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Voice Male--Winter 2006

Men and Homophobia

My Pink Helmet

By Pip Cornall

I purchased a pink rafting helmet from a sporting goods store in Oregon when I first arrived in the United States. It was the only one left in my size. The salesperson seemed surprised that I would take it, and I remember saying nonchalantly that it was as good as any other color.

Many years later, my pink helmet has stories to tell. It has received more uninvited comments from strangers than I could ever have imagined. Hardly a day has gone by on the river without someone letting me know his opinion. Not surprisingly, all of these comments were from men.

We were on a two-raft overnight camping trip on the Upper Klamath River, along the California border. A man who was a client in another raft guided by my friend Bill called out to me in a mocking tone. In a faux feminine voice, he said he liked my attire of purple shorts, purple life vest, and pink helmet, and then he held up his arms letting the wrists go limp in a gay simulation. Jokingly, but with a little sting behind my words, I called back that if he was homophobic I could have a chat with him at camp, since I taught classes in area schools for overcoming homophobia and could clue him in. He replied angrily that he was an ex-sheriff and that he shot gays! Shocked by his harsh response, I pulled my raft away downriver to breathe and regroup my thoughts.

In the calmer sections of the river, I watched my mind running through numerous scenarios and possible responses. I wondered about the feelings of the 12 people in our two rafts. What if some of them were gay or had gay family members, as I did? I wanted to ask the man: If I were gay, would he have run the rapids with me? Would he want to shoot my gay family member? Was he really dangerous, or literally just shooting his mouth off? However, I did not at the time reflect on his fear and pain or how he had become so hardened. All too soon the size and intensity of the rapids demanded my full focus, so I gladly put the incident aside.

I made a point to look him up that evening when the meal was over and tried to build some rapport with him. We chatted for a while, but after a few probing questions from me it was clear that he would not say any more about the topic. Perhaps he was embarrassed by the anger of his response, or at the idea of exposing his attitudes in mixed company. For my part I wondered whether, if I had not been such a smart guy when he first taunted me, we might have had a better dialogue. My initial response had simply polarized us more. I had training in nonadversarial communication skills and could have gently learned more about his stance rather than making him wrong for his beliefs. I wondered about my smug political correctness, and regretted a missed opportunity for healing between two men whose emotional development had most likely been trashed during the long years in "male boot camp." That could have been our common bond.

Even some of my friends who were river guides working for other companies could not restrain themselves from commenting on my pink helmet. Their comments were made in good humor, and simply reminded me that different cultures have different attitudes and traditions. One day I heard the words "G'day, Ponce" ring out across the river. The "G'day" greeting referred to my Australian identity, and "Ponce" was a reference to a gay man. I looked up and saw Lou, a guide I liked very much but one who took pains to promote a strong masculine image. There is no doubt that pink clothing or equipment worn by men pushed some of my friends' homophobe buttons. I had been an outdoor skills instructor in Australia for years without hearing comments about the colors I wore. I wondered if homophobia was bigger in the United States than in Australia, or whether it merely had a different emphasis. Whatever the case, these incidents illustrate men's conformity to norms learned through male socialization.

While I understand the reasons for the comments about my attire, I've always thought the whole male-conformity thing was rather silly. I mean, using the same logic, men would be prohibited from looking at sunsets or pink flowers because that would mean they were gay. And since nature contains every color known to man, could that mean God is gay? It's sad that a belief system would prevent a man from wearing a color he likes! I came to love my pink helmet and the opportunities it gave me to have some juicy discussions with complete strangers--and a chance to tease my American friends. Perhaps in the process, my pink helmet may even have helped a few men take some tentative steps toward gay equity and acceptance.

Sadly, however, I must report that my pink helmet is no more. When I recently returned to the United States after three years in Australia, I found the helmet had been stored too close to the heat of the garage roof and had split down the middle. I called all the rafting shops trying to get another, but could not find any in pink. So I have been borrowing helmets until I find another pink one. I know it's out there, somewhere.

Pip Cornall gives workshops in Australia and the United States on male gender issues. He also teaches yoga and is a river rafting guide in northern California and southern Oregon. You can visit his website,

236 North Pleasant St.
Amherst, MA 01002
Fax 413.253.4801

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