Sticks and stones

Men writing for a magazine like XY, marching with men to end sexual assault, hugging men in the middle of town. Must be gay, right? He shares domestic chores, doesn't compete at work and doesn't come on to the secretaries. Must be gay, right? The question, when it comes from men, is often meant to be derogatory, as if it's a threat or punishment. When it comes from women it's usually their assumption that someone who doesn't oppress women must be gay. They usually don't ask: they just wonder quietly.

The same goes for all the men who write for XY, those who read it and those whose pictures and cartoons appear in it. Look at the two men in the accompanying photo for example. Two men, arms around shoulders, familiar in each other's close company. They must be gay, right? Well, if they are, or one is, or neither are, it doesn't matter. The interesting thing is why you need to know just in order to appreciate the picture. What's the hidden meaning behind two guys touching? What is it we're so afraid of? Sticks and stones?

Some men will tell you these days that homophobia exists because "we don't want to catch AIDS". Sorry blokes, wrong answer. Heterosexuals have only been aware of AIDS for the past ten years and Western males' abhorrence of homosexuality has been in place for much longer. As an example, in World War Two the Nazis hunted homosexuals as furiously as they hunted Jews, while the antecedents of their hate of homosexuals are much older. Sticks and stones. Broken bones. Tools of oppression.

In our own culture we speculate that single men, the ones who haven't "had" a woman for six weeks, are "probably gay". Not having a girlfriend is a sure sign of being gay. Not playing footy is another sign. Being weaker than your peers is another. Not having a girlfriend, and especially still living with your mother when you're twenty five - more hard, factual evidence. In fact, being anything other than a 'real' man means you're about due, if not overdue, for a good solid whack of the oppression gay people fear and suffer daily. Sticks and stones. Tools of oppression affecting all men.

You might remember what it's like. Remember when you were in the school yard and the worst thing someone could do to you, apart from hitting you, would be to call you a girl, a sissy, a faggot or a pansy? When that happened you sure knew that you better stop doing whatever it was you were doing and start doing whatever it is they're doing, otherwise it's going to hurt a whole lot. It was the least worst option at the time, a matter of survival. So most of us learned either to conform and be one of the boys, or to disguise and deny whatever it was we really wanted to do.

If we made friends with a girl, if we made really close friends with a boy, if we helped the teacher, if we showed our true feelings, if mum kissed us when we got dropped off at the school gate, then we'd hear "Pansy!" Our peers yelled it, and even the girls (they also got taught what a 'real' man should be). Our teachers thought it. Our parents were troubled by it. Whichever way we went, we weren't allowed to cry, show feelings, be caring, nurturing or soft. Gays, and the ways society treats them, were held up as an example of what will happen to us if we don't conform. As boys, and now as men, we aren't allowed to keep our full humanity. Sticks and stones. Even the name-calling hurt each of us.

When we were small, being branded a poof had nothing at all to do with sexual preference. It's also the same now that we're older. Look again at the picture. You can't tell one thing about the men's sexual preferences. Only their genuine closeness is apparent. What are you so bloody afraid of?

The first punches of gay oppression land early and land on us all. These have nothing to do with who we may choose to love, our age or our goodness. All men are kept apart because currently our society says that if you want to get close to men then you must want sex from them: you must be gay. To overturn this belief requires acting on two things. Firstly, realise that being gay is an okay way to be, so being called 'gay' can never hurt you. Remember it as you move onto step two: keep getting close to lots of men: gay, straight, bisexual, nonsexual or rarely sexual. There are over 2.5 billion of us to choose from.

Just start off with one really close male-to-male relationship. A relationship does not equal sex, you will notice. You may even fear that you're gay when you try this. The fear you are feeling is the fear our society heaps on us from early on. Society needs scapegoats so that there's always a group of people below us in the pecking order. It makes us feel that the least worst option is to kick and hit them, so society doesn't dump on us. The fear is empty. Homophobia perpetuates it. Sticks and stones, taunting us from our pasts.

Unfortunately the old fear remains with most men, and it manifests as an irrational fear and hatred of homosexuality. They use it as a justification to discriminate against, maim and kill tens of thousands of men whom they suspect of being gay. Sticks and stones cost men's lives. Calling adult men names still hurts, just as it hurt when we were young. These crimes against gays in adulthood are still not about sexual preference. They are the cold winds blowing in from the bashings and tauntings of childhood. They blow not just for the poofter-bashers, name-callers and bigots as they seek victims, but for all men as we seek to get close to other men. That's why you're afraid. It's the only reason you could ever be afraid.

Hiding your humanity and connection with all men and women is not the least worst option anymore. Give it up. Reclaim fully your right to friendships with all people, especially those who are different from you.

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 2(3), Spring 1992. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995