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Published on November 9th, 2014 | by Healthy Gay Lifestyles

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Facing A Phobia About Homophobia

by Jim Duke, Guide for Gay Men

Big revelations about life can sometimes come from relatively small and seemingly insignificant events. I had one such experience not long ago while taking in a movie. Don’t ask me what the movie was because I have absolutely no recollection. This was not one of those “OMG have you seen it because it changed my life!” kind of theatrical experiences. It wasn’t what was on the screen that was so eye-opening as what was happening in the audience; specifically in the seat next to mine.

While visiting family in a rural area, my partner and I decided to take in a flick at a small theater in a nearby community. When we arrived, the place was nearly full, so we grabbed the last two seats that made up the back row on the narrow left aisle. To the right and behind us were another four or five rows, with probably six seats in each row. Imagine if you will a small town theater and not a massive multiplex. The town and the theater had seen better days, having achieved a certain level of dilapidation and deterioration in the way that hard times affects small communities. We settled into our two seat row — my partner by the wall and me on the aisle — and as the movie started, my partner very nonchalantly put his arm around me. Just a simple act of affection.

Now, explaining what went through my mind is going to take some doing because it was so quick — a series of lightening fast reactions that came one after the other, probably covering no more than one minute, just sixty seconds. Yet in that brief period of time and from that simple affectionate gesture came some very interesting thoughts and insights that went something like this…

Reaction #1Awww, I adore this sweet man. I am by nature a rather tactile person. I like to have physical contact, touch and hold people, especially the truly significant people in my life. In fact, I’ve learned I have to reel it in a bit out of respect for people who are not so hug oriented. My partner is not as demonstrative as I am, which means that when he does reach out and touch my leg or takes my hand or puts his arm around me, it is not a gratuitous gesture. It is a heartfelt expression of the affection he has for me, and therefore it was all the more meaningful that he would feel compelled to put his arm around me in the theater. He’s also more demonstrative in public than I am, and I admire his courage for it.

Reaction #2Uh-ohhh, I am a man sitting in public theater with another man’s arm around me. A public theater in an area that might not exactly be considered redneck, but how many pickup trucks did I count in the parking lot? I do think I can safely say that if a gay pride event was held in this town, it would be very short and move very fast. But on the other hand, this is not some backwoods, fenced-in, cloistered village that has no connection to modern society. This is a state with fairly liberal politics, access to the internet and at least a passing awareness of Neil Patrick Harris. They have to know that gay people exist. So is a guy with his arm around another guy just something stare worthy or a perfectly good reason to haul out the pitchforks and torches?

Reaction #3Heeey, it’s just an arm around my shoulder. We’re not making out or having sex in public, we’re not doin’ it in the middle of the aisle. It’s just a simple expression of affection. After all, despite this being a rural area, it is in a state where we could legally marry, for crying out loud. Don’t tell me we can be married but not express any sort of affection — that makes no sense. And if we are getting getting glares and stares, so what? Maybe it’s an educational moment for people, a recognition that “gay in theory” translates to real people who live their lives in a way that is just as viable as their own.

Reaction #4 – Arrr, so who’s looking? I’m not going to dignify it by looking around, but I bet I can feel eyes on the back of my neck. Who’s going to be the person who takes great offense to the significance of my partner just having his arm around me? You want to take issue with it, bring it on. Which knuckle-dragging, pseudo-macho, beer-bellied ogre is going to approach us and say, “You two (fill in the blank with the bigoted expletives of your choice) need to know that stuff doesn’t go in these parts.” Am I ready to stand up and defend my rights? What if it goes beyond debate and becomes a physical threat? Stay behind me, my love, and I’ll be your warrior defender, ready to come out swinging. People have suffered more than just bruises to defend themselves and their beliefs. Will anyone come forward to defend us, support and stand with us? Will tomorrow’s headline read, “Major Melee Breaks Out In Local Movie Theater Over Homosexual Hug”?

Reaction #5Whoa, adrenaline rush. Calm down. I’m plotting defense strategies for confrontations that don’t even exist. At least not in the present. No one is attacking us, no one is confronting us. So what if they’re looking, so what if they’re staring, so what if they’re glaring? So, what if they aren’t paying any attention at all? Or what if the attention is positive? Isn’t it out of place to assume that everyone would have a negative reaction, that there could just as easily be supporters who are pleased to see two guys feeling comfortable in their community? There could be bigots and homophobes around us, but there could easily be many from generations for whom same-sex relationships just don’t matter.

Reaction #6Ah-hah, so what I’m really reacting to here is my own internalized fear, not towards how people are reacting but towards how they might react. The old “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat is a deeply embedded and natural reaction to ensure self-preservation. Sometimes, however, it kicks in with just the fear of a perceived threat, whether or not an actual threat is present. And that fear isn’t always based in rational logic. I’ve been out for most of my life, and in that time have had more than a few ugly encounters and nasty confrontations, name calling and threats. I live my life openly and fairly relaxed, but those were horrible experiences that I don’t want to repeat. It’s understandable why I’m on guard. The thought of a confrontation in the theater triggered my fight response — no doubt to be followed by a rapid flight the heck out of there — but I’m really just punching at shadows from the past. Maybe my fear instincts are sharper than they need to be nowadays. Maybe, just as a homophobe has an irrational fear about gay people, maybe I have an irrational fear about homophobes. While potential dangers and threats still remain, doesn’t a growing awareness of gay issues and a greater acceptance of gay marriages and relationships translate to less need to be afraid? Homophobics become less fearful when they know a gay person personally, when they can confront what was irrational and accept what is real. That doesn’t mean to let my guard down — there are still news stories of horrendous acts perpetrated against gay people — but maybe shifting times and attitudes means greater openness for everyone.

Reaction #7 – Ahhh, so all that is really happening is that a man I love has his arm around me. He is what matters, we are what matters. Coming out is an ongoing process and not a specific event. It doesn’t matter how many years you have been “out,” we still make choices and decisions about how we want to signal our sexuality, whether it is by bumper-sticker, banner or gesture of affection. Anyone else in the audience can ignore us, judge us or applaud us as they see fit. So instead of worrying about what might happen, relax, focus on the moment, don’t let your fears ruin the experience you are having right now. There will be plenty of windmills to tilt at tomorrow. But for right now, at this moment and in this theater, I’m just going to nestle into the arm of the man I love and enjoy the show.
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Jim Duke is the Founder and President of “Guide For Gay Men,” a service which provides personal life coaching and consultation primarily to older gay and bisexual men. Navigating the issues involved in coming out, dealing with relationships, love and sex and the transitions of careers, life decisions and aging can be daunting… unless you have someone experienced to help guide you. Contact Jim and read what he has to say on these and other topics at G4GM.com.

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