“Oh my gosh.” Marisa pauses the show as the end credits begin to roll. “No. Way. Can you believe that just happened?”
I stare at her. Her body, previously curled into the corner of the couch around a pillow in a relaxed, comfortable fashion, is now tense with energy. Her eyes twinkle at me across the dim room.
I’m sitting in a chair, leaned back, with a bowl of popcorn on my stomach. Her reaction has caught me by surprise. I’ve frozen, head cocked, with a handful of popcorn halfway to my mouth.
“Um, yes?” I say, because the events on the screen didn’t surprise me in the slightest.
“Whaaaat?” Marisa says, drawing the word out long to make her disbelief evident. “There’s no way you knew. You couldn’t have known!”
“You’re acting like there was just some major plot twist,” I say. I make a face, trying to convey my disappointment in her and warn her away from where I suspect she’s headed with this conversation.
“Um, because there was?” Marisa says, jutting her head forward and widening her eyes like she does when she’s trying to make a point. “Jack is gay. Like, you don’t see that as a plot twist?”
“No.” I shrug. “It’s just a detail. They didn’t even make a big deal out of it.”
“Shut up,” she says. She doesn’t mean it literally — she says it all the time, in that joking, needling way — but this time it annoys me. “They totally built him up to be straight.”
“Not really,” I say. I sit myself up in the chair, frustrated that we’re even having this conversation. “It’s not like they discussed him having sex with women, or even showed him talking about women in a romantic way. I don’t see where you’re coming from with this.”
I love Marisa, but she can be maddeningly obtuse when it comes to anything regarding homosexuality. She’s my friend, and my roommate, and I don’t think I have any other better options among my other college friends, but I hate that I’ve had to have the “being gay is not a choice” conversation with her more than once. More than five times, if we’re keeping count. Which I am.
“Cas.” She rolls her eyes, as if I’m the one being ridiculous. “He doesn’t even act gay.”
“Do you think I act gay?” I ask. I regret it immediately.
“Well, yeah, a little bit,” she says, confusion clear on her face.
I try to tamp down my offense at this, both because it makes it even more clear that she has notions of exactly how a gay man should be have and because being offended mens I have my own internalized homophobia to deal with.
“Do you say that because you already know I’m gay and you feel like you know what to look for, or would you have said that before you got to know me?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Marisa says. She could not look any more like she doesn’t want to be having this conversation right now. Too bad. She opened up the gates.
“When you met me, did you know I was gay right away?” I ask.
“Well, no, but it made sense after I figured it out,” Marisa said.
“You didn’t figure it out, I told you,” I clarify. I don’t know why, but I’m suddenly quite mad at her. I’m mad enough that I don’t care if we come out of this conversation as friends.
I wonder, briefly, why that is, but I know the answer. She’s always been like this, and no matter what I say to her, she sticks to the same stock set of lines and refuses to admit any of her biases. I’ve tried to have the conversation politely in the past and it has never gotten me anywhere.
“I remember the exact moment that you found out I was gay,” I continue. “I told you I had a date with a guy. You were shocked. Can you honestly tell me you didn’t know before that?”
She opens her mouth, and I see the lie forming in her eyes. Then she stops. Her eyes close. “No.”
That’s one good thing about Marisa, I guess. She can be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to realizing she’s pushed the wrong buttons, but once she knows she’s genuinely upset you, she starts to listen.
I set my popcorn bowl on the table next to me, because I don’t feel like either of us can take me seriously when it’s balanced precariously on my stomach. “The only thing that makes a man gay is being attracted to other men. You know that, right?”
“Yeah,” she says. “But Jack just doesn’t seem gay. You know? He acts so straight.”
I sigh. “Tell me what that means to you.”
Perhaps sensing a trap, she hesitates. She continues anyway. “He’s like, super gruff, right? And masculine. His clothes don’t always match each other. And he’s really serious and a bit old. And he likes cigars and drinking.”
“Wow,” I say. “There’s a lot I could unpack there, but I’ll just state it simply: None of that makes him straight, in any way.”
I cut her off. “No, you don’t get to say ‘but’ to that.”
“That’s just rude,” she says.
I shrug. “I’m not trying to be rude. I’m trying to get a point across. Being gay is not a personality trait. It doesn’t shape someone’s personality or behaviors or fashion choices directly to any greater extent than having blond hair or brown skin.”
