A few years ago, during an awkward attempt at father-son bonding, I found out my father was a homophobe. It was right after the Academy Awards, and there was a lot of discussion about the film Brokeback Mountain being snubbed for best picture. My father and I were watching television together, and he said to me, with a chuckle, "I've watched Westerns all my life, and never once did I think cowboys were faggots."
I don't know that he recognized how visibly uncomfortable I was with his word choice, because he used it again before I left the room. I never thought my father had particularly warm feelings about gays before that moment, but the open-air homophobia was jarring.
It's a big part of the heterosexual-male bonding experience: In an effort to prove a sense of collective manhood, some heterosexual men trade homophobic barbs with one another, denounce and deride being gay and vehemently defend their own heterosexual credentials. It starts pretty early in the socialization process, with "gay" being used as a derogatory term on the playground before most even know what "gay" means, and eventually it makes its way into other spaces that tend to be perceived as havens for heterosexual manhood (e.g., locker rooms, basketball courts, rap music).
This is what Kobe Bryant was doing when he shouted "f—-ing faggot" at a referee during Tuesday's Los Angeles Lakers-San Antonio Spurs game. Bryant says his use of the homophobic slur was not intended to offend anyone, which hardly seems plausible.
He is well aware that "faggot" is a homophobic slur, or else he would have felt no need to apologize for his comments; he would have claimed ignorance. Given that he was visibly angry when he blurted out the slur, any comment that he made toward the referee at that point was clearly intended to offend him. But the use of this particular word reveals something deeper.
It's the belief that homosexuality is inherently inferior and an undesirable trait; therefore, to refer to someone with slurs usually reserved for gays is an attempt to belittle that person further. The quickest and most efficient way to insult a man has become to call into question his sexual orientation, and the easiest way to bond with one another comes through sharing a mutual homophobia (regrettably, these are things that I have personally done in the past but now recognize their idiocy).
It's this thinking that has colored the recent conversations surrounding Mister Cee and Malcolm X, and made the discourse almost impossible to follow. Mister Cee, a well-respected hip-hop producer and DJ, was arrested for public indecency after allegedly receiving oral sex from a 20-year-old transgender woman in his car — and the reaction from fans has been disgustingly predictable. There were calls for him to be fired from his job at New York City radio station Hot 97, because the idea that he might be gay was "not a good look" for hip-hop.
In the case of Malcolm X, the new biography A Life of Reinvention, by the late historian and social critic Manning Marable, suggests that Malcolm, in his days as a hustler, may have had gay encounters for pay. Those seeking to "defend" his legacy have discounted this as an unsubstantiated rumor, calling into question Marable's research.
Clearly, the mere hint of any activity that casts doubt on their "good standing" as heterosexuals has been a cause for alarm in some. The underlying fear is that these men, who are otherwise respected and, in some instances, idolized for contributions to their culture, would somehow not be "real men" if their sexuality were not in line with what has been deemed acceptable.
But even some of us who see this flawed logic for what it is — blatant homophobia — often miss a piece of the puzzle. We have a tendency to say things like "their sexuality doesn't matter; they were still able to accomplish so much." This is true: Their sexual identity has no bearing on their ability to achieve. However, what this defense seems to suggest is that people have accomplished despite their sexuality, as if it were some sort of handicap. Ending homophobia will require us to divorce sexuality from the concept of manhood. The popularly accepted characteristics of a "real man" will have to be adjusted.
James Baldwin was unquestionably one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and one of the best the United States has produced within its borders. He was also gay. He wasn't a great writer in spite of his sexual orientation; in some ways he was a great writer precisely because of the perspective his sexuality offered to him.
But Baldwin is a hero of mine not only as a towering literary figure but also as a man. His sexuality made him no less of a man than any other icons we uphold as shining examples of manhood, and if we are truly about the business of eradicating homophobia, we should be able to say that much.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.