A couple of weeks ago, something happened – or rather didn’t happen – which made me a little bit sad. It was the day before Spirit Day, an event organised by GLAAD where people are encouraged to wear purple in memory of the worryingly high number of gay teens who have committed suicide in the last year. Seems reasonable enough. Who wouldn’t lend their support to a campaign which seeks to highlight the drastic effects homophobic bullying can have on our youth?
Ever the enthusiast, and as social-network-addicted as your average person, I used Twitter and Facebook to encourage my friends and followers to wear something purple. Several hours later, ten friends had either ‘liked’ my status on Facebook or left a comment pledging their support. Oddly, though, it struck me immediately that every single one of them was either heterosexual and female or LGBT. Not a single straight man to be seen. Granted, this does reflect a slight bias in the demographic profile of my friends list. However, I consider many straight men to be good friends, both online and in ‘real life’.
The next day – Spirit Day itself – I decided that a more direct approach was necessary. In an open challenge to the aforementioned men, I posted a status which said: ‘Who’s wearing purple for Spirit Day? And where are all the men?’ Still nothing. Thankfully, a particularly manly friend of mine did later tweet that he had worn something purple for work. Yet, as gratifying as that lone voice of advocacy was, the whole experience left me pondering some key questions. This was a campaign aiming to show respect to the memory of gay teenagers who, because of homophobia, felt they had no option but to take their own lives. Equally, wearing purple was intended to express hope for a better future. To my mind, that’s not particularly controversial. Indeed, it just seems logical. Wider equality issues such as marriage, where you might expect nuances in opinion, were not even mentioned. So in a more general sense, it left me asking myself: where are the straight male advocates for LGBT equality?
It is important to clarify at this point that inaction and indifference do not necessarily equate to outright homophobia. I do not believe for a second that most of the heterosexual males who did not show their support for Spirit Day are intrinsically homophobic. However, I believe that straight advocates for gay equality are hugely important – and notably scarce.
In a world where Lady Gaga (female, bisexual) calls Barack Obama, demanding to know what he intends to do about homophobic bullying (which is fantastic), what we really need is straight men taking up the baton. Let me explain why. On a fundamental level, those growing up LGBT need to have a broad range of role models. That includes straight men. Adolescents who tune in to the fact heterosexual men, even if ‘tolerant’ (and I choose that awful word deliberately), are not actually entirely comfortable around them, are less likely to feel at ease with themselves. We can all relate to the age-old issue of the straight friend who is ‘fine with it’ until it gets ‘shoved down his throat’. How many gay men have straight male friends who they only associate with because the common denominator is said man’s girlfriend or wife? I remember being extremely offended and somewhat bemused when a friend of mine organised a stag party in my town, which is 20 miles away from his home, but did not invite me, apparently because he ‘did not think I would want to go’.
Gay men are just that – men. Some are masculine, some less so. Precisely the same is true of their straight counterparts. However, what is vital is that our hetero friends are fighting the good fight on our behalf so that all strata of masculinity are represented in the battle for equality. It’s regrettable, but likely, that many straight men are reticent to speak out for fear of being perceived to be gay themselves. It is precisely this sense of shame we all need to confront so that the days of depression, bullying and suicide are consigned to the dustbin of history. Imagine the huge impact of a world-champion boxer, for example, speaking out for LGBT rights. Of course, this does not mean simply agreeing to film an ‘It Gets Better’video (as inspiring as they are to many people). I want to see these men on the frontline, calling the Prime Minister á la Gaga, and insisting on action. Ideally, I’d like to see your stereotypical beer-swilling, woman-ogling man marching at Pride so that the world sees that a person’s masculinity is in no way endangered by speaking out for what is right.
My own personal experience dictates that although many of my straight male acquaintances are not outwardly homophobic, neither are they explicitly committed to actively supporting LGBT rights. That said, as I have already pointed out, there can be no sweeping generalisations here. Take Ben Cohen, for example. This former rugby player and veritable epitome of masculinity now devotes his time to the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, which aims to raise awareness of the effects of bullying in general but explicitly of homophobic bullying. Put succinctly, Ben Cohen is a man who puts his money where his mouth is. He is a true advocate for gay rights. Unfortunately, though, it is difficult to name any other similar straight men leading the charge.
Outside of this, naturally, are all kinds of nuances and contradictions. In our wonderfully diverse yet often disappointing world, you will encounter heterosexual women who are more homophobic than their male partners. You may find gay men who do little to advance the cause by expressing deep disdain for anyone who is not ‘straight-acting’. There will always be that bafflingly complex myriad of human emotions, experiences and prejudices which exert an influence on the rocky road to equality. As I write this, on board a flight to Reykjavik, I am reminded of how much we could learn from our northern neighbours. This is a city where up to two thirds of the population attends the annual pride event. It is a family occasion, complete with spectators encompassing men, woman, lesbian, gay, bi, straight, trans and everything in between. Ask an Icelander and they will probably tell you that LGBT equality is an issue of human rights and that human rights should be everyone’s concern. That is precisely my point. Would anyone of any sexuality or gender dispute that it is wholly unacceptable for any gay teenager to resort to suicide? To a degree, it could be suggested that what I am arguing for is naively utopian. Nevertheless, I am willing to take my megaphone, get on my extremely high horse and shout: straight men, your gay friends need you! You are wanted. You are necessary. Share this article, ‘like it’, comment on it. Whatever you do, do something. You might even get a hug. Or at the very least, an über-manly handshake.