Some straight men have come to understand that gender and sexuality differences are really not threats to their masculinity.
Speaking as a guy who was told regularly that I was a failure as a boy, though not in literal words, I have good reason to distrust straight men.
With few exceptions, my tormentors were other regular-looking and -acting boys and men. I was teased on a daily basis with homophobic slurs that, at their core, associated me closer with being to a girl than a boy. This is how homophobic terms operate. On the surface, “faggot,” “sissy,” and “queer” attack sexuality but, at a deeper level, they are sexist because they assume that girls and women are inferior, and therefore a suitable insult for boys and men. Boys and men live with the fear that their masculinity will come into question for this exact reason. This is how sexism operates.
Gender, then—not sexuality—is the foundation of homophobia and sexism.
Seeing that I was not athletically gifted, gym teachers would ignore me altogether or marginalize me while turning their attention to the athletic stars of the class. Raised in the military, I grew up knowing that I did not pass muster. Torment was a usual experience in and out of school, all because I was more feminine than masculine in my gender presentation and interests.
Gender presentation. What on earth does that mean? It sounds overly academic, but it’s actually something that all of us are taught to do, everyday.
Allow me to say that again: ALL of us are taught to present our genders. And, we are not free to present our genders in any way that we please, but in particular and prescribed ways.
To understand what I mean, consider doing two things. First, look at other people or look at yourself in a full-length mirror and you’ll immediately see gender presentation on display. From the moment we are born, we are taught how to dress, how to walk, how to talk, and what interests to have on the basis of being categorized as “girl” or “boy.” This is how we “present” our genders to other people. It becomes so routine that most of us forget that we are telling a story to other people about our gender. By learning the rules of gender through socialization, we become boys (and, later, men) or girls (and, later, women) and we want other people to “read” us correctly, in an instant. We do this through non-verbal cues embedded in clothing choices, vocal tenor and expression, body comportment, and personal interests.
Another way to see the regulation of gender, think about your and others’ reactions when someone comes along who you can’t readily identify as being a man or a women. Chances are you feel confused. Maybe you’re irritated. Maybe even outraged. People whose gender presentations do not fit neatly and cleanly into one of the two boxes face these responses all the time. The point is that the reactions of others toward people whose gender presentation is not the norm indicate how gender is actually regulated and enforced.
Most people seem to succeed at learning the lessons of gender at an early age, but others have a much harder time looking and acting in ways that are socially expected of girls or boys.
When I was young, I was one of those people. I almost didn’t survive. Self-loathing and suicidal ideation dominated my life but, fortunately, those years are behind me. I am, at last, comfortable in my own skin.
Currently, I study and teach about gender and bullying and I know that the experiences I had when I was a kid are what many children and youth continue to face today. Despite increased awareness about sexuality and gender issues in society and legal mechanisms that support our rights (where previously we were pathologized and criminalized), bullying on the basis of gender remains tenaciously resistant to change. We continue to expect that boys and men “are” a particular way and that girls and women “are” particular other way. We can deal with some overlap, but not much before we start to feel squeamish.
Lately, however, I’m seeing a very encouraging sign. Some straight men I know are standing up against homophobia and sexism. Straight men are standing with me and behind me. They have my back. I trust them.
The reason I trust them is that they are not threatened by my gender presentation, or by my being openly and flagrantly gay. In many ways, I am a walking stereotype of a gay guy and yet, some straight guys think I’m pretty cool. In light of the homophobia and sexism that pervade society, this is something to acknowledge and celebrate. Straight allies are coming out in droves and some of my best friends are among them.
photo: David Boyle / flickr