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Pete Saunders
Jun 06, 2011

Unlearning Homophobia

In 2001, during my first semester at college, I was awoken early one morning by violent shouting, screaming, and banging coming from the dorm room facing mine. I remained in my room until things quieted down. Shortly after, I learned that the residents of the room were attacked and beaten by fellow students, some of whom were their neighbors, classmates, and friends. I remember my thoughts switching between, “How could they do this to fellow students?” to “How can these guys possibly be homosexuals. That is wrong.”

I must say that entering the “helping” profession has caused me to review my life and the formation of many of my beliefs, behaviors, principles, etc. It has been like rewinding an action-packed drama movie. The process has served as a rewarding experience. For example, from this self-reflection, I was able to determine that I may have a few homophobic cells in my body. This is largely the result of nurture, which results from growing up in the most homophobic on earth, according to a 2006 New York Times article written by Padgett. Since becoming aware of the many legal and ethical implications of refusing to counsel GLBT clients, I have decided to tackle the critical task of unlearning homophobia. I must inject that it is one of my beliefs that to unlearn something, such as homophobia, is really to learn about something else, it's opposite, such as homosexuality, homosexual individuals and their issues and concerns. Consequently, I agree with those who suggest that knowledge or awareness is one of the major cures for homophobia.

Being a Jamaican and Christian is, perhaps to many, a terrible, maybe even terrifying, combination where it concerns homosexuality. Nonetheless, I was not deterred from proceeding with this goal. One reason is that I do not consider myself to be an “excessive or devout homophobe”, if there is such a term. A few months following the incident I shared in my opening paragraph, I was by a friend’s house one evening and fell asleep on his bed. I was awoken late that night by an unusual and unnatural touch, more like caressing, on my arm. I opened my eyes to discover my friend staring at me with an expression mixed with excitement, uncertainty, and fear. My reaction? Shock, disbelief, fear, this-could-not-be-happening, empathy, and curiosity. After recovering and a few moments of silence, I finally asked “the question”. My friend would hesitantly confirm to me that he was in fact gay. I know this was very difficult for him considering the recent events and the realities of our society and culture. We spent the next 2-3 hours talking, with him disclosing some of the reasons why he felt he had a different sexual orientation. I was not yet 20 years old when this happened and was unsure about how to react in such a situation. I was very aware of how society expected me to treat, or rather mistreat, my friend. However, I was not inclined to react in that manner and, instead, followed my instincts and demonstrated acceptance. Besides, I was truly wanted to learn about his experience.

Many of the historic and current attitudes and behaviors directed at homosexuals by homophobes are nothing short of inhumane and grossly unfair. In 2006, the New York Times ran the following story by Tim Padgett depicting one case ghastly effects of homophobia: Brian wears sunglasses to hide his gray and lifeless left eye—damaged, he says, by kicks and blows with a board from Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton. Brian, 44, is gay, and Banton, 32, is an avowed homophobe whose song Boom Bye-Bye decrees that gays "haffi dead" ("have to die"). In June 2004, Brian claims, Banton and some toughs burst into his house near Banton's Kingston recording studio and viciously beat him and five other men. After complaints from international human-rights groups, Banton was finally charged last fall, but in January a judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence. It was a bitter decision for Brian, who lost his landscaping business after the attack and is fearful of giving his last name. "I still go to church," he says as he sips a Red Stripe beer. "Every Sunday I ask why this happened to me."

As recent as a few weeks ago, in May 2011, GLBT people and gay rights activists were violently attacked as a result of the strong prejudice towards and discrimination against homosexuals in Russia, which already had decriminalized homosexuality in 1993. During the same period, a lesbian resident of Bermuda claimed she was denied stay at a guesthouse due to her sexual orientation. She later organized a peaceful demonstrating calling primarily for amendments to human rights laws to protect GLBT people from being discriminated against. All it takes is two words and a comma – “sexual orientation,”.

There are too many individuals who have and are using religion to support their unfair treatment and oppression of GLBT people. A few days following the demonstration by GLBT people and human rights activists in Bermuda, a Christian launched into a tirade against homosexuality. The Christian man went on record stating, “homosexuality is an abomination” and gay people are “going to bring damnation to Bermuda’s shores”. Similarly, at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, located directly opposite St. Mark’s Episcopal Church where the funeral service for Shepard was held, carried signs that read “GOD HATES FAGS” and “MATT SHEPARD ROTS IN HELL”. Unfortunately, many churches, and some studies suggest particularly Black churches, serve as a source of fostering homophobic attitudes. These blatant displays, by Christians and Christian churches, of rejecting people are very disappointing to me. As a Christian, I do believe that my personal prejudices, preferences, and self-appointed role as judge is trumped by the second greatest commandment given by Christ, which is to love my neighbor as myself, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual.

As counselors and counselors-in-training, we still live and function in a society that, historically and currently, is largely homophobic. As was the case with my initial exposure to the ugly realities of some of the effects of homophobia, we can be torn between the appropriate reaction formally taught within our profession that “homosexuality is okay” and the reaction informally taught by society-at-large that “homosexuality is not okay”. Realistically, and unfortunately, society’s efforts and methods have proven to be more persuasive to many.

I must admit that I have never confronted my self-assessed, but socially and culturally influenced, homophobia until after my decision to enter the “helping” profession. My decision to become a counselor has been largely driven by my love for all people and wanting them to be successful at life. This personal hope and goal have no room for discrimination. It was therefore imperative that I took immediate actions to unlearn homophobia.

It is very important, even critically so, that as counselors and counselors-in-training who wish to work with homosexual clients, we be cognizant of our attitudes towards homosexuality, homosexual behavior, and homosexual people. We must take intentional, and in some cases, immediate steps to increase our awareness of homosexuality and the concerns and issues they face. This increase in awareness can be facilitated through workshops, seminars, and courses on homosexuality and gay psychotherapy, as well as through the non-judgmental interaction with GLBT people.

The following list details the specific steps taken or I will take to unlearn homophobia. I welcome any related suggestions to this plan of action.
1) Assess my attitude towards GLBT people
2) Increase contact with GLBT people
3) Increase knowledge through training on homosexuality and homosexual issues and proven techniques to address these issues
4) Actively seek ways I can promote the fair treatment of GLBT people. For example, I am currently working on an article exposing the fact that the idea of a Christian homophobe is the perfect example of an oxymoron.

I have discovered that a major conflict for the GLBT population is gaining acceptance and understanding for their differences. I believe this also presents an opportunity for heterosexuals. Instead of accepting their differences, I say heterosexuals ought to accept homosexuals for the similarities shared. Heterosexuals, like homosexuals, have many of the same needs such as respect, support, security, and appreciation; heterosexuals, like homosexuals, desire fairness and equity; and heterosexuals, like homosexuals, love and desire to be loved.

I have decided, and am inviting others, to not participate, encourage in any way even by standing on the sidelines and watch, or be silent on the issue of oppression of or discrimination against GLBT people. While being a counselor-in-training is one of my biggest motivations to change, there is another reason that trumps even that. I must unlearn homophobia because I have a 5 year-old legacy who I want to treat all people with fairness and respect, something I must be in a position to teach him, primarily by demonstration. We must, instead, speak up for and support all efforts aimed at promoting the fair and equal treatment of all people. Prominent German anti-Nazi theologian, Martin Niemöller, in his poem First They Came, painted a clear picture of the consequences of remaining silent about injustice and oppression. His poem should convince us to get involved in the fight against homophobia and heterosexism for the sake of equality.

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Pete Saunders is a counselor in training at Capella University. He also writes a weekly blog and conducts a weekly video interview on manhood at

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