This was taken from a paper submitted in my Sociology of Gender class. Hope it breeds some interesting discussions! Check out this fantastic article by Michael Kimmel, sociologist and historian of masculinity, for his analysis of the recent gay suicides.
On October 10, 2010, National Coming Out Day, another homosexual teenager, Zach Harrington, took his life after a night of repeated bullying. Harrington’s tragic death is part of a larger trend of recently publicized homosexual teen suicides as the result of bullying. Publicity surrounding their deaths has helped spread awareness about the issue of violence in schools and has given hope to thousands of homosexual teenagers through such aid organizations as the It Gets Better Project and The Trevor Project.
News articles and websites repeat their names and stories: Justin Aeberg, Billy Lucas, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Tyler Clementi…yet, despite the obvious pattern of predominantly male aggressors and victims, discussions have focused on homophobia as the root of the attacks.
By examining the homophobic harassment these young men endured at t
he hands of mostly white heterosexual men, it becomes apparent that heterosexuality, masculinity, and power are linked. The use of homophobic epithets, physical violence, and sexist remarks by white heterosexual boys serve as a form of gender policing to reinforce masculine dominance.
While the main goal of these projects is to prevent suicidal teenagers from taking their lives, dialogue about their harassment has revealed how commonplace homophobic bullying actually is. After spending a year at a California high school, C. J. Pascoe, in her book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School argues that in using such homophobic epithets as “gay” and “fag” towards other heterosexual males, straight boys “repudiate the specter of failed masculinity” and reinforce their masculinity and power over other men, homosexuals, and women.
By interviewing male and female students, along with teachers and school officials, Pascoe shows how this process of masculinity is not only harmful to homosexuals, but all members of the social order, as it prevents the development of multiple masculinities, genders, and sexualities.
Although these hypermasculine actions have been identified as virulent homophobia or dismissed as “boys being boys,” Pascoe’s work reveals how institutions are integral in influencing young adults to embrace these traditional gender norms and heterosexism, as this praxis of masculinity is reinforced through school rituals, pedagogy, discipline, and the ignorance of the damaging effects of bullying.
Chapter 3: Adolescent Male Homophobia
In this chapter Pascoe shows how the fag trope is used as a temporary identity to police heterosexual masculinity.
Its fluidity is powerful enough that boys police their behaviors “out of fear of having the fag identity permanently adhere and definitive enough so that boys recognize a fag behavior and strive to avoid it” (Pascoe 54). Students responses to the use of “fag” clearly demonstrate the performance and accomplishment of gender, as boys “performed” male effimancy for laughs but quickly reinforced their own “correct” masculinity (Pascoe 61).
When called a fag, a boy immediately thrust the fag “hot potato” onto another boy to reaffirm his own masculinity. Pascoe states that “gay” is gender-neutral and regularly deployed by both girls and boys against both people and inanimate objects. The use of “fag,” on the other hand, demonstrates a gendered homophobia which equates effeminacy with powerlessness.
Racialized Contexts of “Fagness”
Although male students were quick to define faggotry and label others as faggots, Pascoe reveals how its definition was racially-specific depending on its context. According to white boys, “fags cared about the style of their clothes, wore tighter clothes, cared about cleanliness,” and danced (Pascoe 60-61).
Although African American boys privileged stylistic dress and were renowned for their excellent dance skills, the fag epithet did not apply to them. Pascoe interestingly compares the treatment of the openly white, gay dancer Ricky to the African American dancer K. J. While both were very talented and both carefully crafted their dancing outfits, K. J. was lauded by the crowd for his obvious connection to hip hop, while Ricky was ostracized for his “faggness” (Pascoe 76).
Pascoe insightfully notes, “Precisely because African American men are so hypersexualized in the United States, white men are, by default, feminized, so white was a stand-in for fag among many of the African American boys at River High” (Pascoe 71). Despite blacks’ limited use of the term “fag,” Pascoe states that African American boys were punished more frequently for engaging in fag discourse (Pascoe 76).
Chapter 4: Compulsive Heterosexuality
Pascoe argues that when boys sexually objectify, sexualize, or simply flirt with girls, they are reinforcing their own heterosexuality and protecting themselves from the fag hot potato.
By discussing how they could manipulate girls’ bodies, to “break their walls,” make them fart, orgasm, or defecate, as well as their actual physical manipulation of girls bodies through teasing or flirting, boys demonstrated dominance over the world around them (Pascoe 86). These stories bolstered gender stereotypes of women’s bodies as out of control and reinforced men’s objectification and master over women.
More than ever, Dude, You’re a Fag proves deeply relevant to our current dialogue of homophobic bullying and the resulting teen suicides. Less than two weeks before Harrington committed suicide he had spoken at a public hearing to declare October his city’s gay history month.
Although Harrington imagined more acceptance from the hearing’s adult attendees after years of being bullied by young boys, the council meeting quickly became “a place where the same sentiments that quietly tormented him in high school were being shouted out and applauded by adults the same age as his own parents.” Nikki, Zach’s older sister who also attended the meeting, stated:
“‘When we talk about our feelings in a hypothetical way and we send our toxic thoughts out in a public setting that way, they will affect people in a negative way…People need to think about the things they are saying and ask themselves, ‘Is this right?’”
Harrington’s case reveals the ultimate consequences of allowing such heteronormative and sexist performances of masculinity to continue in high school—after receiving years of positive feedback from other males and having their sexism and homophobia ignored or reinforced by school officials, young continue this toxic cycle of masculinity on into adulthood.
**If you have an encouraging message you would like to share with teenagers via the It Gets Better Project, click here.**