Heterophobia: tit for tat?

posted 12 February 2004

So today, I had the same sentiment expressed to me by two very good friends, from completely different points of view. The first was in response to my long-standing habit of mentally classifying people I like as "gay", regardless of their sexual orientation, because I don't like straight people, so therefore people I like cannot be straight:

All I'm asking is that you accept that I am one of your best friends, who happens to be straight. Not one of your best friends who can't be straight because all straight people are shit so there for as to fit into some gay-but-not-lesbian-but-still-a-girl category. Being straight is as integral to me and my life as being gay is to you and yours. Just because some straight people have been shit to you (and no I don't know what you've gone through nor how it has affected you) does not mean we all are, in fact many of us are reasonable and worth while human beings (admitedly some of us aren't but then again I've met some gay guys and lesbians who aren't either).

And the second, in response to an article about Introvert Pride, was a bit more aggressive about groups who lash back at their oppressors:

I hate people with these kinds of views. It's like the fucking assholes at MIT who live in this dorm in Senior house. Basically, they're all a bunched of FUCKED UP weirdos that shave half of their heads, dye the other half hot pink, and pierce their eyes. In high school they were picked on and treated like shit by "normal" people. So now, they come to MIT, all live in the same place, finally have a "crew" and a society they fit in with and decide, in all their fucking hypocrisy, to be a complete fucking asshole to anyone else who is "normal". Fuck them.

The issue at stake in both cases is the same. Is it morally okay for a member of an oppressed group to respond to discrimination with discrimination of their own? If a group looks down on you, is it okay to look down on them? And if it's permissible, should it be encouraged or not? This is an issue I have also previously discussed with Bob and Ben as an aside in the comments for November 2003. I find myself for the almost the first time in the unusual position of holding a view in which I instinctively believe but for which I cannot find a real moral justification.

On the one hand, I can look at the situation dispassionately: if this group has suffered oppression, and they wish to end this oppression, the way to foster friendly relations with the other group is not to hate them back, but to treat them as you wish to be treated. However, on the other hand, I tend to look at the problem in terms of my own experience: throughout my life (especially when I was growing up) I was hurt physically, mentally and emotionally by a group of people who disliked me because of an innate characteristic about myself that I am unable to change. This group of people were straight people. They hated me because I was different: I wasn't doing anything to them, I was just gay. But my hatred of them is more rational: they've hurt me, over and over. Homophobia is an irrational fear of the unknown. But in the face of homophobia, heterophobia is merely a rational reaction: you hate what hurts you.

The result is that I am left with a surprisingly deep-rooted distrust of heterosexuals. I don't like them. They make me feel uncomfortable. Although I accept that I must live with them, I wish there weren't any of them around, and would prefer it if they weren't around. All these phrases come slipping readily out of my brain, but as I look at them, I'm horrified. I sound like a dyed-in-the-wool racist: not attempting to justify myself, but holding onto my discriminatory position nevertheless. I have lots of friends who are straight, and I love them dearly. But I have trouble reconciling that love with their membership of a group which, rationally, I despise. What I should of course do is narrow my definition of the group I despise to those who have actually hurt me, and remove the blame from heterosexuals in general. But instead I find myself classifying them as a "special" type of heterosexual. In fact, I tend to think of them as being gay: this slips out in conversation, when I say things like "I don't know any straight people" or "but we're all gay!" in the company of my friends. My friends are, apparently by definition, gay.

And I also, instinctively, before my rational mind intervenes, classify straights as inferior. Again, I'll give you the thoughts that bubble to the surface: "Boring. Unimaginative. Cowardly. Dull. Lazy. Too scared to do what they really want. Not brave enough to do something different. Just stupidly following what others have told them is the right thing to do. Pathetic." But what am I saying? I know this isn't true. Lots of people are straight because they just are. Lots of people act like "normal" people because it suits them just fine to do so. But because I had to fight both to accept myself and then to get others to accept me, I am jealous of these people who had it so easy. I regard them as soft. Because I had to fight to convince myself that the way I choose to live my life is just as good as any other, I have overcompensated. To make up for the fact that my life is (be it ever so slightly) harder than "normal", I had to convince myself that it has some advantages over "normal" life and this has filtered through into my perceptions of everything else.

I also empathize strongly with other groups considered not "normal" -- goths, punks, skaters (before Avril Lavigne took the soul of skater culture and wiped her perky little ass with it), and anybody who takes a look at the status quo and decides that their way is not just different, but better. Because that's what I did, that's what I felt I had to do in order to reclaim my self-esteem from the depths it plunged to when I sat curled, sobbing in the shower, whispering "face it... you're gay" over and over. I watched my picture of myself, my rock-solid knowledge of my place in the world shatter around me, the bright shiny rails of my future torn up and not replaced with anything but the knowledge that I was something terrible, and that I could no longer deny to myself that I was indeed part of that group. And that group was hated -- I thought -- by everyone; everyone knew it was something wrong, something perverse, something dirty, words that were a million miles away from anything I thought I would ever use to describe myself. It took me a long time to get over that shame, by converting into Pride, capital P, and then merely pride, the low-level kind that youthful exuberance boils down to after the excitement of discovering the brave, new, slightly naughty gay world has passed. So naturally I cheer them on when I see other people following that route, compensating for the fact that they're not really happy with who they are by shouting as loudly as possible how much worse off everyone else is. Shouting out their differences with pink hair and shaved heads. I know it's something they have to do to feel good about themselves again, eventually.

The fact that I still cling to these proclamations of superiority, these casual remarks that denigrate other groups even if only slightly and half-jokingly, indicates that maybe I'm not as far along the road as I like to think that I am. I have almost completely banished from my mind the thoughts that used to haunt me: that being gay cuts you off from life experiences like kids and family. The subtle shame of not being able to casually mention my signficant other to co-workers without carefully changing pronouns, or not at all, without an awkward introduction to the fact that my love life is not quite the same as theirs. The sneaking suspicion that I am an evolutionary dead-end, an accident, a genetic mistake. The knowledge that biology didn't design it to go up there -- it just happens to fit. These used to drive me to tears, to thoughts of suicide. Nowadays they merely make me briefly unhappy. There are counter-thoughts. I know that my struggles to face myself and to face others have made me stronger person, a more fundamentally honest person, more aware of myself. I know that the problem of acceptance is their problem, not my problem. I know how good it feels. I know that family can have many more definitions than just the one I learned in school. And I know that my love is no less strong and no less true because of the biology of the person it's directed at. But perhaps I don't find them as convincing as I wish I did. Perhaps I wish I didn't have to struggle in the first place. Perhaps I wish that my life had happened to be the kind that didn't require me to be strong and in touch with myself. Maybe my low-level disdain hides a deep-rooted jealousy. Maybe not maybe.

So when you hear me call you a breeder, or when you see a goth with pink hair and a face like a pincushion sneering down at you, don't take it to heart. We don't hate you. We don't think less of you, not really. It's not a real point of view, and so it doesn't need to be justified. This is just something we have to do, to feel okay. We're used to being weak, to being unhappy, and we raise ourselves up by pushing down on those around us. Occasionally we hit someone weaker and unhappier than us, and for that we apologize. We didn't mean to hurt you. And although that doesn't make it acceptable, we hope you understand anyway.