Trying to overcome my gay hate

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A writer confesses how he used to laugh at homosexuality, and what it took for him to slowly change his mind. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On my first day of college, my friend went up to me and said: “‘Tangina pare, ang daming bakla dito. Dapat kasi lahat ng bakla binabaril ng shotgun, e.

And this was my response to him: I laughed.

It was a loud laugh. Full-throated. Like I wanted people to hear it. Like I was watching a friend play Grand Theft Auto and perform an irrational beat down of some virtual pedestrian. The joke wasn’t okay, I thought, but it was funny, at least at the time. Maybe I found it edgy. Maybe I thought it would give me three or four imaginary macho points if I laughed. Or maybe it was just so funny and weird and unforgivably unusual to me — the same me who watched tentacle hentai as a teenager and downloaded a lot of lewd shit from Kazaa — that a dude would, you know, like dick.

Of course, I was still the hero of my life — the center of my perceived universe. I told myself I didn’t hate gay people. And sure, I didn’t write blog entries on Multiply about how homosexuality is an “intrinsic disorder.” I didn’t even verbally abuse LGBTQ people, at least not to their faces. But I treated them as deviants. I used bakla as a pejorative. I gossiped about whether or not people were gay, and spoke authoritatively about whether or not “they should come out already!”

So what if I didn’t hate them? I made them feel unwanted; I passively made them feel like they were lesser people; I made them think that they were nothing more than their gayness. I would have been better off hating them.

What I do hate is that this is the truth. This — for all its ugliness and wrongness — is my history.

 

***

My first confession was in second grade. That was the last time I was completely honest. I went to a Catholic school, and I was made to think that confession was inevitable — as if it was beyond our control. A great Someone was monitoring His Divine CCTV, and would receive Facebook notifications about each of our sins. The robed Jesuits of Xavier could peer into our souls — presumably because they were close to God — and ascertain whether or not we were telling the truth.

It didn’t take me long to discover the power of being the narrator of your own life: that there are things over which we have complete dominion, forced as we may be to do them. For instance, even if we must confess, how we confess is completely up to us. Specificities become generalities. Generalities become specificities. All at our convenience.

If I kick a puppy on the street, steal a friend’s lunch, and partake in the absolute demolition of a classmate’s self-esteem, the confession would go thus: Forgive me father for I have sinned, my sins are: being cruel to animals, taking an extra pizza in the class party, and teasing my classmates. That’s it. Ten Hail Marys. Neither honesty nor dishonesty. Absolution.

To be clear, I committed none of those sins. They are only examples. But the point is that I did not lie. I did something worse: I twisted the truth to my favor.

Why would anyone bother with dishonesty when there are so many good versions of the truth — versions where I was the hero, the troubled protagonist, and not the mustachioed cartoon villain I used to see on TV? And yet, this time, I will bother with what David Foster Wallace called the “Capital T Truth.” The unfiltered truth. The “I’m-afraid-of-my-own-evil-but-this-must-be-said” truth. Because it matters, and because it took me long enough.

I am thinking of others like me. If we acknowledge the full impact of our bigotry, how would we even begin asking for forgiveness? If we take those words upon our shoulders — racist, sexist, misogynist — what is the depth of the punishment we must endure?

***

St. Francis Xavier is the patron saint of homophobia.

Actually, that’s untrue.

But we Xavier boys acted like he was. The teacher asked us to stay an extra 20 minutes for being noisy “kasi bakla siya.” I was late on my research paper submission “kasi bakla ‘yung printer ko.” Bakla wasn’t just the synonym of weak. For us, it described everything that sucked. Kabaklaan was our ultimate obsession. You could’ve been a genius guitarist, a tennis champ, an extraordinary poet, or even a complete asshole, but if you came out as gay, then the first thing we would say about you was: Ahhh, ‘yung bakla.

I heard an upperclassman of mine was exorcised because his parents refused to believe that his homosexuality was genetic.

Imagine how strange that must have been.

