It’s time for straight people to challenge homophobia in the family
- Published: 16 March 2010
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Turning up and cheering at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade isn't enough. Straight people must address homophobia on a level much more closer to home, writes Katrina Fox.
Last month thousands of people gathered on the streets to watch and cheer the Mardi Gras Parade. Among the gay, lesbian, bisexual, sex/gender diverse, trans and queer folk admiring the creativity of this year’s floats were an equal – if not higher – number of heterosexuals.
Straight people love Mardi Gras. It’s a camp spectacle that brings the state of New South Wales a shedload of cash from tourists and locals happy to celebrate Sydney’s diverse and colourful population. It’s the one time of year that prejudices are temporarily put aside, when even macho Aussie guys with testosterone and alcohol coursing through their bodies would rather raise a glass to than at a drag queen.
But, much as the gay and lesbian community needs and appreciates the support of our straight counterparts at the biggest queer celebration of the year, it’s not enough. Homophobia is rife in the family and it’s here that straight people need to step up to the plate.
Familial homophobia – a term coined by New York author Sarah Schulman in her new book Ties That Bind – comes in many forms. At its extreme, it can involve the rejection of a gay or lesbian family member: Parents disowning their gay child, for example or siblings shunning a brother or sister, sometimes for years. It can involve a straight family member demeaning or insulting a gay or lesbian relative.
But it can also manifest in less obvious forms. For example, a gay or lesbian partner may be allowed to attend family gatherings but not be allowed to talk about ‘gay’ things; a parent may refer to their child’s same-sex partner as a ‘friend’, particularly in public. Even though my female partner and I have been together for 18 years, my father still can’t bring himself to use the word ‘girlfriend’ or ‘partner’ when introducing us to his neighbours or friends.
Familial homophobia occurs when photos of heterosexual family members’ romantic relationships are displayed on the wall but none of the gay or lesbian person and their partner/s. Familial homophobia occurs when there is simply an assumption that events involving heterosexual members of the family automatically take precedence over and are more important than those involving gay or lesbian members.
All this can be detrimental to a gay or lesbian person’s self-esteem and quality of life. Being made to feel ‘not quite as good’ as other family members often leads to depression, substance abuse and suicide.
But the problem lies not only with family members who exhibit homophobic behaviours. Those who love their gay or lesbian relative but do or say nothing when other family members ignore or put down the gay or lesbian relative are as guilty as those doing the ignoring and demeaning.
Why do such individuals in families do nothing? Because, as Schulman points out, homophobia isn’t a fear at all, it’s a pleasure system. Heterosexuals enjoy their privileged position in society and within the family and don’t want to give up those privileges.
That includes those who stand by and do nothing. It’s easier to say nothing than risk being excluded themselves. It takes a brave person to stand up and speak out on behalf of a victimised party when there is no obvious benefit but rather everything to lose.
But this is exactly what needs to happen. We need third-party intervention to combat homophobia. Heterosexual family members must band together and call out homophobic behaviour, no matter how ‘small’ or seemingly ‘benign’, at the risk of losing their privileges within the family, for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. It’s not enough to just turn up and cheer once a year at the Mardi Gras Parade.
This strategy of compassionate intervention is crucial to stopping the abuse of gay and lesbian people within the family. And it is imperative that we acknowledge and begin to tackle familial homophobia, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient, because it is here that the seeds of disdain for gay and lesbian individuals are sown.
After forming roots in the family, homophobia then pervades into society as a whole and becomes a cultural problem. An example of this is the Nine Network’s skit portraying a gay man as faulty in its The Footy Show. The network is embroiled in legal action taken by gay activist Gary Burns and Rugby League legend Ian Roberts, who accuse the organisation of vilifying gay men.
Only by holding people who engage in homophobic behaviours accountable will familial homophobia be eradicated. Calling a person to account shows them that someone cares about the gay or lesbian family member and how they are treated. People will behave badly less readily if they know there are consequences – they only get away with behaving badly if they are constantly not challenged.
The old adage of ‘You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family’ may well be true. But you can choose how to treat your family – all of them.
A version of this article first appeared on Australian public broadcaster the ABC's opinion website, The Drum/Unleashed.