By Jonathan Gradin
That’s so gay.
This and similar idiomatic expressions can be overheard in average conversations, yet many people don’t realize these are a type of discrimination, called micro-aggressions by counselors and the LGBTQA community. Such discrimination has real and serious effects, which are often overlooked or disregarded in a conservative state such as Idaho.
“Usually, what I see is a kind of covert or indirect discrimination,” said Dan O’Donnell, doctoral psychological intern and LGBTQA liaison with the University of Idaho Counseling and Testing Center, who sees “quite a few” such cases. “This can come across in the form of looks or glances that are uncomfortable for the person receiving them, or more verbal micro-aggressions. Specifically with LGBTQ individuals, they often hear the phrase ‘Well, that’s so gay,’ …that type of phrasing suggests that being gay is not what is normal, and so the psychological effects are reinforcing the idea that being gay is not a normal human experience.”
LGBTQA stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally. The term queer, which formerly meant gay in a derogatory sense, has now been reclaimed as encompassing all these orientations and nonstandard gender identities. Julia Keleher, coordinator of the UI LGBTQA office and programs, considers herself to be such a person, specifically gender non-conforming and attracted to the same sex, what might otherwise be termed a “butch female.”
“Using language that is not LGBT-inclusive, you know, asking folks ‘Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?’ instead of ‘Do you have a partner?’—snickering at LGBT things, making fun of stuff, tearing posters down—those are all forms of micro-aggression that happen throughout campus,” Keleher said in a moderately deep voice, one of her unique attributes as well as short, close-cropped hair and a purple bow tie.
Keleher said that while overt discrimination such as name-calling and threats do happen, sometimes on a regular basis, Moscow and the University of Idaho campus is “very progressive when it comes to LGBT identities.”
“I hear very few people talking about actual discrimination happening,” Keleher said. “It happens, but it’s fewer and far between than I think maybe in other areas of the state and the region.”
This was not always the case.
Moscow has a history of anti-gay bias, said Kathy Sprague, owner of the comic book and board game store Eclectica. The city attempted to pass an anti-discrimination bill in the ’70s, but voters shot it down.
“That was quite an adventure at the time,” Sprague said, adding that in 1976 KUID, the UI student-run TV station, ran a program about that struggle called “Sweet Land of Liberty.” “They were defunded because of that documentary.”
Sprague, a woman with close-cropped blonde hair, has been with her partner Tabitha for 22 years and has co-owned the store for almost 25 years, although she has changed locations four times, all within two blocks of 3rd and Main. Two black dogs, Maxine and Missy—both named after drag queens—and a fat black cat roam the large, open store. Numerous windows let in light, which the pastel-colored walls reflect. Each wall is a different color, chosen according to feng shui principles; the wall near the cash register is a lime green, signifying prosperity.
Slightly more than 20 years ago, one of Sprague’s friends, David, died of AIDS. A former UI communications professor refused to grant Tabitha an incomplete in a class, failing her, because she gave David hospice care in the last few months of his life and because of her sexual orientation.
“He refused the incomplete because she ‘Needed to suck it up and finish the class,’” Sprague said. “She literally waited to take that course until he had left the university.”
To add insult to injury, some Christian groups and community members picketed an AIDS treatment dance fundraiser held shortly after his death, holding signs with such slogans as “AIDS Distribution Center,” and “I Was Born a Homophobe.”
“I’ve only known a few religious people who believed the way they should have—they didn’t pass judgement on anybody, no matter what your choices were, it was your decision … they gave their hearts and their time to everybody, and it did not matter,” said Tessa DeMoy, another Eclectica employee. “I’ve only known a few people that way in my entire life. Everyone else uses their views and rights to push what they believe on everyone else. There’s hypocrisy in religious culture, and it’s ridiculous.”
As recently as the early ’90s, Sean Masterton, a University of Idaho student and officer of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Association, was physically assaulted at least twice for his sexual orientation, once while walking by East City Park in October 1993 and the other time while meeting with someone who called the GLBA (now Gay-Straight Alliance) hotline. The latter attack prompted the policy of having at least two GSA members present if people want to meet and talk.
“There was another kid who came out to his friends in the dorms, and they lured him up on the Admin lawn, and they cut his face open with a razor,” Sprague said. The year was 1995.
Sprague said that local attitudes have changed within the past several years, but that the state is “light-years” from adopting equality for LGBTQ people.
