“Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.”
–Coretta Scott King
A few days ago I was watching television with a mentee of mine — an African-American male. An ad for Super Bowl XLIV came on television and he said, “Oh, did you hear that CBS decided not to run an ad for a gay-dating site.” I responded with, “What was in the ad?” He then told me it was two men watching football who eventually kiss. I asked him what he thought about the network’s refusal to run the ad and he said it was the right choice. “Most Americans aren’t ready to see an ad that promotes homosexuality” and then added “It’s immoral.” He didn’t want to see this kind of ad in prime time and wondered if I wanted my 10-year-old daughter to see such an ad.
I was angered by his comments but also understood them. At one point in my life, based on my family upbringing, I might have said what he had. I had little exposure to difference and my father was a racist homophobe; he sought to raise me to be the same. Although I never harbored racist feelings, I remember being homophobic in college — before I met gay and lesbian students and realized they, like everyone else, were people with hopes, dreams and a longing to love and be loved.
I had three arguments in response to my friend — two connected to my historical work on African-American history. First, in response to his “not ready to see” comment, I asked him what he thought of the gradualists in the South (and elsewhere) who thought that it wasn’t quite time for African-Americans to vote, enjoy equality in education and have basic civil rights. I also noted that there have been gay characters in prime time, such as those on “Will & Grace” and in fact, a gay, Black male on “Spin City,” among others.
Second, in response to his “immoral” comment, I asked him what he thought of supporters of slavery who used morality to justify their cruel and inhumane treatment of Blacks.
Third, I asked him if he also objected to the beer ads that showed scantily clad women shaking their body parts in front of men or the video game ads that showed men shooting other men. Would he want his child to see these ads? Why would he object to an ad about finding love but not one involving sexual exploitation or violence? He responded, “I don’t want to see it. I don’t care if people are gay but I don’t want to have to look at it. Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
At that point, things started to heat up, but I tried to remember that this could be an alienating moment or a teachable one — I chose the teachable moment. I asked him how he would feel if someone asked him to deny who he was — to hide his Blackness, for example. How would he feel? After a pause, I told him, “Just as I would fight for your right to sit anywhere on a bus, eat at the restaurant of your choice, vote, have access to an equal education, I would fight for the rights of my gay and lesbian friends. Civil rights are civil rights. If you expect someone to fight for your civil rights, you must be willing to fight for theirs.” He said “thank you,” and I think he meant it sincerely.
I hope that my mentee was pushed to think differently by our conversation. I know that each time I have a heated discussion about a difficult topic, I come away learning. I did this time as well.
For those who don’t see the connection between racism and homophobia, consider this. I’m asking us to consider that regardless of the way we are born, we want to live life to the fullest and experience love. We shouldn’t have to hide who we are. I am willing to fight for these civil rights. Are you?
Lastly, with regard to my mentee’s question, “Would you want your 10-year-old daughter to see an ad for a gay dating service? My answer is absolutely. If the ad is showing love or the prospect of love, it’s fine with me — especially in prime time. I have raised my child to accept differences and to stand up for the ridiculed and oppressed. My daughter knows that her civil rights are tied to the civil rights of others.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).
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Could training in implicit bias be helpful at your institution?