You are in a room with a priest or even some shaman. He prays over you. He places your forehead within his palms and begins screaming. He might even do some horror movie shit; he might get you to roll your eyes back and shout to visualize your “agony”; he might even have you believing, at one point, that you are possessed by a demon — who is somehow whispering into your ear that the most effective thing you can do to displease God is to suck a dick, as opposed to — you know — mass murder or rape.

That upperclassman went through that partly because of my language. Sure, not just because of me, but because of me nonetheless. And it wasn’t just him. In high school, only two or three kids were openly gay in my year. Now there are around 20 or 30 of them. Think of the number of selves that were shoved into a broom closet because we made them afraid, not with rifles or combat knives, but with words. Think of the act you must put on each day, just so that your entire existence is not reduced to a single label. In a boys school there are fistfights every so often, but this was the greatest form of violence we practiced.

Our teachers, for the most part, were magnificent people. It wasn’t their fault. We were taught better; we knew better. But that was the culture. You could blame it on exclusionary conservatism in some of our households. You could blame it on toxic masculinity and on the media. But most of all, the blame is on us. And it’s still on us.

***

Once in a while I think of the opposite of laughter. Most times, that’s how you take things back — you do their opposite. You make up for your hatred by being kind; you make up for making your partner feel bad by making them feel good; you compensate for your coldness with warmth. And yes, those generalities work to an extent, but I am thinking of the opposite of laughter.

I am thinking of the bodies of my friends lifeless and bloodied and I am thinking of the shotgun shells on the floor and I am thinking of the scent of gunpowder and I am thinking of my friend’s joke and I am thinking of the opposite of laughter. There are some things you say that cannot be taken back; there are some reactions that cannot be faked; there are some forms of hatred that have become so natural to you, you wonder about how much evil you must purge from your own soul.

I am thinking of others like me. If we acknowledge the full impact of our bigotry, how would we even begin asking for forgiveness? If we take those words upon our shoulders — racist, sexist, misogynist — what is the depth of the punishment we must endure? If our worldviews are so intrinsically flawed, isn’t it easier to just double down on them and preserve our self-image as the misunderstood protagonist of our lives? Because how do we even begin to change?

I am thinking that the opposite of laughter — of my particular laughter — is a lifetime of atonement.

***

Awakenings happen in the strangest places, and mine began in a small online basketball forum. It was the only place where I loudly expressed my homophobia as a teenager. And it was people with whom I’ve since lost contact — guys with handles like Minstrel and HallOfFamer — who were first to call out my bigotry. The conversations were tense. They challenged my ideas with conviction; they made me feel like an awful person; they linked me to credible studies about how homosexuality isn’t a choice.

There is always this desire in me to dismiss bigots and supporters of backward behavior. Perhaps it’s because their moments of bigotry remind me of an ugly self that dwells within.

I was resistant, but for some reason, they kept going. And outside the testy threads about gender equality, they somehow treated me like always have. We still spoke about who was the better player between Kobe and T-Mac, or about why the Lakers sucked, or why the Lakers didn’t suck. It was a kindness I didn’t deserve. I was given room to be a better person. As if they were carving a space in my heart that I didn’t want to inhabit. But, as with all empty spaces within our proximity, I began to explore it, and after a couple of years of posting in that message board, my viewpoints began to evolve. I still hated Kobe and the Lakers, but gay people — not as much.

This was college — around the time I began meeting constants in my life who happened to be members of the LGBTQ community. And once again, it was their undeserved kindness that made me realize I was being a shitty human being. The people I met were normal beyond belief. The gay people I met didn’t try to touch my dick because they didn’t share my stupidly inflated view of my sex appeal to gay people. They made me think to myself that: “Hey, I’m the one who watched tentacle hentai. Maybe I’m the sicko.”

The thing about personal change — at least in the realm of crystallized ideas — is that it happens slowly. It happens over years. It’s not the same as hitting the gym, drinking protein shakes, and investing in kale chips. It’s not the same as quitting your job, going to a photography workshop, and starting a travel blog.

