I am endlessly surprised, though you may not be, by the promiscuity of homophobic language. Even at an institution such as Melbourne Law School, the passing tailwinds of conversation scatter the dust of mean, insidious slur.
Most of the people using this sort of language would never consider themselves to be homophobes, and would find the label offensive and insulting. But still it can be heard.
Homophobia relishes behind euphemism and misdirection, making it difficult to separate homophobic language from homophobic sentiment, and thereafter the merely insensitive person from the truly intolerant. Language is, however, suggestive of attitude. Casual or ill-considered words bear the hallmark of uncriticised thought, and uncriticised thought is easily seduced by base prejudice.
Herein lies the problem: when either the attitude or the language exists, it propagates the other. The vicious cycle becomes self-propagating and self-propelling. An environment is created in which deeper and more profound prejudices may fester.
One of the most important steps we may take in combating homophobia, especially of this more low key (and therefore more insidious) nature, is discussing its root causes. This sort of context-giving may easily be construed as excuse-making, but in reality first-causes can help define the search for solution.
I am certain that most casual homophobia develops from childhood surrounds. How could anyone, in this cultural climate, independently arrive at the idea that homosexual people should be distinguished from others? It’s a nonsense and a fiction to suggest that this idea comes from any place other than the anachronistic attitudes held by our older friends and relatives.
When the prepubescent environment bears an atmosphere thick with revulsion at the idea of homosexuality, the child cannot escape breathing some of its fumes. What such an upbringing does, and here I speak from experience, is install a small component into the undergrowth of the mind that surreptitiously separates any homosexual person who is met into a distinct category.
When meeting a homosexual person, there is an instinct, or a reflex, to contextualise everything that person does by their sexuality. They become reduced to a single – and largely superficial – reference point. (I say superficial not to dismiss the centrality of sexuality to one’s personhood, but to emphasise the point that what sort of sexuality one has is irrelevant – or ought to be.) The thought creeps in: ‘I wonder if person X considers topic Y differently because they’re gay’. A ridiculous thought to gratify with entertainment. But so it goes.
These tendencies exist in the more primal, reptilian parts of the brain, but readily strike through the ascendant layers and penetrate the supposedly rational primate parts of the brain. Suddenly a loose temper turns into a filthy slander (just ask Jonah Hill).
My suggestion is this: a sort of personal-affirmative action. This starts with self-reflection and observation. To revel in the cliché for a moment: the first step is in acknowledging that there is a problem. From there, your duty is to nullify and render void each and every instance of ‘sexual-orientation profiling’.
To do so is to create for yourself a mental-environment in which any source of latent homophobia is extinguished. This is intended and effective as a direct counter to the environment that gave rise to such compulsions initially.
I am not so pessimistic to think that latent homophobia shall never be eradicated. Quite the contrary; but I do think that extinguishing these prolific tea-dregs will take an extraordinary effort of will on behalf of many people. And hopefully one day I will find myself pleasingly surprised by the lack of homophobic language that catches the ear.