Independently Speaking
Setting Them Straight

By Marvin Liebman

I would like to bring to your attention an important book recently published by an old friend of mine, Dr. Betty Berzon, titled "Setting Them Straight." It deals with homophobia in our society and provides the means and the words to fight it. The book is a truly transcendent guide to dealing with the bigotry, stereotyping, and hatred that affects each and every lesbian and gay man in the country.

Psychotherapist Betty Berzon has published an extremely useful handbook for gay people dealing with homophobia in their daily lives -- and which one of us isn't interested in that? Berzon's approach " ... is if gay and lesbian people do not take responsibility for changing how we are to be treated by the larger society, who will," she asks?

We've all found ourselves in a paralyzed state when we hear somebody else's anti-gay comment or joke. We often don't know how to respond and how to correct the other party's misinformation. And, even if we did know how to respond, on many occasions we are so overcome by fear of self-exposure that we don't say anything at all. This inability to respond to homophobia not only leaves the bigot in unenlightened ignorance, it causes damage to one's own self-worth. As Berzon points out, "the more enduring source of self-esteem for anyone gay or lesbian is the freedom to be authentically who and what we are, anytime, anywhere, and with anyone."

Berzon's is a far-reaching book. She writes in the same easy-to-understand, hands-on style as her earlier best-selling classic, "Permanent Partners." She examines why people hate -- "because they are unable to love" and because "hating helps to make the world seem more manageable." Scapegoating makes the gay individual "the villain who is threatening the welfare of nice people going about their decent heterosexual lives." She explains how individuals develop (or fail to develop) a sense of morality; a sense of decency towards other people.

Berzon explains that prejudice can often be understood as a product of the "frustration-aggression cycle." People become frustrated by problems that seem unmanageable so they aggress against a target group rather than addressing their own issues. The religious right has defined gays as a "predatory outside force" that can be blamed for many of the failures of American life.

But all of that is useful background information for what is really the central thesis of Berzon's new book -- the guidelines of dealing with anti-gay situations. It's as if she has personally observed each and every one of our confrontations with bigotry with notebook and pen in hand, and has compiled them in one volume. For each sample situation -- comments by an anti-gay co-worker, for instance, or even another gay person's homophobia -- Berzon provides a positive scenario for dealing with the situation. But she also takes it a step further. She provides a list of specific points said or done (which are also listed in full in an invaluable appendix) as an imaginary scenario which can be repeated in other scenarios -- actions such as "shifting the focus from your gayness to his problem with it." Thus, each "case study" is more easily applied to situations beyond the ones provided. Berzon provides the reader with specific, informative, and invaluable tools to respond to anti-gay bigotry.

None of the actions Berzon looks at in order to combat homophobia would be successful, however, unless the gay subject is out of the closet. The common theme throughout the book, the most important thing we can do to defeat bigotry in our lives and in society is to come out. As Berzon points out, there's nothing wrong with "keeping a lid" on matters which might create conflict with others, but by remaining in the closet to make it easier for the homophobe, "you are essentially keeping the lid on you."

I believe that "Setting Them Straight" ranks with "Permanent Partners" as an invaluable "how-to" for every gay man and lesbian in America. As Berzon says in her final paragraph. "You are not alone. There are people you've never met, in places you've never seen, thinking and feeling exactly what you are, taking the same uneasy first steps, discovering the excitement of being in on the world changing. They are your gay and lesbian companions in this struggle. They are your family."

Liebman, 72, came out in 1990 at the age of sixty-seven, wrote "Coming Out Conservative" in 1992. He was active in Log Cabin Club and tried to get "conservatives" to have better understanding of us; failed; and in a piece in the February 7, 1995 issue of "The Advocate," he said "I can no longer call myself a conservative, a Christian, or a Republican." After that, Liebman changed the name of his column from "Conservatively Speaking" to "Independently Speaking." Liebman's column will appear monthly in Oasis, with his permission. He is online at marvin1923@aol.com.
©1996 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.