How homophobia prevented my family from understanding real threats of sexual abuse
Trigger Warning: This essay discusses childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault.
Growing up, my family wasn’t the richest household. My parents spent years trying to make it work on a single income so that my mother could stay home with my young sister and me. That meant we had to cut costs anywhere possible, and that included walking down the road to the nearby washateria — or laundromat — to do our weekly laundry.
My sister and I considered this chore to be more like a treat. Not only was there an old Ms. Pac-Man arcade game in the laundromat, but the nice woman who worked there always gave us tokens to get candy out of the vending machine. We liked her and she became my mom’s friendly acquaintance, something my mom needed after being home all day with two kids.
Maybe that’s why my mom’s homophobic “warning” about this woman has stuck with me, more than 20 years later.
Returning to do our laundry a few months after we’d started regularly visiting the laundromat, I realized the nice woman wasn’t there to greet us. My sister and I were upset she was absent that day. While we sat bored at a folding table by the washing machines, my mom started a strange conversation.
With no preamble, she asked if that nice woman who worked at the laundromat, our friend, had ever touched us.
Confused, my sister and I said no. My mom then told us to never go to the bathroom or to the back office with the woman who worked there, no matter what. My sister and I whined, upset that mom didn’t want us to play with our friend anymore. To this, mom replied that we could still be friends with this woman — but we had to be careful.
Being typical kids hungry for an explanation, we pushed further for answers.
Mom told us that the nice laundromat lady was a lesbian and, as girls, we had to be careful.
“Lesbian” wasn’t a word I heard every day. This was back before Ellen came out on her TV show, so in my home — like in many other households — there was no dialogue about homosexuality. I didn’t really understand what it meant for our friend to be a lesbian, but my mom made it sound like a bad thing.
I’m in a straight relationship as an adult, but I identify as demisexual with an attraction to all sexes. My memories from that day in the laundromat have resulted in me being very tight lipped about my orientation. While that memory shaped some of the conflict I have with my own sexual identity, it was only later that I realized what my mom was implying.
To my mother, homosexual meant pedophile.
Though my mother’s understanding of what it means to be LGBT has evolved and she recognizes the error of her previous ways, many other individuals still link being homosexual to being a pedophile. This became especially evident on Twitter last night.
In an interview with Buzzfeed News published yesterday, actor Anthony Rapp came forward with a horrible account of sexual assault, alleging that Kevin Spacey assaulted him in 1986 when he was 14 years old.
Mr. Rapp explained that he chose to publicly come forward because of the supportive strength generated by women and men through the #MeToo campaign, following an onslaught of sexual harassment and abuse accusations against Harvey Weinstein.
In response to Mr. Rapp’s interview, Mr. Spacey issued a statement on Twitter insisting that he had no knowledge or memory of the encounter. He added that, if it did happen, it would have been “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.”
In the same breath, Mr. Spacey then outed himself as a gay man.
By tacking on his own coming out at the end of his dismissive statement, Mr. Spacey gave validation to so many who see homosexuals and label them as threats to children.
While pedophilia is not a sexual orientation but a psychosexual disorder, most people who commit acts of pedophilia identify as heterosexual. Still, it’s the the gay community that has had to fight against this stigma. By linking his alleged behavior against an adolescent Mr. Rapp to his “choice” to be a gay man, Mr. Spacey is casting homosexuality under the suspicion of pedophilia yet again.
This is nothing new. Too often, parents, teachers, and other well-meaning adults are so concerned about who they consider “the most obvious danger to children” that they miss the real threat.
Around the time that my mother had this conversation with my sister and me in the laundromat, our grandfather had started molesting us.
He preyed mostly on his younger grandchildren, like my sister and two other cousins. My grandfather molested me in a way so that my young mind knew it was wrong, but I didn’t understand why. A lingering brush to my backside as I walked past him, a grope of my chest that could be seen as an accident, caresses to my legs that went on for just a little too long and journeyed just a bit too high.
When my cousins and sister came forward, the adults didn’t believe them.
He was mostly blind and a religious old man. He had eight children and countless grandchildren. He had been married for over 40 years at this time. That sort of person doesn’t molest children, right?
It’s still a source of contention in my family, but had the fear so intently focused on the laundromat woman been instead geared toward the straight males in our family, then maybe I wouldn’t have my own experience similar to Mr. Rapp’s allegations of sexual assault.
As I read more about this story and reflect on the potential damage Mr. Spacey’s statement could inflict upon the LGBT community, I think about that nice woman at the laundromat. I don’t even remember her name, but I hope she remembers me. I wish I could apologize to her, for my mother’s prejudicial behavior and for every other discriminatory act she has had to endure just because of who she is.