Illustrated by Kelly Doherty (She/Her)
Straight people can be homophobic. While this may not appear controversial at first glance, vetting media representation of homophobia illuminates the salience and necessity of this assertion.
By perpetuating the trope that homophobic individuals are actually just closeted, modern media wrongfully shifts the culpability of bigotry. In saying that closeted gay people are galavanting as homophobes, it redirects the blame of homophobia onto the queer community from the straight people who build a society that necessitates hiding. The very existence of “the closet” is a heterosexual creation. Thus, the externalization of internalized homophobia is a symptom of an oppressive system, not a cause.
Sasha Allen, a famous transgender TikTok creator, did a series of LGBTQ+ themed raps while spoofing rapper Eminem’s voice. His rap about coming out as gay received 1.3 million likes, 96.9 thousand saves, and 24.2 thousand shares. His lyrics go:
And don’t listen to all the homophobic comments.
I promise that the problematic fucks are in the closet.
‘Cuz last night I got a late booty call text.
Asked who it was, he said, “Mike Pence.”
I said, “No offense, I ain’t fucking a weirdo.”
He said, “Well my friend’s here, too, Ben Shapiro.”
His lyrics reference two political figures, Mike Pence and Ben Shapiro, who are notorious for espousing anti-gay speech and advocating for anti-gay policy. Lindsay King-Miller, a queer author, explains that “describing homophobic politicians as closet cases or making sly references to ‘overcompensation’ actually serves the function of excusing and upholding homophobia.” Bigoted figures warrant a response built on moral condemnation and intellectual disagreement, not cheap jokes that make light of disturbing policies. While attempting to humiliate and upset bigoted politicians may engender a surface level feeling of empowerment for queer people, these kind of jokes are ultimately self-destructive. The out queer community is unintentionally playing the wrong game and feeding into the narrative that straight bigots are not at the root of oppression.
Queer people know how hard it is to be in the closet — multiple scientific studies published in the National Library of Medicine assert time and time again that “internalized homophobia is a significant correlate of mental health including depression and anxiety symptoms, substance use disorders, and suicide ideation.” Psychologists have even gone so far as to say that the “complex cognitive processes” involved in hiding oneself engenders a “private hell.” Out queer people should actively embrace the individuals trapped in this “private hell” with compassion and guidance, not bond over public ridicule of a mutual hostile.
In an interview with Dr. Michael Hunter, a UCLA professor, he recalls that while pursuing his graduate degree at Stanford University, he knew a male undergraduate who was “aggressive about exerting his heterosexuality” and “hostile towards queer issues and queer people” but is now on Facebook as a proud, out gay man. Dr. Hunter frequently saw this same phenomenon in his peers while attending a small town high school in Texas. He suspects the pattern stems from “fear and terror around the consequences of being outside normalized conventions of masculinity” and that it “can happen on a very very unconscious level.”
Mayeli Sarmiento, a third year UCLA neuroscience student, says she sees the problem in TV shows like “Glee,” where a jock embodies this trope. In Season 2 Episode 6, a football player consistently bullies a gay kid, then proceeds to kiss him in the locker room. The same bullying-turned-romance twist takes place in “Pretty Little Liars” when a girl harrasses a gay character and then kisses her in a parking lot. Dr. Wendy Peters of Nipissing University says this gives the false impression that “overt and bullying homophobia begins and ends on the sexual margins: closeted teens harass and attack out teens.” Homophobia certainly does not take dominant form in closeted individuals, and this stereotype entirely ignores the overwhelming role heterosexual bigots play as its perpetrators. In fact, they are anything but rare. Frederik Dhaenens, an assistant professor at Ghent University, explains how these narratives “creat[e] a moral hierarchy between the out and proud teen and the closeted teen,” while protecting straight teens from this scrutinizing and critical morality analysis.
Aside from bullying evolving into romance, the trope also takes form in secret queer love affairs when one individual bullies or even outs their partner in front of straight people. In “Moonlight,” the Best Picture film at the 2017 Academy Awards, a teenage boy is encouraged to beat up a gay student, who is actually his secret love affair. Under social and synonymously heteronormative pressure, the boy is pushed into beating the gay student as the surrounding students chant slurs. In “Gossip Girl” Season 1 Episode 16, a gay character decides to break free of his “private hell” and, in front of a crowd, announces his identity and that of his secret lover. His lover denies it and calls him a slur. Dr. Peters explains that in films and series like these, “the focus on bullies overshadows the ways heterosexuality is naturalized in high schools via curriculum, sport culture, social events, spatial organization, social practices and policy.” In other words, the substantial, systemic foundations of these problems are overlooked, while redirecting attention to the effects of anecdotal instances like that in “Moonlight” or “Gossip Girl.”
Some studies have indeed discovered a link between male homophobic expressions and male homosexual desire. In a 1996 study titled “Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal?”, researchers gathered 35 males who self-identified as having anti-gay sentiments and 29 males who did not express homophobia. The researchers played pornographic video tapes and measured penile circumference before and after. Both groups demonstrated arousal at the male-female pornography and the female-female pornography with differences only equating two or one percent, respectively. However, when watching the male-male pornography, the self-identified homophobic males exhibited twelve percent greater arousal than the non-homophobic men. So while this study does support the hypothesis of a homophobia-homosexual link, it does not warrant a monolithic representation of homophobia in media nor does the small sample size accurately reflect the realities of the larger population. Additionally, even if there is a link, the angle taken by entertainment media is still problematic.
This ubiquitous trope is harmful to cishet and queer communities alike, and entertainment writers must take responsibility for their damages. While this trope can exist in real life, its prominence in media has been taken too far. Discussing the harms of this trope is especially important as the amount of queer characters in media continues to increase. Ultimately, queer people are not responsible for their own oppression; straight people must acknowledge and work to reverse the effects of this trope.
Author: Julianne Lempert (She/Her)
Artist: Kelly Doherty (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Min Kim (They/Them), Bella (She/They)