My host brother, Nico, had one of his friends over last week (they play in a band together), and I was chatting with them about music. My brother’s friend studied in the US for a while and has a gringa girlfriend, so his English is even better than Nico’s (he’s more or less fluent, but you can tell English isn’t his first language). He always wants to speak English with me, so we usually talk in a mixture of the two languages. The boys were discussing songs for their band, and Nico mentioned loving some song by John Mayer. His friend agreed, and I shook my head.
“What?” the friend asked me.
“Nothing, he’s just an asshole and a womanizer,” I responded. We discussed this for a little while—they wanted to know how I knew this (“Have reasons, Rachel,” said Nico). I said I saw stuff about him on supermarket tabloid covers. Eventually, we agreed that his music was one thing, but as a person, he was probably an asshole.
And then Nico’s friend says, “Well, at least he’s not gay.”
Quito as a city looks pretty developed. The more rural areas of Ecuador seem more classically “third world”, but Quito might as well be a major city in the US, at least in many regards. So sometimes I forget how different cultures can be here. But this is one of the most striking differences between the US and the Third World that I’ve noticed. Say what you will about the US’s policies towards gay people, but at least among our urban, well-educated population, being gay has become almost completely normal. Not to say that there isn’t discrimination, but being gay is not the awful, secret thing it was fifty years ago. A friend coming out to me wouldn’t elicit anything more than, “Oh, ok, cool.” I’ve almost gotten to the point where I stop assuming gender when someone mentions having a significant other.
So here I am, radical feminist/ally Rachel, sitting across the table from two nice, well-educated guys who happen to believe that about half of my friends are disgusting. Cultural sensitivity is one thing, but I wasn’t letting that one slide.
“What does that mean?” I asked. Nico’s friend said something I don’t remember about gay people being gross. I said, “You know, like half of my friends at school are gay.”
He countered with, “That’s ok because you’re a girl, though. It’s not weird if they’re lesbian.”
This sentiment, that somehow lesbians are ok, or aren’t really gay, is something I also noticed in Ghana. While I was there, homosexuality was causing quite the controversy in the local papers (this all started when the main government-owned daily paper ran as a front page headline: 8000 HOMOS FOUND IN TWO REGIONS. The deck was, “majority infected with HIV/AIDS”. The actual story was that the UN AIDS program was trying to get people to come forward and get tested for HIV as a public health measure, and some of them happened to be gay.) So the whole time I was there, there were opinion columns and articles debating the ethics of tolerating homosexuals, one of which defined bisexuality as “when someone is married but maintains sexual relations with the same sex.” And yet invariably, every single article would spend paragraphs bashing gay people and then say something to the effect of, “Lesbians are totally cool, though.” I think it’s a pretty common attitude in general. For people threatened by gay-ness, lesbians are much safer. First of all, girls don’t have sex (because we’re all proper and don’t have any libido and are just waiting to be seduced by nice guys). So if someone says they’re lesbian, no one pictures two girls going at it. Also, lesbians come with the possibility of girls making out with each other! Which many straight guys seem to think is the most exciting thing in the world.
Anyway, back in Ecuador, I was shaking my head and trying to figure out what I could say to these guys. I said, “No, they’re not all lesbian, I have guy friends who are gay too.”
And then, Nico’s friend says, “Oh, that’s scary though…” He motions cutting himself and blood dripping, and says, “…and then you’ll get HIV.”
At that point, I just got mad. I said, no, that’s absurd, most gay people do not have HIV. He said, yes they do, because they all have anal sex. I said that not all gay people have anal sex, and anyway, that’s why condoms were invented. He said, no, condoms were invented for guys and girls to use, not for gay people. Clearly, I was not getting anywhere here.
And so he kept talking with Nico, and I thought about straight privilege. It hurts me to hear people talk this way about people I know and love. Two of my best friends from high school are gay. Another one is trans. My roommate freshman year was queer. About half of my friends at Whitman are not straight in some capacity. And yet, as a straight person, I can travel to countries where the prevailing attitude towards gayness is one of disgust and judgment, and I can feel safe. My relationships will never be questioned. I am normal. I fit the mold.
As I’m sitting here, thinking, he asks me what I’m thinking about. I shook my head, not sure how to explain. He says, “You’re thinking about them having sex, aren’t you?” I said no, I was thinking about all the people I know and care about who happen to be gay, but also happen to be people with characteristics other than their sexuality. He laughed and said, “But now you’re thinking about sex.” I said yes, since he brought it up. He said it would just be weird to have gay friends, because they might start liking you. I said, so what, I’ve had guy friends who liked me when I didn’t feel the same way, and it’s weird, but it wouldn’t be any weirder if it was a girl. He shook his head and employed the standard Latino guy defense. “It’s just because we have a machista culture”, he said. That’s why we’re not ok with the gays.
Machista culture is obviously something I have a hard time with. It’s employed during orientation to tell women that we shouldn’t drink much and need to be extra careful (not that this isn’t true, but I would rather live in a world where we educate men not to rape women, rather than educating women about how not to get raped). It’s the excuse given for the men who whistle at you on the bus and creep on you when you’re walking home. It’s the go-to explanation for behavior that I would label as obsessive, bordering on stalking, when dealing with men my age in Latin America. I’m just worried about you. That’s why I’ve texted you every ten minutes for the past two hours to ask you why you weren’t responding to my first message. It’s probably the reason that when I left the club I was at on Friday night at 2am, a random strange man asked me where I was going, and when I said home, he asked if he could come with me and got offended when I said absolutely not. I can get on board with cultural sensitivity when it’s about the fact that Ecuadorians will tell you a time for something and mean an hour later. Or when it’s about the fact that food=love, so you have to finish everything on your plate lest you gravely offend your host mom. But the machista thing, I don’t buy. Cultural differences are great, but some things need to evolve. Sexism is one of them. Homophobia is another.
And yet, during this conversation with Nico and his friend, I asked them if homosexuality was illegal here. Both of them said no, absolutely not. How could that even be illegal, they asked? I said that gay sex had been illegal in many states in the US until 2003, that it was absolutely illegal in many other countries, especially in Africa, and that in Uganda, it was punishable by death. They looked at me incredulously and said no, we don’t do that here. And both of them seemed to think that the notion of making anyone’s sexual orientation illegal was absurd. I suppose that’s progress of a kind. And given how far the US has come on LGBT issues in the past fifty years, I’m optimistic that the rest of the world will soon follow.