OutChristian volunteer and community member Michael Watt reflects on his own experience with homophobia growing up in the 60’s and 70s. This essay is part of our recognition of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, held each year on May 17.
Homophobia (noun) – irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals. (source: Merriam-Webster)
I was born in the mid-1960s and grew up during the 70s/80s in the suburbs of Memphis, TN. At the age of 7, I began to sense that there was something about me that was different from the other boys my age. They must have sensed it too because around the age of 8, the name-calling began. “Sissy.” I heard that a lot during my 3rd through 6th grade years. In the 7th grade, the names became harsher. “Queer”. “Homo.” “Gay.” “Faggot.” At least once or twice a month all the way through the end of 12th grade, those names would be hurled at me as I sat in class, walked through the school halls, entered the cafeteria, or as I rode the school bus. I never acknowledged the slurs. I just ignored those who had yelled them at me and pretended that I did not hear them. But I did hear them. The words hurt. I still bear some of the emotional scars to this day.
While the homophobia that I experienced growing up never led to any physical violence towards me, I was still afraid of the possibility of physical violence. I also began to experience a great deal of internalized homophobia. As a result, I spent most of my life doing everything I could to project an image that I was not gay. Is my walk masculine? I was told on more than one occasion that I “walked like a girl.” Is the way I speak masculine? I didn’t want to sound like the gay people I saw portrayed on tv and in the movies. (Speaking of tv and movies, there were no positive gay role models in those days.) Are my mannerisms okay? I’m not “limp-wristed” am I? I don’t use my hands too much when I talk, do I? What about my laugh? When I was 20 years old, someone told me I laugh like his mother; what did he mean by that? Am I doing a good enough job trying to pass as straight, or does everyone see through the image I am attempting to project? Those were questions that dominated my thinking well into my early 40s.
Because of my internalized homophobia, I did not want to be friends with or associate with anyone who I perceived or knew to be gay. What would others think? Would my association with someone I believed to be gay confirm to others that I was gay? I could not have that. After all, I was a Christian and it was implied to me that I could not be a Christian and be gay. For over 18 years, I would read and study every single book, article, newsletter, etc., from a reparative therapy perspective that I could get in my hands. Trying to hide the fact that I was gay as a teenager, young adult, and through my mid-40s was never ending and exhausting. It literally sucked the life out of me.
In 2010, after 32 years of denying that I was gay, I began the process of reconciling my sexual orientation with my faith. It was a process that took about 2 years and included lots of reading, discussions, processing, and prayer. In 2012, at the age of 47, I came out to my family and friends as gay. I informed them that I was not going to hide any longer and was going to live my life as an out gay man. On National Coming Out Day in 2012, I took a huge step and came out publicly on Facebook. Since I am no longer consumed with attempting to present a “straight Michael” to the world, I can focus all that energy into discovering and being my true self. As a result, I can invest in relationships and genuinely love others.
A couple of months ago, I began dating a guy. This past weekend we ordered lunch from a restaurant and picked it up via curbside pickup and took it back to my house. On the way to the restaurant, while stopped at a traffic light, I wanted to reach over and hold his hand. Because the individuals in the vehicle next to us might be able to see us, I did not take his hand because I did not know how they would respond. Would they yell at us through their windows? Would they follow us and harass us? Later that afternoon, we went to Walmart. While walking from the car to the building, I really wanted to reach over and hold his hand as we walked. Again, I didn’t because people would see us and I didn’t know how they would respond. The thing that frustrates me is I know that if I were straight and I was dating a woman, I wouldn’t even have thought twice about holding her hand, but because I am dating a man, I pause, I question whether it is safe to do so, and then choose to err on the side of caution. Since acceptance of gay relationships is increasing in the U.S., maybe one day I will be able to hold my date/partner/husband’s hand while out in public, but for now, I continue to live in the shadow of homophobia.