Ottawa
3 min

Homophobia campaign asks for us to be pitied

There is an element of choice in living out queer youth

The baby’s face is all red, wrinkled and new. Wrapped in a white sheet, its tiny wrist is held aloft toward the camera. On its arm is a hospital bracelet that spells out the beginning of the word “homosexual.”

Believe it or not, this is not a scare campaign initiated by the Christian Right in an effort ban queers from being able to reproduce. It’s the new ad campaign for the International Day Against Homophobia, emblazoned with the slogan, “Sexual orientation is not a choice.” In past years, publicity material for anti-homophobia day, held every year on May 17 and sponsored by Fondation Émergence in Montreal, has featured hot images of helmeted hockey players and cute women with edgy haircuts making out furiously. The images were purposely provocative — and deliberately sexual. They screamed, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

This year’s campaign couldn’t be farther from that image. Not only does it rely on cheap sentimentality in an effort to garner pity for the poor gay population, it also denies the truth of most queer people’s experiences.

Laurent McCutcheon, president of Fondation Émergence, says on the NDAH’s website that he hopes that “people’s realizing that sexual orientation is not a choice will be enough to put an end to homophobia, which is the main goal of this campaign.”

I actually laughed out loud when I read that. If that were true, then racism wouldn’t exist! Because I’m quite sure that most bigots know that being a black is not a choice.

Besides, I have to wonder if this particular campaign image is indicative of a broader trend in the post-gay marriage era: the de-sexualizing of homosexuality. Because now that we’ve won legal recognition for our relationships, it’s about time we started acting like adults and stopped with all of the sex talk, right? Because being gay is about so much more than what we do in the bedroom, right?

This kind of argument echoes the aesthetic of the homophile movement in the 1960s. Buttoned down and genteel, the homophiles encouraged activists to wear appropriate gender-specific clothing and not make too much noise. The message was quite similar to what the National Day Against Homophobia is promoting today: “Please accept us. This is not our fault. We’re just like everyone else.”

What offends me the most about this campaign is the assumption that being gay is something that no one would or should choose. This denies the entire thrust of the gay liberation movement which dared to suggest that queer people might actually have something better to offer the world: a unique vision of sex, love and relationships, gleefully removed from hetero-normative values and the missionary position. We dared to talk about who and how we fucked.

Gay liberation emerged when queer people began to fight back against the medicalization of their identities. Many of the early sex radicals were also survivors of a homophobic psychiatric system that forced them into reversion and electric shock therapy in an effort to “set them straight.” The gay rights movement in the 1970s deliberately spoke of homosexuality as an identity and an orientation — not an affliction. The image of a wrinkled baby, branded as queer from birth, elicits pity, not celebration. And it also suggests that homosexuality is something that could be cured.

Still, what offends me the most about this campaign is the removal of choice from the queer equation. The suggestion that our sexuality is hardwired from the moment of conception sounds awfully like the arguments used by the anti-abortion lobby. Besides, most of the queer people I know have gone through several incarnations of their sexual identity.

Most of us know dykes who date men, gay men married to women, trans people whose sexual orientation shifted after transitioning and four-year queers who revert to being straight after university is over. Ottawa is full of straight men who visit the baths or the glory holes for a quickie before driving home to the suburbs. I even know of one gay man who recently “came out” as straight.

All of these are examples of sexual freedom — the kind of freedom that the gay liberation movement fought so hard for. While some people might want to explain away their difference by suggesting that it’s not their fault, the truth is that we all make choices about who we have sex and build a life with.

Removing choice from the equation is a dangerous game. It leads to the same kind of gender and sexual essentialism that continues to oppress queer and trans people today.

Want to know how to combat homophobia? Tell the truth about your own experience. And on May 17th, grab your lover and kiss them hard — in public.