Caffyn Kelley believes there are two ways to oppress gay men and lesbians. There are the classic stereotypes which depict homosexuals as evil and different, she says.
And then there’s what she calls “the oppression of conformity to the idea that homosexuals are no different from anyone else.”
Kelley maintains that seeking acceptance from straight people by seeking sameness with them should not be the ideal for queer culture.
“It’s important to win the civil rights but it’s also important to undertake the differences,” she says.
“A nice polite society integrated with the mainstream may be a safer place for us to fight for right now,” she continues, “but we can also fight for a society that can celebrate difference, for a society that can protect and empower difference.”
Kelley has created a website called Mapping Queer Meaning, which extols the differences between queer and straight. It also explains the historical and mythical meanings behind words traditionally used to portray homosexuals in a negative light.
In exploring the meanings of the words, “we will find the power to challenge the existing society.”
The words have archetypal meanings, she explains, “deep, rich transpersonal meanings” with beginnings in history and myth. Kelley believes that if we can explain and learn that history then those words can be empowering in everyday queer life.
“We are vilified and demonized by a homophobic culture,” she notes. “The stereotypes in which we are enmeshed are an enormous burden but they are also a gigantic opportunity.”
Despite the hard work of gay activists, the evidence of science and the new visibility of gays and lesbians, Kelley points out that homophobic stereotypes persist, finding continual expression in popular culture, politics and the law.
“Why are we so threatening? Why are they so disturbed? What does it mean?” Kelley asks.
The 48-year-old has been writing and collecting images for years. The information she has compiled is flipping homophobic stereotypes on their heads and building something new and powerful for the queer community.
Kelley started the website a few months ago after presenting the information at an equal rights conference in Montreal several years ago.
She and her partner of 19 years moved from Indian Arm to Salt Spring Island in 1996. “I love it here. It’s a good space for both of us.”
Kelley is a writer and visual artist who is finishing a book and working on an MA in interdisciplinary studies online. “I went to SFU 100 years ago,” she laughs.
After earning a printing degree at Vancouver Community College, she worked in the printing industry, later producing a women’s art magazine called Gallerie in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
She is also involved with Gays & Lesbians of Salt Spring Island (GLOSSI), enriching life on the island by being a voice for queer activism.
Her website includes a dictionary of 35 symbols covering the obvious stereotypes around homosexuality. Each has a short article and image connected to it. There’s a gallery of images where clicking on an image or word finds the history or mythology behind it.
Another area explores the material in a more ordered, book-like fashion, Kelley explains. The third area relates aspects of queer identity to the elements: water, earth, air, fire, space. The site weaves together this collection of words and images from mythology from all around the world and throughout history.
There, the reader clicks on each bold word to further explore the meanings and vilification of the words used against queer culture. Kelley writes: “Homophobic stereotypes link a gay man with effeminacy, and simultaneously represent him as man doubled, and hence more fearsome than other men, potentially a predator or pedophile.
“A lesbian is seen as a witch who represents women’s power and sexuality in angry opposition to the patriarchal order. Yet through this very process she is seen as masculine,” she continues. “All profound symbols have this quality of paradox; they simultaneously grasp opposites and refer to an interconnected whole.
“Every queer person is forced to live with the knowledge that homosexuality is much more than the ordinary, enduring fact of same-sex sexual preference. Our difference is also a cultural construction that gathers a bewildering complex of allusions and associations,” Kelley points out.
“We can refuse these meanings. We can advocate for ordinariness and look to the normalization of homosexuality for safety to live our mundane lives in peace. Or we can amplify the symbolic resonance of queer identities, explore and expand our capacities and use these gifts to transform the culture that would confine us.”