I just met someone who I think falls into the latter group. I've been travelling for work quite often, and he happens to work in a hotel I sometimes stay at when I'm travelling in the region. He came to my room to help with something, and we got to talking. I won't share the entire conversation, but it was about homophobia, LGBT rights, and was initiated by the following exchange:
Employee, as he is about to leave: What's your name, though?
Me: Mar. And yours?
Employee: Samuel. Think Samuel Beckett.* You can remember it that way.
Me: (laughs) Is that what they call you though? Because that would be pretty cool.
Samuel: No. They call me Hitler.
Me: Oh no. That's no good. Why on earth do they do that?
Samuel: Because my last name is [something associated with Hitler*]. I hate it. It's awful. And sometimes the joke doesn't stop there...my friends make a lot of Hitler jokes.
Me: Ugh. Yeah. Hitler jokes are rarely funny. Plus, working in a hotel, I guess you have to be pretty careful what you say around people. People are coming from all over the world.
Samuel: Yea. It happened already. We had some Jewish people staying here and the guys were joking around. They didn't like it. (Freezes) Are you Jewish?
Me: No. Not Jewish. But yunno you can tell people to stop calling you Hitler. I don't think that's an unreasonable request.
Samuel (looking troubled): Yeah. I really hate it. You know they say he was gay.
Me: (Blinks) Well...maybe bisexual? I don't know. He had relationships with women though.
Samuel: Yes but they said he slept with men. (Looks increasingly worried) Do you know anything about that?
(In the blink of an eye I've become an expert on Hitler's sexual history.)
Me: Well...no...I couldn't say for sure. But um...he also murdered millions of people...
Samuel: Yeah I know but...here in [country name here], we take gayness very seriously.
At this point I'm suddenly aware that I'm alone in my hotel room with a man who considers gayness far worse than murder, but we press on, talking about homophobia in the Caribbean (apparently Barbados is seen as the champion of LGBT rights in the region, a notion that while laughable to those of us who know the environment, makes me proud, even as it makes Samuel eye me suspiciously as if he is aware of my implied agenda); what it means to discriminate; why it's necessary to have anti-discrimination legislation; and why Caribbean men feel threatened by gayness. 'Gayness' is Samuel's word.
At some point when I ask him pointedly: "So are you saying the thing that worries you about being called Hitler is not the fact that he killed over 10 million entire human beings but that a couple people speculate that he was gay?" he says soberly:
"Well, here in [country name] we have people who are in jail for murder or whatever. And they go in, come out, and people don't really check after a while. But gay..."
I must have interrupted that sentence. I don't recall. Because of course it's not just the thorough and embedded homophobia operating here that is disturbing, but the fact that at the same time, Samuel seems not to understand or acknowledge the importance of the Holocaust. And I'm not talking all of the context of it, the eugenics, the politics, the war: I'm afraid the teaching of that part of history is pretty lacking in the Caribbean, and for that reason, a lot of young people don't appreciate its importance until much later. I'm talking about the fact that Samuel acknowledges the fact that Hitler killed millions of people. Whatever the circumstances, killing millions of men, women and children is a really horrible thing, right? Worse, arguably, than killing one man. And far worse than killing no one at all, i.e being gay. The thing is, I can't even be sure we're operating on that assumption. Because if Samuel thinks a murderer in the jail downtown is meh maybe not as bad as the gay guy on the bus, then who knows? Maybe he also thinks a murderer is a murderer, and after the first 20, it's all the same.
We carried on talking after this, and Samuel began to listen and nod and think a bit. And he started to make some sense after a time, to make some important associations and parallels with other parts of civil rights activism. I like Samuel. He is really a likable guy, open, interested, interesting, not hateful. And I think sometimes we have to realize that what we're working against is an attitude, a culture, not necessarily (although sometimes) the people who inhabit them. In the context of the Caribbean, where anti-gay sentiment is vastly more common and embedded than the opposite sentiment, as compared with other nations in the North where LGBT activism and legislation are far more advanced, engagement of people every day on their thoughts and beliefs, the music they write, the things they tell their children, and why, is where the movement needs to take hold.
*Names have been changed. The name used here was that of a famous person with the same last name. And somehow when I decided to use the name Samuel as a pseudonym, Beckett was the first name that sprung to mind as a famous person I could use. You can tell I'm not a fan of Samuel L. Jackson, right?