“Okay, but most gay guys —”
“Most gay guys what?” I ask, but I don’t really want to hear her answer. “Most gay guys have high voices? Most gay guys are effeminate? Most gay guys have female friends and wear cute clothes and aren’t athletic? Any sentence you start off with ‘most gay guys’ is coming from the wrong place unless you’re following that up with ‘are attracted to men.’ Okay?”
“Sorry,” she grumbles.
“I’m not trying to be mean, Marisa,” I say. “I just get tired of all the homophobia in the world and I really don’t want to hear it from one of my best friends.”
That pulls her right out of her little micro-sulk. “Homophobia? Hold up. I’m not homophobic.”
“You are, though,” I say. “Not in the way where you’re going to go beat up a guy you think is gay on the street, but yeah, you’ve definitely got some ingrained biases toward gay folks. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have a certain concept of how a gay man should or shouldn’t act.”
“You sound like a sociology textbook,” she spits, as though that’s an insult. I don’t take it as one. “I’m not homophobic. For fuck’s sake, Cas, you’re gay and you’re my best friend.”
“Just because you have a gay friend doesn’t mean you’re not homophobic,” I say. “I know you’ve heard that before. Maybe you just haven’t internalized it yet. It’s just like having black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”
“I’m not racist either!” she says, throwing up her hands.
“Yes, you are,” I say, but then I decide to back off a little. “Look, I’m racist too. Everyone is to some extent. Maybe ‘racist’ and ‘homophobic’ aren’t the best terms anymore, because they’ve become so inflammatory even in the context of logical discussion, but they’re still applicable. Everyone feels biases based on their perception of another person’s race. You’re not exempt from it just because you’re aware of your biases and you try not to act upon them.”
“I don’t have biases toward gay people,” she says. I notice that she specifically avoids the topic of race. That’s fine for now, I guess. We can have that discussion another day.
“You do!” I say. “Maybe you’re not even aware that they’re biases, but you’ve literally shown them to me tonight. You talked about how you thought gay people should act. That’s a bias. That’s homophobic in the same way that saying you know how a black person is going to act because of their skin color is racist.”
“You say the same things sometimes too, you know,” she says. “About gay people. You make snap judgements about whether a guy is gay based on the way he acts, or how feminine he is, or what he’s wearing. It’s not like it’s just me.”
I take a moment to consider this. “That’s true. In that sense, my own behavior is equally problematic. I’ll own that.”
I shrug. “Yeah. I mean, I could wax on about how, societally, a member of a group is allowed to make jokes about that group that people outside of it can never make. I could talk about the fact that I’m almost always attempting to be humorous, when I’m making those judgments. I could talk about how hard it can be to genuinely assess whether another man is gay and whether he’s going to accept my advances, because society forces us to hide our sexualities even from each other when we’re in dangerous public spaces.
“But no, you’re right. I’m only serving to further and give permission to your own biases by confirming them with my humor.”
“Wait, so, you don’t think anyone should make jokes about gay people?” she asks. “Or… what? Honestly I’m not even sure what your point is anymore.
“I think there’s a time and place for jokes to be made about almost anything,” I say. “So that’s not quite what I’m saying. I just think it can be dangerous when joking about something accidentally gives permission, to both the audience and the person attempting to be humorous, to participate in bias.”
Marisa leaned back dramatically, placing her hand on her brow. “What do you even want from me right now?” she asks. “I’m racist and homophobic. Great. Thank you for the information. What’s even the point of this conversation?”
“The first step toward not being biased is to admit that you are,” I say. “You’ve said it out loud, but I can tell from your tone that you don’t really believe it.”
“I don’t,” she admits. She sighs with as much drama as she can muster. “But I do see where you’re coming from, at least a little.”
“Look, I’m not asking you to rid yourself of biases overnight,” I say. “Nobody can do that. I’m still working through my own ingrained biases, as you pointed out. I’m mostly just trying to say that it’s unhealthy to ignore your biases and pretend that you don’t have them. It’s better to confront them and try to deal with them.”
“Fine,” Marisa says.
I can tell she wants to be done with the conversation, and frankly, so do I. I’m exhausted, suddenly. It’s late at night and I have to go to class early in the morning, but that’s not the only reason. Confronting people, about anything, is difficult for me. I don’t know where I drew the energy from for this conversation, but I’m glad to have found it.
Maybe tomorrow morning, I’ll have regrets about having spoken to Marisa like I did. Maybe I’ll have lost a friend. At this point, I can say truthfully that I’m not bothered by that possibility, but that could just be due to the leftover fervor of my frustration.
I leave Marisa on the couch, and I head down the hallway to get ready for bed.