Op-ed: Tim McIlrath (Rise Against) on rock’s role in homophobia

April 28, 2012
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This op-ed originally ran in AP 282. AP 286, with McIlrath on the cover, can be purchased here.

One of the most powerful, moving songs on RISE AGAINST’s new album, Endgame, is “Make It Stop (September’s Children),” a song inspired by a rash of suicides by gay teens in September 2010. Frontman TIM McILRATH explains the meaning behind the music and takes a look at rock’s
role in homophobia.

This past September, I was waking up on our tour bus amid our run supporting Foo Fighters. I opened a paper sitting in our front lounge to find the story of the suicide of a gay teen from Buffalo. Bullied incessantly, Jamey Rodemeyer ended his life. It had been a year since the wave of gay teen suicides spread throughout the country, igniting the gay-rights conversation. In the aftermath, projects like It Gets Better sprung up, giving a voice to many survivors of homophobic bullying and harassment. The survivors were able to reach out and let the victims of homophobia know they are not alone—that it does get better. Everyone from musicians, politicians and members of sports teams to CEOs contributed. Our own band took part in this mass outreach. So did Jamey Rodemeyer. After years of homophobic harassment, he professed that it can get better. But then something happened, and he decided it was not going to get better.

My own reflections on this started with a letter I received from a fan. Rise Against are lucky to have fans all over the world, and so we receive letters often—everything from simple greetings to multi-page testimonials about how the band changed their lives. When you aim to ruffle feathers, sometimes you actually do, and then everything from polite disagreement to hate mail comes in. Either way, thought is provoked, friction created and an environment where change can happen is created.

This letter was different. It was from a fan we were familiar with, someone who had been to many shows who we had met several times. She was gay and was afraid to tell us, but decided to take a leap of faith and spell it out in a letter. Having established a rapport with us already, she risked (or at least believed she was risking) everything doing this. I can’t imagine the courage it took to potentially alienate herself from people she deemed important for the sake of her own identity. Of course, she was in no danger of being alienated by our band, but it got me thinking: How many fans were wrestling with these same fears? Why would anyone think our band would be anything but completely accepting of all of our fans? I was 16 when I lost a gay friend to suicide; I’ll never know if he was having similar conflicts.

Contemplating this kept bringing me back to the same target: the rock scene. It’s hyper-masculine, testosterone-driven and male-dominated. It didn’t take a lot of connecting the dots to understand that homophobia, unless addressed, can spread in the rock scene like a disease in a Petri dish. There are obvious exceptions to this stereotype, but lumped into this kind of scene, a band like Rise Against risked misconceptions about who we are. We needed to try a little harder to put some distance between our band and this type of thinking. It occurred to me that distancing ourselves from the radio-rock scene was probably unrealistic. But we could use our role in it, real or perceived, to put water where we saw a fire growing.
Those were the ingredients that went into our song “Make It Stop (September’s Children).” The catalyst that brought them all together was the wave of suicides by gay teens of September 2010. We were just heading into the studio then to make our most recent record, Endgame. The studio where we work happens to be in a small town in Colorado, the same town where a teen had killed himself the weekend prior. Expecting a country to light candles in memory of all these teens, I instead found a country fanning the flames with hateful rhetoric. I woke up still living in a place that treats the gay community as second-class citizens, denying them the right to marry. I was still watching TV networks masquerading as news stations, insisting that repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” would put our troops in danger. These same networks hired hosts that were publicly anti-gay and had compared homosexuality to necrophilia.

Like many people, the suicides saddened and shocked me. But I also felt anger toward a culture that sits back while churches hide behind the cross to justify bigotry and hate. The new currency in many of today’s churches is no longer acceptance; it is intolerance. Despite the rock-star stereotype, I’m a family man with values, raising children of my own in a community I’m a part of. But the family values I embrace have nothing in common with the “family values” term that much of our political landscape uses as a euphemism for bigotry.

The headlines have lumped these suicides into a broader conversation about bullying. Bullying has been a part of our culture forever. Nobody supports or stands behind a bully outright. There are no obvious solutions to bullying; all we can do is create awareness about the harm it can do. Many amazing people are actively doing this. But our song is about homophobia, and there are still things we can be doing and solutions to this type of hate. Unlike bullying, homophobia has supporters that have woven themselves into the fabric of our society. Openly anti-gay politicians, news anchors, teachers, celebrities or even neighbors are the problem. They need to be outed the same way this country outed openly racist political figures during the civil rights movement. As long as our headlines keep brandishing messages of inequality and anti-gay legislation stays on the books, this type of thinking will trickle down from the hallways of government to the vhallways and classrooms of our high schools, like they did in September 2010. We need our children to understand how hateful a word like “faggot” can be, and why describing something as “gay” can be offensive. You may not be homophobic, but if the words you use can be hurtful, why continue using them? Your lexicon is not entitled to slurs; it’s time to retire them.

In June 2011, the United Nations formally recognized gay rights as human rights. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has finally been repealed. History is being made, and while I’m confident that we will one day follow in the direction of justice, I can’t help but wish we were the leaders of that charge. Homophobia in the rock scene?

Make it stop.

“Your lexicon is not entitled to slurs; it’s time to retire them.”

For more info, please visit
riseagainst.org and

Written by AltPress