I grew up in a small town that was home to the site of a major Civil War battle. While my family is conservative by the standards of the city in which I live now, they're quite an accepting bunch for the South. My sexuality doesn't often come up, given that no one's does. But in subtle ways, most of my family takes care to let me know I'm accepted. Occasionally, a sweet Southern family member will nervously make a pro-gay statement, an act of defiance against the era in which they were raised.
Then there's the liberal addition to my family in Massachusetts. One would think that such political liberalism would translate to acceptance. But to date, the only member of my family to stop speaking to me is a supposedly pro-gay Democrat. Weird, right?
I quickly discovered a new kind of homophobia when I moved to the Northeast: affirmative homophobia. Much like affirmative racism, this form of homophobia is subtler. It relies on casting LGBT individuals as perpetual victims in a simplistic, submissive role.
"Did you see that gay couple? They're so cute!" is an example of such trivializing affirmative homophobia. My relative regularly let me know how much she "supported" my sexuality and would parade this fact to anyone and everyone who would listen. I became her gay trophy, whether or not I liked it.
As time passed, this relative became increasingly confrontational when I didn't play into her preconceived role of what a gay man should be. She would insult my family, insinuating that they were a bunch of backwards country folk. I would politely inform her that I felt that the Northeast had its own share of problems, namely rampant racism and unofficial segregation in my city of Boston.
She wanted me to be a broken individual with tales of bullying for her to emphatically denounce. But I wasn't ever overtly bullied for being gay. When I did talk about being queer honestly, she wasn't having it. I received an aggressive post on Facebook for daring to share an article that claimed that a recent survey had showed the children of same-sex parents to be slightly better adjusted than the children of different-sex parents.
I outlined the reasons that this was likely the case, namely that gay parents have been vetted and don't have the luxury of having children at will, as straight couples do. But my statements problematized the narrative. Much like The Help, in which black Southerners serve as a canvas on which to tell the story of a perky white lady saving the day, I was expected to be a gay man in need of a perky straight lady to save the day.
Recently, my gay-marriage-loving family member decided that I was no longer useful and cut me out of her life -- or, rather, cut the caricature of me out of her life, given that she'd never gotten to sincerely know me in the first place.
As LGBT citizens in the U.S. see the overt, negative homophobia slide out of acceptance while the legal system becomes more equal, this is the new style of homophobia we will face. Many people need a victim to save. Like racial minorities before us, LGBT folks are becoming another group to trivialize and own.
The fight for equality is about more than being treated affirmatively. True equality means being an equal part of the conversation, not just a legally protected group. While politicians, commentators, and occasionally our own family members seek to use us to their own ends, we have a responsibility to stand up and be more than malleable pawns.
For my part, I assert my independence daily by refusing to be owned.