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My best friend is recently married to a guy who says homophobic stuff. She looks a bit embarrassed when this happens but doesn’t say too much. For example, a lesbian couple came by their place to pick something up and afterwards he says to his wife, “Aww, I thought you said they’d be HOT lesbians!” Occasionally when he sees a guy wearing something he thinks is too weird he’ll say something like, “Looks like that guy takes it up the ass!”
My friend loves this person and he treats her well and she’s been great to me over the years. I’m kind of sick of this occasional (once every three months?) homophobic bullshit though but don’t know how to approach it. Talk to my friend? Talk to him? Both at the same time? This guy I know won’t really change if I do say anything but I feel like he needs to be called out on his shit. I just don’t want to make my friend feel like she’s in a hard place.
What you’ve got here is an etiquette issue (how to address concerns with a friend’s significant other) and an ethics issue (should you tolerate intolerance). In this instance, it seems, the latter is actually more straightforward. Look, homophobia is not a grey area. You know this dude shouldn’t say those things; I know this dude shouldn’t say those things; and his wife knows it, too. He might be great in every other way but in this one particular instance, he’s being an asshole and if you just can’t stand it and end up calling him out on his shit, you won’t be in the wrong.
A disclaimer from the start: do not jump right into vigilantism.
This isn’t the time for a moral intervention:
There are very few advice column-y questions that would not be at least somewhat sufficiently answered by suggesting open and honest communication with all parties (that, or therapy). But in this case, trying to talk to both your friend and her husband simultaneously and without warning will almost certainly backfire. Don’t do it. You know where you stand and where he stands, so the wildcard is your friend. Worst-case scenario she automatically sides with her husband out of loyalty, and you lose not only your best chance at discussing the concerns with his behavior but also a very important friendship.
In the best-case scenario your friend sides with you, against her husband, and maybe you two together make some headway. But more likely, he winds up feeling attacked, defensive, and probably a little bit resentful of you both. While you can walk away from that conversation, they go home together and, in the absence of your focus, the fight will probably become about how he feels (rightfully!) ganged up upon. Knowing one of your spouse’s friends doesn’t like something about you is tough; knowing your spouse agrees with that person could create some unsustainable tension. In the end, you might end up losing your friend all the same.
On the subject of intent:
First of all, do you think it matters what his intention is? Maybe you don’t, and that’s fine. Vonnegut had a point when he said that we are what we pretend to be, and if it walks and talks like a homophobe, probably it doesn’t deserve too much second thought. But from what you described—the relative infrequency and the particular kinds of comments—it sounds like your friend’s husband is the type who thinks homosexuality is some sort of schoolyard punchline. Maybe that miscalculation is indicative of deep-seeded bigotry, or maybe it’s some sort of holdover from a less conscientious age of performative masculinity.
While his motivation might not matter to you, I bet it matters to your friend. I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is both a generally tolerant person, and smart enough to know whether or not her husband is deeply discriminatory. In that case, you’re trying to alter his language use, not upset their union. (Okay, yes, maybe you’re ultimately trying to enlighten him but baby steps.)
You mention that your friend looks embarrassed but doesn’t outwardly confront her husband—at least not in front of you. Since I think we can both agree that she is certainly aware of this particular tendency of his, this means one of two things—it doesn’t bother her as much as it bothers you, or it’s a well-established issue that they’re dealing with in private. I’d say that either option actually speaks well of their union. Marriage—if entered into wisely—means you’ve stopped weighing someone’s pros against their cons. While this doesn’t mean she necessarily agrees with everything he says or isn’t hoping his opinion of humor and homosexuality will evolve, it does mean that what you see as a strike against him, she is currently tolerating for one reason or another.
How to talk about it without making an enemy:
At some point, ideally soon after one of these ill-conceived jokes, I would suggest taking your friend aside and, in classic therapy-speak, bring up how her husband’s comments make you or people that don’t know him feel—i.e. uncomfortable. This will probably be awkward! But I would try to keep the focus on helping her see that this is negatively impacting whether people want to be around him, including you. Hopefully this will give her a chance to commiserate—“I know he’s a nice guy, so why does he say those things?!”—without discrediting their marriage or his value as a husband. Be open to hearing her defend him—after all she knows him better and maybe he really does support marriage equality—and don’t issue ultimatums. Maybe you can’t be around language like that, but you’re better off framing this as an impediment to building a stronger bond, not a condition of your continued friendship.
What I can’t tell you is how she’ll take it. But once you’ve promised to make an effort to appreciate his better attributes (and actually followed through on that promise) I think you’ve earned the right to voice your discomfort—tactfully.
Know your limit:
Next time he comments on someone’s sexual orientation based on their clothing choice, say with as much genuine, blunt bewilderment as you can muster, “What do you mean? I don’t get it.” or “Is that supposed to be funny?” Gauge not just his reply, but also hers, to decide whether you want to press the issue indefinitely or save your sanity by distancing yourself.
Keep in mind that it’s not your right to try to change him, and frankly, it’s possible that his wife doesn’t believe it’s hers either. Maybe she is trying, though, and you should support her in that endeavor insofar as your friendship allows.
I don’t think it will put too much of a strain on your friendship to pointedly disengage with any inappropriate remarks. And ultimately, you’re welcome to decide that your integrity on this issue requires you to speak up more emphatically. But if your primary concern is preserving your friend’s comfort, I think you’re going to have to follow her lead when he’s around—and try to arrange for more get-togethers when he’s not.