“I remember I first moved over here, my mom and I,” DeMoy said. “My uncle, who is gay, literally told us he would not be coming to visit us, because Idaho was the worst place he had actually been in. Thankfully, it’s so much better than it was, but he flat-out told me ‘No. I’ll stay in Portland. You guys can come visit me; I will not go to Idaho to visit you.’”
On April 1, Moscow City Council voted unanimously to pass an ordinance making discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment decisions a misdemeanor.
“This is a huge thing,” Keleher said, speaking the week before. “We have this great way to be one of the few—I think there’s only three or four—cities in Idaho that actually have protections on their city ordinances.”
The adoption of such legislation is timely, not least because of the way in which such discrimination psychologically affects its targets.
“One substantial way that it can manifest is in a person’s confidence,” O’Donnell said. “If they are the recipients of repeated suggestions that they are not normal, that their experience is somehow odd or incorrect, that’s going to affect their confidence and their ability to navigate social situations or academic situations.”
Such degradation of confidence increases anxiety, O’Donnell said, so that such people might make academic or social mistakes even in situations where previously they were able to act with ease. The fear of making mistakes or feeling vulnerable and out of place causes them to slip up, instead of engaging in free-flowing conversations or in-class question/answer sessions, causing a cascading effect of vanquished self-esteem and problems. This phenomenon is related to stereotype threats, initially researched in the context of racial bias.
“When people of non-white racial status were doing something like taking a test, their performance was impacted by racial status because of the social norm/stereotype that black folks cannot do well academically,” O’Donnell said. “So, for an LGBTQ individual, having a desire to not reinforce a stereotype and live as an actual individual can increase anxiety and therefore decrease performance.”
Similarly, Keleher said that LGBT members are a marginalized society in Idaho, so one might feel isolated and under extreme pressure to be the one to speak up against micro-aggressions, especially those which might not be meant in a hurtful way.
O’Donnell said that he sees “substantial parallels between gay-rights–oriented discrimination and civil-rights–based discrimination in the ’60s.
“We have a group of people who are singled out based on a characteristic that society, or at least some in society, consider to be non-normative,” O’Donnell said. “They are limited in their opportunities and what’s available for them on a day-to-day basis. And not only limited—in some cases they are personally attacked, or as a group they are grouped together then attacked.”
What causes such discrimination, especially in what might otherwise be nice people?
“I think fear plays a huge part, but I also think it’s a cultural and social thing,” Keleher said. “I believe that we’re taught things in our society. We have a very hetero-sexist society, so our society just focuses on straight identities. … Lack of exposure plays a part, when not really interacting with LGBT folks… a lot of it can come out of fear, a lot of it can come out of not knowing and bias on peoples’ parts.”
“I think fundamentally our behavior is what we’ve learned,” O’Donnell said, stating that he believes many factors—fear, lack of knowledge, social norms, etc.—contribute to discrimination. “We have learned, socially and culturally, that being gay is somehow not a healthy, or not a normal, or not a good thing. It’s been passed down to us, so when we’re confronted personally or through media with a gay person, we have a reaction.
“The way out of that is to recognize that that is the system we have been trained in, raised up in, and begin challenging it, both within ourselves and within our culture.”
“I think one of the best ways to curb [bias] is to meet LGBT individuals and interact with them,” Keleher said. “That’s something we really strive to do here in the LGBTQA office.”
Both Keleher and O’Donnell stressed the importance of support communities and organizations to give LGBTQA members a grounding and safe haven. To that end, UI hosts the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), the LGBTQA office and its programs, a safe zone program where faculty and staff can declare themselves open to members of the LGBTQA community, and the Law School’s OUTlaw chapter. Inland Oasis serves Moscow residents and students with an open environment and monthly drag shows, hosted by Sprague and Tabitha’s company TabiKat Productions and held upstairs in the Moose Lodge.
O’Donnell recommended that non-LGBT people read, ask questions and educate themselves about LGBT people, even if they are not of that persuasion. Doing so will help abate tensions and lessen discrimination, much the same as education and openness has eased racial tensions since the tumultuous ’60s.
While Moscow had, and continues to have, problems with LGBTQA discrimination, the tide appears to be turning with passage of the recent City Council anti-discriminatory housing ordinance. As for those who insist on practicing discrimination, in the lyrics of noted GLBT activist and singer Joan Baez, “When will they ever learn?”
P.S. I wrote this article to satisfy the “Consequences” assignment in JAMM-425 Feature Article Writing at the University of Idaho, as an experiment in writing and covering something outside of my normal subject matter in a fair and equitable manner.