Guest post by Conar.
All right, friends. Today, we spin our queering wheel and turn our vehicle toward that most frustrating of topics: the homophobic relative.
We’ve all got one. Sometimes several. They rear their ugly heads at Thanksgiving and Easter alike, extracting cringes from all assembled with such oft-heard phrases as: “Well, I don’t hate them, I just disagree with them,” “Are you sure you’re gay?”, “You can’t like men AND women, that doesn’t make sense,” and my favourite: “Well, your lifestyle is your choice, I suppose.”
These phrases are usually (though not always) preceded or followed by casual racism, or sexist jokes, or both. My least favourite uncle is a walking stereotype of the bigoted redneck, and I am very grateful I only have to see him once or twice a year.
However, today we are discussing a different type of person, and often a much more difficult one to deal with. I like to call this person the Backhanded Bigot. This is someone who is not obviously homophobic or transphobic, who doesn’t say anything actively hateful, but can be dismissive, insensitive, and otherwise harmful, often without even realizing it.
This kind of person never quite manages to understand that there are more than two sexual orientations, often misgenders people and expects them not to mind. They will make questionable jokes, or perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and be genuinely confused when you call them out.
In my case, this person is my father. We’d had a difficult relationship for several years, even before I came out, with some rather tense family issues putting a sizeable rift between us. For various reasons, I spent the better part of two years not really talking to him at all, and frankly, my life was improved as a result. However, this year, I’ve starting seeing him again on a semi-regular basis, and it’s been what I would refer to as “interesting.” He’s slowly getting better for being open-minded and accepting, or least he’s getting better at seeming that way around me.
It’s no surprise that I’ve never been very comfortable talking to him about things important to me, and even less of a surprise that it took me a long time to come out to him, or come out at all. He’s never been what you could call supportive, and he is by nature a very angry man, and has been ever since I was a child. He has never been religious, so his issues are not ideological ones, but he has quite a lot of ingrained sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and a bit of racism, if we’re being honest.
If you were to ask him if he has any problem with gay or bi or trans people, he’d tell you no, and mean it. But his recurring use of tired stereotypes, his obviously intense discomfort with same-sex displays of affection, and his wilful ignorance of trans people, all say otherwise.
My favourite example is that the day I finally came out as bisexual to him, he thought I was joking, because he didn’t think that bisexuality was a real thing. I have yet to tell him about my change in label to pan, for fairly obvious reasons.
So, we are left with someone who I often do not like, at all, but want to keep in my life because, well, he’s my dad. He might not always be a great dad, but he’s my dad. How do you keep a somewhat toxic person (but one you still love) in your life, without doing harm to yourself?
No really, I’m genuinely asking. Please submit your suggestions in the form of haiku or rhyming couplet in the comments.
But in all seriousness, I have found that, in a similar fashion to the entirety of the rest of life, this dilemma has no easy answers – or at least, none that I’ve been able to unearth.
Do you try and educate this person? See if you can give them enough perspective and understanding to shift the dial in their head from “ignorance” to “awareness”? Maybe, but there’s no guarantee it’ll stick, and having to take the time to teach someone about your own identity can not only be tiring and time-consuming, but just emotionally draining, and you are under no obligation to educate someone when they won’t educate themselves. I have definitely tried to help my father learn why his attitudes and behaviours are problematic. Sometimes it’s worked, often not. I don’t do it much any more, because frankly I find myself lacking the patience.
This kind of person can be even more troublesome to deal with than an obviously rampant homophobe or misogynist, and significantly more complicated, because they often genuinely believe they are models of acceptance. To further muddy the waters, they may even be quite progressive in some ways. They might consider themselves feminists, and they might have fought for equal marriage rights. They likely have a few gay friends, and will bring up that fact at every possible opportunity. And because they already think that they are a paragon of open-mindedness and equality, they are often very, very resistant to admitting that they may not be as much of an “ally” as they think. And it’s understandable; nobody likes admitting they’re wrong.
Dealing with and being around my father is not always a pleasant experience. Sometimes we have a good time and a few laughs, and sometimes I have to force myself not to say anything.
But, as deeply flawed, and often exceedingly difficult as he is, he’s still my father, and I do still love him. So for the time being, I am still seeing him once a week or so, and putting up with the semi-frequent jokes, comments, or stereotypes that he still perpetrates. It takes a lot of teeth-gritting and tongue-biting, but I’m willing to do it for now, in order to keep my father in my life.
It’s not a permanent solution, nor a perfect one, but it’s the best I can do right now.