I must be honest, homophobia is not something that I have had personal experience with until recently, being fortunate enough to normally find myself in a University bubble surrounded by others who are educated enough to form well-informed opinions regarding matters of personal freedoms. Since September, however, I have had to escape this bubble and have upped sticks to Lisbon, Portugal's capital city. Thankfully, I have experienced very few problems related to my sexuality while being here.
This past week or so this has all changed. Until today, I was working for a local hostel running pub crawls a few times a week, giving groups of alcohol-enthused backpackers a taste of Lisbon night-life and in the process earning myself a bit of money. Last week the first bar-crawl took place, unfortunately after around fifteen minutes I found the only thing to be crawling was my skin, thanks to one member of the group who proceeded to point out that I had "poofey hands" and subsequently decided to grab my crotch while delivering the welcome speech. The response from my boss: deal with it, laugh it off, you're supposed to be delivering customer service and they are the customer. I did my best to do this. The following week, my boss approached me again to reiterate how unhappy he was with how I had dealt with the situation. In actual fact, what he failed to understand was that I had dealt with the situation like a human being.
What was most frustrating for me was the lack of understanding on his part. Without placing labels, my boss was a black man from Brazil, immediately placing himself within a reasonable level of similarity in terms of societal discrimination as myself. Part of a minority within a foreign country, and, more importantly, discriminated against for something that is completely uncontrollable and often difficult to hide. When I compared the comments the group member made to me to some form of racial slur and pushed him to consider how he would have reacted he followed the same line of thought as he had done previously, that he would have just laughed it off and made a joke of it. It is specifically this attitude that I have a problem with.
If I "laugh it off" on some level I am showing a sense of agreement with the other person and acknowledgement and acceptance of his ability to undermine me because of something I have no capacity to change. I would never be ashamed of who I am, nor do I wish to keep company with those who wish to make me feel this way. At the end of the day I am not the one with the problem, it is he who had the problem, the lack of foresight to understand that his actions were hurtful to another human being but also a distinct lack of respect and self-awareness over his own behaviour.
I remember asking my boss how he would have reacted had the female member of our team been subjected to the same treatment, say for example if the man had chosen to pinch her behind or her breasts. His response was not particularly concrete, with him saying it still would not have been an excuse to raise my voice or shout at the guest. The sheer fact that he acknowledged that a female would not be expected to "laugh it off" in this circumstance proves to me his lack of comprehensibility as to how damaging the situation was. So was it okay for me to laugh it off just because I am male? Why am I not afforded the same level of protection just because I am not female? Are personal boundaries and levels of respect not the same regardless of sex?
I probed further asking if he thought the man in question would have done the same thing to him. He replied yes, that he thought he would have. I challenged this as completely ridiculous. Normally males do not engage in physical contact with someone they feel is much more powerful than them. It is logical to assume that they would only pick a fight with someone they feel they could defeat. This is exactly how it played out between myself and the other man. He saw me as being weaker than him, possibly for several reasons, and decided to take advantage of this. The fact that he had already verbally abused me gives me reason to believe that one of these reasons was to do with my sexuality.
It may be the case that I am reading too much into this situation yet in actual fact what has made me more angry was not the decision making of that one man but the reaction from my boss by purposefully promoting the idea of just burying one's head in the sand in the eyes of discrimination. Perhaps it was not my place to reprimand the man for his behaviour, but my reacting by becoming slightly disheartened and not wishing to paint a smile on my face to a bunch of perfect strangers, was in no way unexpected. It was totally human. I will always remember my boss' somewhat justification for his lack of understanding, that he had never been subjected to this kind of treatment personally. To me this was just completely inhuman - just because it has never happened to you as an individual, suddenly you find yourself incapable of any form of empathy? How do you think that man made me feel? He may be a paying customer but surely he loses his rights to be treated that way if he choses to disrespect those serving him.
Crucially by simply laughing off his actions I am placing myself in a huge moral dilemma: of justifying behaviour that seeks to discredit what I represent and the person that I have become after years of self-doubt and borderline self-hatred. It is not easy being gay and it is not something you realise and accept over night, it is a lengthy process of self-acceptance in realising your own identity and how to negotiate this with respect to your surroundings. I refuse to be put into any position that seeks to threaten this, and, customer or not, we are all human beings and all have a basic right and deserve to be treated that way.