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On homophobia, sexism and diversity

By Tim Wernette
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 16, 1998
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Zach Thomas stated in his thoughtful commentary article in the Wednesday, Sept. 2 edition of the Arizona Daily Wildcat, "The roiling debate sparked by this cartoon ("Looking for Billy") and its accompanying critical letters and phone calls indicates something more to me: the desire, no, the necessity to broach issues long swept under America's carpet."

In that spirit, I would like to share some thoughts and reflections with you about homophobia, sexism and diversity issues.

Because discussing diversity is often scary due to our intense feelings - like fear, anger, pain and defensiveness - surrounding these issues, we may shy away from confronting these important topics.

It's heartening to me to see the Daily Wildcat, and the larger UA community, using this cartoon and our different reactions to it as an opportunity to break this silence.

For the past 15 years I have been involved professionally and personally with issues of diversity, particularly gender and sexism. While all diversity dimensions - race, ethnicity, age, religion, etc. - are important, I believe that gender is often one of the most powerful. It's the first thing people want to know about a newborn baby, because it profoundly affects how people treat that child. Because of my interest in gender issues, I've carefully noticed how we almost always refer to women and men as "the opposite sex."

And indeed, we are often raised with very different and often opposite messages about how we are supposed to be: our personality, the roles we play, and perhaps most dramatically, our sexuality.

Although feminism and the women's movement have helped to change many of the messages and restrictions for women, I still find a significant double standard on the subject of sexuality. Being sexually active is still a proof of manhood for many men, while being sexually active, or "too" sexually active, can lead to condemnation for women.

I believe these "opposite" gender roles, with all their expectations and limitations, often put both women and men into restrictive boxes, making it difficult for us to be our unique selves and often making it challenging for us to communicate with and understand one another.

Homophobia - fear of gays and lesbians or fear of appearing to be homosexual - is a powerful enforcer of these gender roles. Notice that when little boys dare do anything considered "feminine" that they are put down with derogatory, homophobic put-downs (like "fag" or "queer").

Girls who dare do anything considered "masculine" may get off by being called a "tomboy," although if she acts very masculine she's could be called "dyke."

I believe the reason that boys get put down more harshly than girls is that our society values masculinity over femininity, so a girl/woman who acts "masculine" is considered to be raising herself while a boy/man who acts "feminine" is considered to be lowering himself.

This is why the feminist/women's movement (sometimes reluctantly because of the power of heterosexism and homophobia) has always embraced gay rights as a crucial aspect of battling sexism.

Homophobia is the club or weapon that is often used to try to keep us in our gender role boxes. Although homophobia and heterosexism hurts all of us, especially gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are the targets of the bias, discrimination and violence, I believe, particularly keeps males from being supportive of one another. It's much more acceptable for women to hug or be affectionate with one another than it is for men.

In some other countries, the opposite may be true: same-sex affection is more acceptable than other-sex touching. Shows how socially-created these norms are. In addition to the interconnection of homophobia and heterosexism and gender roles and sexism, I've noticed a hierarchy among the different dimensions of diversity regarding how acceptable it is to talk about these issues and express bias and prejudice.

While racism and sexism are still prevalent in society, increasingly it is unacceptable for people to blatantly express racist and sexist sentiments. We still see, periodically, that politicians make racist or sexist jokes, but then they usually apologize or claim misinterpretation.

But with other dimensions of diversity, there's still much more social acceptability in being biased or discriminatory. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most dramatic example: only recently from the floor of Congress, politicians called homosexuality "disgusting" and "sick." Some religious leaders add their condemnation, similar to the pre-civil rights days when some churches forbade inter-racial marriages and supported segregation and racism.

While I have no reason to disbelieve that Jeremy Olson's intention in his "Looking for Billy" cartoon was to show how ridiculous homophobia is, because homophobic violence is so much more acceptable in our society I think there is valid criticism that such portrayals of violence against gays may actually support and encourage it.

If indeed portrayals of violence obviously discourage or disparage such violence, I ask you to imagine what the reaction would have been if the violence in the cartoon would have been race- or gender-based.

Imagine a cartoon where a man is shooting at two women and yelling "bitches" to them, or imagine a white person shooting at two black people and yelling "niggers" at them.

How many of us would interpret that as condemning gender or racial violence? I think that most people would interpret that as condoning or supporting those kind of violence.

Again, I appreciate the Daily Wildcat's forum for us, as a university community, thinking about and discussing these important issues.

Tim Wernette is the coordinator of diversity education in the Employee and Organizational Development Department of UA Human Resources.