Don’t tell me what homophobia is

—When Scott Knox talks about being gay in the industry, it’s not for the straight audience. It’s to remind anyone who is gay that they don’t have to hide—

Russell T Davies’ new show It’s A Sin had a powerful emotional impact on me. Apart from being a truly authentic piece of art with exceptional storytelling and performances, the story about being young and gay and faced with the horrors of AIDS in the ’80s left me raw in a way that no other show has.

I watched it and I remembered the music—I always love a bit of Culture Club, Pet Shop Boys and Bronski Beat in a soundtrack.

I watched it and I remembered my friends: Tim, Graham and Michael, all lost to this wretched disease. Michael taught me everything I know about sharp-tongued bitchiness being the best armour one can have, especially against stupid homophobes.

I watched it and I remembered how the media, government and society, even family, made us ’80s gay kids feel. We were told that our future would be spent in hiding, lonely and, more than likely, end with an early AIDS-related death. But there was more to this feeling, and I couldn’t grasp it at first.

We binge-watched all five episodes of It’s A Sin the day it dropped on Amazon Prime. The next day, I picked up my phone to read social media. Everyone had an opinion, and journalists from Canada, the U.S. and U.K. all joined in. The world was abuzz with comment.

I had some virtual time with my family in the U.K., and my parents told me that It’s A Sin was a hot topic on debate show The Big Questions. The usual ratings-chasing tactic of asking the most extreme and loud people their opinions produced the inevitable: “Don’t call me homophobic, that’s what you always say…” response to defend a homophobic point of view.

My mind was flooded with all of the micro-aggressions I’ve faced over the years—some of which weren’t micro at all.

From school, from work, from friends, sadly even from family. I remember, vividly, the sanctioned homophobia at school, especially from teachers, singling me out for who I was before I really knew myself.

This was the time of Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, the legislation that banned the use of public funds to “promote” homosexuality. No talking about LGBTQ+ issues in schools, or support groups in towns or cities. It was the forerunner to the Russian legislation of today—yet another charming U.K. export to the world!

In 2015, when I launched PrideAM in the U.K., I received two interesting pieces of advice from very senior industry people. One was to “keep it celebratory, don’t go all political on us.” Translation: “Keep it about dancing to Lady Gaga at Pride, and don’t make us feel guilty about your lived realities.”

The second: “Shouldn’t you be careful about this, you don’t want other trade bodies to say, ‘Look he’s hanging out with the freaks?'”

Here in Canada I’ve received similarly interesting remarks. One agency CEO asked why I was wearing a Pride badge when it wasn’t Pride month. Two other senior agency people told me about a gay man I should meet (because we all naturally get on!), and how they advised him to focus on his career and not his sexuality when speaking in public. People weren’t there for the gay thing, they said, they were there for his achievements.

The worst was a senior straight man who, over a breakfast, told me to stop going on about being gay, and in a same sex marriage with two mixed-race adopted kids. When I challenged this, he got angry and focused on how I was characterizing him.

He completely missed (or ignored) my point that when I say those things, I’m speaking to the LGBTQ+ members of the audience. It would have made such a difference to younger me to hear from senior people at industry events who openly declared their authentic selves, to know that I shouldn’t be fearful and closeted in our industry. It’s called being a role model.

I’m quite sure that some of these people—a few of whom I respect and love greatly—don’t mean harm, but these micro-aggressions matter. They tell us that our authenticity is not relevant, that it should be tucked away when all we want is to be our full selves, wherever we are. That doesn’t seem much to ask. You should want it too.

Initially, I became quite down after watching the series. I’ve felt sad before about being a gay man in this world, but this time it was different.

And then I realized why: nobody was asking what we thought. I realized how tired I’ve become of straight people feeling they have the right to critique our lived experiences. For telling us what they think of our narrative.

And I thought about the pain that Black people feel every time someone is murdered for the colour of their skin. How, well-meaning or not, white people in the media are always ready with an opinion. Deciding what is and isn’t racism. Dictating how this should or shouldn’t be handled. When will we let Black people start the conversation, with white people using their ears before their mouths?

I started thinking about women, and what they must go through every time they see male journalists and legislators lay out and enforce their opinions on what should happen to women’s bodies. WTF?

And my feelings of sadness and pain became feelings of anger. I’ve had enough of listening to people ram their opinions through my governments, my courts, my media and my life without any experience whatsoever.

If you’re white you have no right to define racism. If you’re a man you have no right to define sexism. If you’re straight you have no right to tell me what homophobia is, isn’t, or what it feels like. You just fucking don’t.

And if you really want to be a true ally, then enter the room ears first, shut the fuck up and listen.

Scott Knox is the president and CEO of the Institute of Communication Agencies, and founder of PrideAM.