] Blumenfeld, W.J. (2000) “How Homophobia Hurts Everyone”. Just the bulleted list at the end of the article can be found at http://www.uas.alaska.edu/safezone/docs/homophobia_harmful.pdf.

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One Response to “Kind of a Weird Question”

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