Why Won’t “No Homo” Die?

If you’re a basketball fan, you’ve surely heard that Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert was fined over the weekend for dropping an ill-advised “no homo” joke in the press conference after Game 6 of the Pacers’ series against the Miami Heat. The conference and its punishment have caused something of a controversy, with some arguing the fine was sufficient, and others contending he should have been suspended for tonight’s series decider.

That’s a discussion for another site, but for what it’s worth, Hibbert is one of the more likable dudes in the NBA, and I don’t think he was being consciously homophobic — to me it sounded like his remark was reflexive, a joke after realizing that what he’d said (“LeBron was scoring in the post or getting to the paint because he stretched me out so much”) was laden with potential double entendre. But, see, that’s just the problem with “no homo.” It’s a reflex rooted in a perception that men need to defend and clarify their masculinity, and by association it ascribes negative connotations to things that can be considered “homo” — effeminacy, physical weakness, and every other gay stereotype that’s been used over the years. And it needs to stop.

It’s not surprising that this is particularly prevalent in the world of sports — (male) sports in general walk a strange and anthropologically interesting line between being pretty impressively homoerotic and doing everything possible to deny this fact. It’s because of this that most male athletes who have come out have done so either once they’ve retired or as a way of bringing their career to a conclusion. Sometimes the results have been tragic.

Hibbert apologized on Sunday, and also got fined $75,000 for his comments (although considering that his salary this year was $13.67 million, it’s probably fair to say that he’s not exactly going to be missing that money). Still, it’s probably worth reiterating that “no homo” is inherently homophobic — it implies that one needs to clarify to the world that one is not gay, because to be homosexual is less desirable than being heterosexual. In other words, by implication it denigrates homosexuals, and does so with a nod and a wink that trivializes the denigration it conveys.

So far so obvious. The question is why this is still happening in 2013: after all, it’s been nearly half a century since Stonewall, and the gay rights movement has made a heap of progress in that time (and especially in the past few years). The world is a far better place to grow up gay than it was, say, a generation ago, and America is a far better place to be gay than many other places in the world. There is, of course, a long way to go — but we’ve also come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

This, I’d argue, breeds a sort of complacency. We’ve seen this with the women’s rights movement, where the achievements of feminism mean that, perversely, the cultural pendulum has swung back toward misogyny — a breed of demagogues who argue against “PC” arose in the 1990s as a kind of conservative bulwark against social progress, and it’s not at all uncommon now to hear “men’s rights” activists arguing that things have “gone too far.” We’re now in an age where a significant minority will argue seriously that feminism has achieved its goals and should wither away, or that women are no longer oppressed.

Similarly, there’s a perception that gay men have it just fine these days — women love them! They’re great at fashion! Antonin Scalia thinks they’re all rich! If you believe these things, it’s relatively easy to justify making a sexist or homophobic joke — after all, if you believe that we live in a world where women and LGBT people have it just fine, then such jokes are just harmless fun, right? We can all just say “no homo” and giggle?

Back in 2009, Slate’s Jonah Weiner went so far as to argue that in hip-hop culture, “no homo, rather than limiting self-expression in hip-hop, actually helps to expand it… when rappers say ‘no homo,’ it can seem a bit like a gentleman’s agreement, nodding to the status quo while smuggling in a fuller, less hamstrung notion of masculinity.” The argument here is that people saying “no homo” are comfortable enough with gay people to make affectionate jokes about them, and that we can all sit around the campfire and sing kumbaya and applaud how tolerant and 21st century everyone is.

This is a load of horseshit, unless you think that straight people being able to appropriate gay culture and ridicule it at the same time represents some sort of progress. Formulating a point of view like this requires some pretty impressive mental gymnastics, because there’s not even the “Oh, but wait, it’s changed its meaning” defense that people are so keen to use with “faggot”; the meaning of “no homo” is pretty clear, and it means, well, “no homo.” And why does it mean that? Because it’s homophobic.

Roy Hibbert, at least, seemed to realize this — he was right to apologize for what he said, and to his credit, his apology seemed like a genuine one, too, not one of the sort of “I apologize for any offense caused” kludges so beloved of public figures these days: “I am apologizing for insensitive remarks… they were disrespectful and offensive and not a reflection of my personal views. I used a slang term that is not appropriate in any setting, private or public, and the language I used definitely has no place in a public forum, especially over live television.”

He’s right. It’s a slang term, and one that’s disrespectful and offensive. And reminding ourselves of that isn’t being PC or humorless or old-fashioned — it’s acknowledging that making fun of anyone’s sexual preference isn’t funny or clever, and that we don’t live in a world where gay men have it just fine. They don’t. Not in America, not anywhere else. And until the day comes that they do, snide little “no homo” jokes don’t help at all.