Evolving one’s ideas takes time. And while bigots naturally do not deserve patience, patience helps. It helps towards the saying of those four words that culminate years of our ideas being challenged by better people: “I changed my mind.”

***

Writing this scares me. Because more and more, we live in a world of dichotomies. You are either pro- or anti-: whether it’s immigration or gun control or, well, democracy itself. Sometimes it feels like we have taken that word — nuance — and have begun stabbing it at each other’s throats. Writing this scares me. Because more and more we’ve come to live in a world where you are either a pure and enlightened individual or a bigot — a world where people who “admit they are wrong” still find a need to issue fake apologies. I’m sorry that you were offended. Now, that’s definitely pride talking, but it also happens because of the way we punish people who simply “change their minds” and apologize. We call them flip-floppers; we celebrate not their reform, but their wrongness; we act as if realizing your error and trying to improve yourself is such a weak thing to do.

Think of the number of selves that were shoved into a broom closet because we made them afraid, not with rifles or combat knives, but with words.

Nevertheless, I must say: I’ve changed my mind. I admit I was wrong. I apologize for that.

Because it is not a weak thing to do. And it shouldn’t be portrayed as weakness.

While I will never shake off the guilt of espousing the ideas I once espoused, I still reserve my right to change my mind. I reserve my right to become a better person. In fact, I reserve everyone’s right to become a better person. Because I know my ideological origins; because I know that I can’t be all-that-special just because I realized the faults in my language and in my behavior; because I somehow still believe that — in the midst of the political noise of today — patience and kindness can speak into our souls.

***

Absolution is a strange word, because it must never be absolute.

There are forms of violence — physical, emotional, and cultural — whose remnants will never fully vanish. And the idea that we can be somehow untethered from our past sins by reciting centuries-old prayers to ourselves misunderstands the rightfully long process of redemption.

But we have all practiced varying levels of violence against each other. I understand that I am not a credible messenger for this statement, but a part of me wishes that this might be truly the case: that we have all misconceived each other at some point. And we must all live our lives as gentle apologies to each other.

***

My bigotry is not gone. And it makes me fearful, because whenever I hear the word bading I still feel that neural shot from my brain that leads to laughter. But what I’ve tried to do is train myself in the art of empathy. I repeat righter and righter ideas in my head. I try to make acceptance and open-mindedness as natural to me as toxic masculinity was. And there are some moments that tell me that, hey, maybe I’ve changed.

In 2016, a presidential candidate joked about raping a dead woman.

And this was my response: I didn’t laugh.

I understood that a younger version of me would have found it hilarious. But I no longer found it hilarious. I shook my head. It was a small personal victory. And I understand: that’s setting a low bar for ethics and empathy, but as I’ve grown more understanding of other people, I’ve grown more understanding of my younger self as well. And most importantly, perhaps, I’ve grown to understand that people can change, even if slowly.

In a boys school there are fistfights every so often, but homophobia was the greatest form of violence we practiced.

I have lost so many friends because of politics. There is always this desire in me to dismiss bigots and supporters of backward behavior. Perhaps it’s because their moments of bigotry remind me of an ugly self that dwells within. Perhaps it’s because they freely exhibit parts of myself that cause me great shame. But I remind myself that it was kindness that saved me. It was those dinners with a teacher where we spoke of love and television and poetry; it was those message board threads where we talked about why Dwyane Wade is the second best player in the 2003 draft, not Carmelo Anthony; it was the laughter I shared with friends about things we had in common, which is the laughter that — to this day — feels the fullest.

I know I am imperfect and unworthy of “saving” anyone, but I want to tell the people like me that we can slowly fix our bigotry together. I want to tell the people like me that we can live out our apologies together, because while there are those who will rightfully dismiss us or condemn us, there is also so much kindness out there. I want to tell people like me that, while we may not be able to forgive ourselves, we can tell ourselves that we changed our minds — and that, at least, is something to be proud of.