Recently, I had the pleasure of being a teen mentor for a group of nine youth at the Vancouver Public Library’s annual book camp.
My kids were almost frighteningly smart, and savvy, and hilarious, and of course, well read. I decided I was going to put all that intelligence and potential and internet virtuosity to work and get them to write my column for me this month. We set out to write a piece about homophobia from the point of view of a group of predominantly heterosexual youth.
As they were a rather studious lot, we started off by not only defining homophobia for the reader, but by including a historical overview of how definitions of the word homophobia might have changed over the years. Turns out that in 1958 there was no such word as homophobia listed in the Comprehensive Word Guide, all the kids could find was a definition of homosexuality listed under “certain specific sexual aberrations, perversions, abnormal practices, etc.” alongside 39 other practices which included bestiality, auto-fellatio, cunnilingus and coprolagnia, which none of us had ever heard of, but we looked it up. Look it up. I dare you.
We all found it notable that a mere 50 years later Webster’s defined homophobia as “the fear of or contempt for lesbians and gay men, or behaviour based on such a feeling.”
We then came up with a list of questions, and everybody took them home for homework. This was followed the next day by a rather raucous and ridiculously funny discussion resulting in all of us being resoundingly shushed twice, because we were, after all, in a library. Here is a list of the questions and a sampling of their answers.
Ivan Coyote: Do you think that homophobia still exists in our society?
Sarah, age 16: It may not be as harsh as it was in the past, but it is still there. People in the gay community are not always beaten for being who they are but they are definitely not always welcomed by all the people around them.
Wednesday, 17: Being a high school student myself I can safely say yes, it does. I do believe that acceptance is a lot more common than it was 20, or even 10 years ago. Things are definitely looking up. I see straight boys with their arms around each other as a sign of affection, I see boys wearing pink and not getting called the f word. I see girls holding hands and no one is writing accusatory labels on their lockers.
Ivan: Why do you think homophobia still exists?
Megan, 16: I blame religion, or, more accurately, religious fanatics.
Sarah: Not all cultures suppressed it for thousands of years. In Greece, they used to wrestle naked. That’s how the Olympics got started.
Olivia, 15: People prefer the ordinary.
Annalise, 15: Some people are closed-minded and not accepting of what is different and strange to them.
Kylee, 17: It’s all Adam and Eve stuff. People are afraid that if they allow it to happen God will be angry and bring damnation or something down upon them.
Wednesday: I’m not sure that there is only one thing or person to blame, unless you can blame the entire human race and call it a night. But that won’t bring back the numerous suicides, and it won’t make things any better.
Julian, 15: Some bigotry is rooted deeper than just in ignorance, but hopefully those people will eventually succumb to the inevitable and keep their mouths shut.
Ivan: Do you want to end homophobia, if indeed you feel it still exists? Why?
Sarah: Of course I want it to end.
Neil, 17: Why should straight people care? Why do white people care that we are mean to black people? It’s a moral issue and we have accepted that it is not okay to discriminate… period.
Ivan: Does homophobia impact your life in any way, or anyone that you know or care about?
Sarah: One of my best friends felt so afraid of what would happen to him in my town that he felt the need to move. I haven’t seen him in over two years.
Lisa, 16: I’ve grown up in a family that says they have nothing wrong with it, but have some serious issues, and I feel embarrassed. I meet these truly interesting and inspiring people, and it hurts to learn that they have been treated wrongly, especially when I hear the slander coming from the mouths of people who I respect and trust. What if, somewhere down the line, I realize that I’m not heterosexual? I won’t have a problem with it, but what of my friends and family? Will they be supportive or turn their backs?
Ivan: Give an example of ways we could change things.
Sarah: My school tries to stop people from using the term gay in a derogatory fashion by making the student who uses the word write a 5,000 word essay on why the use of that word could be offensive. I don’t think this works because it is hardly ever done or checked up on.
Julian: The fact that Gay/Straight Alliance groups can exist is a sign of the times. Fifty years ago, such groups would have been counterproductive: instead of a safe place, these groups would have been bulls-eyes.
Annalise: Set an example of not being homophobic, and not making homophobic remarks, and hope that others take on that acceptance also.
Megan: My school has a program on sexual orientation; they mix it in with sex ed and suicide awareness. The leaders asked us what we would do if we found out one of our friends were gay, if you were okay, you went to one side of the room, if you weren’t you went to the other side of the room. Only one person stayed on the not ok side.
So. There you have it.
I think there is only one right thing to do with our society. We have to turn it over to these people. Which is great, because eventually this is going to happen anyway, whether the rest of us are ready for it or not.