By Adam Katz
One of my favorite new activities is writing a blog post and having someone I care about bring it up in conversation. I like doing the reverse, as well, not surprisingly.
My recent Big Think, about trying to shed the homophobic bias I was invisibly raised with, led to an amazing conversation with a friend about how, really, everyone (queer or otherwise) grows up in this same aquarium, getting fed fish-flakes of homophobia and racism until it feels like they’re part of our biological makeup.
It felt good to hear positive reactions to that article because I did go out on a limb in writing it. And also because the person I was talking to (no promises) may author a piece or two for us in turn, and get positive reactions of his own. And I’m proud that I wrote it. It’s not necessary to hear from people that I respect to confirm that it was worth the risk, but I’m not going to turn them down, either.
A conversation about the pervasiveness of these evils leads naturally into a discussion about the people who try to have it both ways. Academics, lawyers, filmmakers who are (or were) considered great feminists and allies, but nonetheless carry on with toxic behaviors, both in their private lives and in their places of work.
I will not delve too deeply into this conversation, because we could be here forever, but one idea my friend raised that stuck with me was this: we have to keep dredging up embarrassing moments from our past and reexamining them, because that is how we prevent ourselves from engaging in embarrassing moments in our future. And because that’s how we signal to other people that it’s ok to make mistakes as long as you’re trying to correct them, make up for them, pay them forward. In short, we have to learn how to sit with, and resolve, complex emotions.
The incident I brought up in my last Big Think, in which I engaged in homophobic bullying as a 12-year-old, came about because of that inability to sit with, and process, complex and paradoxical emotions. It had nothing to do with sex or sexual preference. We barely knew what sex was; I would attest that none of us was sexually active at the time. We were learning these labels, context-free, long before they would connect to any recognizable patterns of behavior. That is one of the aspects about the situation I described that is so toxic. We as a society teach kids to be homophobic LONG before they ever have an opportunity to try to experiment with their queerness. Do we think we are nipping their queerness in the bud? Thank God it’s not working, but we are teaching queer people and straight people alike to hate themselves more than they otherwise would.
We need to teach kids it’s wrong to bully other kids, obviously; that it’s wrong to bully other kids specifically on sexual grounds; that it’s wrong to queer-code certain activities. But what ties all of this together is that we desperately need to teach positivity. We to teach kids to be comfortable in their own skin so that when someone calls them ‘gay’ they can shrug it off, the way my friend did all those years ago, and not feel the need to deflect the insult by redirecting it to an innocent bystander, the way I did.
It’s taken me a long time to be able to feel comfortable with other people insulting me. I consider it one of the skills I learned, and I credit the people who helped me to learn it. I don’t mind being a bit proud of it, and wishing other people could learn it, too. I also don’t mind admitting that growing up upper-middle-class, with an inherent sense of safety and security contributed to my ability to shrug and laugh it off when other people try to bully me.
I don’t have a solution for that last part, that is, for the connection between self-assurance and privilege, except to say the usual things: Living wage now. Taxpayer-funded healthcare now. I don’t have a much better idea of how to go about getting those things than our current sitting president. But I do believe we have some of the momentum, and a growing share of public opinion, in our favor. On both the economic issues and the social ones. But just like with purging one’s inner homophobe, it’s important to keep fighting for ‘the people on the edge of the knife.’
Maybe a bit closer to home: I hope that processing these long-ago events helps someone out there. I hope it helps someone realize that we do all have this baggage, and it’s no shame to admit it; or if it is, the shame can be processed. There’s another important point, which is that an act of homophobic (or indeed any) bullying, while we would prefer to avoid it at all costs, doesn’t mean that the perpetrator is toxic; not necessarily. Did they apologize? Grow? Change? What underlies the behavior? I don’t want to minimize the hurt that even a single act of bullying like the one I described in my previous Big Think. But I do want to say that everyone does things they regret, and as long as there is regret and an attempt at the kind of restitution that is the natural companion of regret, then there can be growth and healing.
Please reach out to us if you’re interested in writing something in a similar vein. This is fertile ground, and we could all use a place to air our dirty laundry in a positive way.