Monday, May 4, 2009

Masculinity and Anti-Gay Bullying

In The New York Times, Judith Warner wrote of the unfortunate recent suicides of boys who were targets of anti-gay harassment. She argues that homophobia, homobigotry, and anti-gay bullying are actually grounded less in "being gay" and more in people stepping outside of their "proper" gender roles. In boys and men, anti-gay bullying happens, often because such men "act feminine" (however femininity is construed in a particular society). Warner argues:

"Being called a 'fag,' you see, actually has almost nothing to do with being gay.

It’s really about showing any perceived weakness or femininity – by being emotional, seeming incompetent, caring too much about clothing, liking to dance or even having an interest in literature."

Within the gender binary, (so-called) masculinity is seen as superior to femininity and womanhood. To be man-like is to be better than being woman-like. Therefore, it has become somewhat more acceptable for girls and women to cross over into masculine territory via entering the public sphere. Yet, it remains largely unacceptable for men to take a step backwards, so to speak, into what is considered feminine behavior. Thus:

"Boys avail themselves most frequently of epithets like 'fag' to 'police' one another’s behavior and bring it back to being sufficiently masculine when someone steps out of line, Barbara J. Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found while conducting extensive interviews in a southeastern urban middle school in 2003 and 2004. 'Boys were showing each other they were tough. They were afraid to do anything that might be called girlie,' she told me this week. 'It was just like what I would have found if I had done this research 50 years ago. They were frozen in time.'"

The harassment that these young victims of suicide faced was, in all likelihood, not about them being gay. At pre-adolescence, it is likely that these children had yet to acknowledge a sexual orientation of any sort. Indeed, all of the news reports I have read regarding these cases notes that neither child identified as gay, it was other children who, perhaps because of non-normative gender expression, perceived them as such. Bullying of any sort has no place in schools. But, the top reasons that kids are bullied is perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, and that affects all kids no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As a girl, I remember well being bullied for liking sports and being good at them. On one hurtful instance, I remember walking down a hallway and a guy yelled "Hey Fannie, I hear you have a dick!" To a 14-year-old girl, that is mortifying. Although I could not articulate it at the time, I felt policed, in a way, for transgressing some sort of unspoken gender code. My boy friends, many of whom abhorred gym class, had it worse. Whether gay or not, they were "fags." To be a woman and to be competent, is threatening to some men. But to be a man and to be woman-like is perhaps more threatening- for, that degrades what being Man is for all men:

"'[Boys] have the sense that to be a man means something and is incredibly important. These boys don’t know how to be that something. Their pathway to masculinity is unclear. To not be a man is to not be fully human and that’s terrifying.'"

Read that again: To not be a man is to not be fully human. See, it's already a given that women, who can never be men, are not fully human. For a man to "voluntarily" not be a man, to be feminine, or perhaps actually become a woman informs us all of something very important. That masculinity is, and always has been, a performance. Stereotypes of men and of women are not real. And that's why I think that stereotypes of masculinity have failed, wronged, and harmed most males. (It's sort of a given that stereotypes of the weak, passive female have harmed women).

While there are certainly privileges that come along with being automatically perceived as strong, powerful, and competent there are downfalls of also being viewed as violent, aggressive, and sex-obsessed. Like all stereotypes, they deprive the stereotyped of full humanity. Real Men are not allowed to display many characteristics that are only human for them to display because in displaying characteristics such as sadness, compassion, or any other natural human emotion is "feminine" and, therefore, a downgrade from masculinity.

Knocking masculinity off its pedestal will be a severe blow to the egos of some men, particularly those who are very comfortable with their place at the head of the table. But for the sake of acknowledging everyone's full humanity, it's something that needs to happen.

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