Finding himself on the receiving end of some verbal homophobia, Rob Buchanan learned an important lesson about how we should behave in advance of the marriage equality referendum.
Last weekend, while drinking with a fellow Outmost writer and a straight mate, I encountered what was, for me at least, a rare and most unpleasant thing – a homophobic taunt.
Let me set the scene. Myself and my two mates had been out doing a bit of hillwalking that day. Rather than hit town we had decided to go for a few jars in a bar in Templeogue, which was full of families and groups of adults. My mates ordered our drinks and watched the boxing on the bar’s TV, talking about our hike. So far, so normal. After a bit of a heart-to-heart my gay mate (who also happens to be my best friend) got up to go to the bathroom. I stood up too and gave him a big hug and told him I loved him.
It was the type of hug brothers would give each other, so I was beyond shocked when a stranger said: “Come on now, less of that gay stuff in here”. He was a gentleman (and I use the term loosely) on the wrong side of 50, quite sober and well dressed, seated with a group of other similar-aged people. Being hardly a shrinking violet, I immediately confronted him, as politely as I could. “Excuse me,” I said. “What did you say?”
A dozen things were rushing through my mind. Had I misheard the comment? Was it perhaps supposed to be ironic? Was the man suffering from Tourette’s? The idea that it was a homophobic comment was so far down the list of possibilities that I didn’t countenance it.
But this genuinely sweet-looking, middle-class bloke meant what he said, and he was smirking (though when I approached his table his smirk faded). He seemed as shocked to be called out on his comment as his family and friends surrounding him seemed embarrassed. The blushing faces and averted eyes, combined with their absolute silence and their lack of defence of him spoke volumes.
I wanted to knock him out there and then. How dare he speak to me and my mates like that? I know it pales in comparison to what many of our LGBT brothers and sisters go through daily, but at 33 years of age, despite living my whole life in a Northside housing estate, I’ve never experienced homophobia in public like that. Certainly not from an adult and although it was no gay bashing, no long-term period of harassment, by God it hurt. It made me feel small and unsafe, whilst simultaneously filling me rage.
But I thought about how acting on that rage might look to everyone present. About the stories this little weasel of a man would be able to tell – how he got a rise out of the queers. I thought of the bigger picture.
My father always said ‘Never argue with idiots because they bring you down to their level and beat you with experience’. So I decided to grasp the moral high ground.
Here’s what I said: “I’d love to tell you what I think of you, but I was raised to respect people, especially my elders. I feel sorry for you because you are a dying breed. You must have a lot of loneliness in your life if seeing people hug each other is so painful for you. This country has changed; get used to it. Enjoy your night lads.”
The people around his table continued to examine their pint glasses, or the boxing on the telly, or their shoes. A younger man in particular seemed on the verge of getting up and walking out. We got our coats and left because I didn’t trust myself to not do something stupid.
From speaking to my fellow queers, or even straight friends who are labeled gay by the whim of bigots and bullies, I know that I am extremely lucky that this experience is so rare for me. But with the marriage equality referendum approaching we may see a lot more death rattles from the old guard of homophobes. They will be feeling besieged and frantic, seeing their old world turned on its head.
It was a day or two afterward before I stopped regretting that I hadn’t punched him, or fecked a drink over him or in some other way made him understand the outrage I felt. But then I began to see that in the coming weeks, how LGBT people act and react when confronted with casual prejudice or bare-faced hate is going to be so important. Of course it isn’t always appropriate or possible to respond with a verbal dressing down. It’s hard to turn the other cheek when someone’s punching you in the nose. Likewise there isn’t always a friendly audience who are equally horrified by homophobia.
But the lesson I learned from this experience is that where possible and if it is safe we should call our abusers out for what they are. We should them with our pride. It’s up to us to be the bigger people. Bad situations like this present us with opportunities to demonstrate our dignity and show bigots how childish and unacceptable they are.
There will be many people trying to bait us in to arguments and mudslinging. They will try to paint us as fascists, troublemakers and reactionaries. And when we show them that all we want is equality, whether they apologise or not, we must be as eager to forgive them as to call them out. When marriage equality is introduced, that tiny, ever evaporating minority of homophobes in this country will find themselves on the wrong side of history. We will have to find a way to live with them as they are, much as we expect them to live with us as we are.
There’s no point in fighting bigotry with bigotry. Instead we have to learn to use those people who seek to use us to their own bigoted ends. We need to make examples of them. What have we to gain from them otherwise?
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