As a psychologist committed to diversity and equality who also works on a college campus, I often find myself trying to stop students from using derogatory phrases like "that's so gay," "don't be retarded," or "that's so lame". But one of the more disturbing phrases I've heard repeated in both schools and colleges is "no homo".
The phrase comes from East Harlem slang in the 1990s, originally coined by Rapper Cam'ron. It then made its way into hip-hop culture via a Lil Wayne song in 2008. African American men also commonly use it to refer to behavior they find distasteful.
The Urban dictionary explains "no homo" as a "phrase used after one inadvertently says something that sounds gay".
For instance: "Dude, you're so awesome. No homo. Lol."
Or: "I swear, I am so damn glad you are my best guy. No homo."
While the phrase has now been largely absorbed into mainstream usage by teens, young adults and white heterosexual males, what this actually means remains contested. Does the use of the phrase display greater acceptance of gay people by men, or is it basically continued homophobia?
The LGBTQ activist side of me understands the phrase's homophobic origins and its offensiveness. But my psychologist side sees how using the phrase has potential for allowing greater emotional expression between men.
Let's make no mistake: a man saying "no homo" to qualify his feelings carries a caveat that is inherently homophobic and heterosexist. Yet, he is also expressing himself emotionally, which boys and men are generally taught not to do.
I was deeply impressed by Michael Sam's recent announcement that he was gay. I pictured him turning over this homophobic phrase in his mind as he courageously stepped out of the closet.
No homo? Actually dudes, I am!
He did not qualify a single thing about himself. For this, he has been cheered by many as a leader. He's also been subjected to the expected negative opinions about whether the NFL can really handle an openly gay player.
Recently, Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen's Unplugged video in response to Sam coming out went viral. He challenged others to celebrate difference, however uncomfortable it made them. He said:
I'm not always comfortable when a man tells me he's gay; I don't understand his world. But I do understand that he's part of mine.
Overall, homosexuality has gained wider acceptance in North America, the European Union and a large part of Latin America in the last decade. The legalization of same-sex marriage in some US states as well as other countries is evidence of this.
But this doesn't mean that it's universally accepted. According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, 65% of women believe homosexuality should be accepted, while only 55% of men believe the same. Also, while an overwhelming 70% of Americans under 30 believe homosexuality should be accepted, this number steadily decreases with age: only 64% of those between 30-49 and 52% of people over 50 share this view. The generational gap on the issue is clear. Homosexuality also continues to be stigmatized among African American communities.
So what might it mean for an African American man to come out in a historically racist and homophobic world?
Youth culture, of which Michael Sam is a part, is leading the way in changing attitudes toward LGBTQ communities. Nearly three quarters of millennials think homosexuality should be accepted.
But more men have to learn to become more comfortable with expressing themselves to others, especially to other men. The silver lining here is that men and boys use "no homo" following a sincere sharing of emotion with other men. For a man to express himself isn't "homo". Like coming out, it's an act of courage and vulnerability. And more men should try it.