Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dude, I'm a Fag

Recently I was on a panel of gay, lesbian, and bisexual speakers for a class at a local alternative school. One of the other speakers, a gay man in his early 20s, told the class that his mother, a teacher, had asked him to tell them that just saying "that's so gay" was utterly devastating to any gay person, "like the N-word," he claimed, so they should never, never say "that's so gay."

When I hear stuff like this, I wonder how I managed to survive my youth in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was really no support of any kind available for most gay kids. I never was the butt of the kind of harassment, taunting, and assault that many gay kids, then and now, suffer at the hands of their peers, their teachers, and their families. But I heard worse things than "that's so gay" (which no one said in those days anyway, so maybe that's why I wasn't devastated), and when I read that homosexuality was a revolting sickness, or at best a life of isolation without hope, there were no countering opinions available as there are now. (That was partly because there was official censorship of pro-gay expression in those days -- the US Post Office blocked even the most timid materials from the mails for a long time.)

When it came my turn to comment, I said that I answer to words like "faggot," because they refer to me, after all. This surprised the audience, and I think the other speakers too. "Faggot" is a bad word, aren't you supposed to kill yourself if you hear it? But if we let straights decide that for us, we'll have to give up "gay" too, as well as any new word we choose to take its place. Bigots don't look down on us because we're called this or that word; any word we are called, or call ourselves, will be used against us if we let it, as "gay" is my witness. When they talk about "faggots," "queers," et cetera, they are talking about me. Remember that exchange from Catch-22? Yossarian refuses to go on more bombing runs because "They're trying to kill me." "They're trying to kill everybody!" Clevinger protests. "What difference does that make?" says Yossarian. Just so. And in my experience, most people who throw these words around are shocked when someone tells them so: do you realize you're talking about me? There's nothing wrong with being a queer, a fag, a gay -- so why are you talking as though there were?

Incidentally, I disagree that "that's so gay" is comparable to "nigger"; I find the equivalence ridiculous, even outrageous. There are other epithets closer in tone ("faggot", "queer," etc.), but there's a crucial difference beyond that: black kids, for all that they suffer from racism, have families to go home to, and probably peers at school and on the street. Black families generally know that their children are black. Most gay children grow up alone, even in their families, who may not know that they are gay and usually don't want to know. Antigay epithets have a policing function among boys (regardless of color) that is different from racial epithets: "faggot" and its synonyms are thrown at boys who may or may not be gay (though a boy who's suspected or known to be gay will be targeted, with a steep increase in harassment or violence). Growing up in a completely white rural area of northern Indiana, I only once recall having heard a white boy call another white boy a "nigger." ("Nigger-lover" was the pejorative of choice for whites who violated racial solidarity in those days. It's another word I'd answer to, rather than deny, if it came to that.)

I've been bothered by the magnification of "that's so gay" into the ultimate mindkiller because there is a tendency in diversity discourse to romanticize gay youth suicide, and to propagate images of clean-cut, gender-compliant, middle-class, usually white kids killing themselves because someone said something unkind about homosexuals in their hearing. I suppose it happens sometimes, but the research I've seen agrees that gay kids who attempt or commit suicide usually have been overtly and directly harassed and assaulted on an ongoing basis for a long time. They are also more likely to be gender-variant: sissies, drag queens in training, baby-butch girls. Of course, you're not going to see many tearjerking movies of the week about the suicides of such kids; corporate media (and the GLBTQ advocacy groups that advise them) prefer more "positive" images. And if it's destructive to bad-mouth people, if speaking negatively about someone in their presence can drive them to suicide, something needs to be done about gay people who complain about the bad homosexuals who Fit the Stereotype and made it seem that they couldn't be normal Homo-Americans like they wanted to be, scaring them back into their closets for years. It's those Stereotypes who get beaten up regularly and are more likely to kill themselves; it surely doesn't help them to hear themselves denounced as scary, malevolent queer demons who ruin everything for normal homos. It's telling that many respectable gay people think it's proper to demonize them. (And like the straight homophobes, the image people never think about the the impact of what they're doing on real people.)

On the morning of that panel I happened to be in the middle of reading C. J. Pascoe's Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), based on a year of participant observation in a high school in northern California. Among the teenagers Pascoe interviewed for her study was Ricky, "a lithe, white junior with a shy smile and downcast eyes, frequently sported multicolored hair extensions, mascara, and even a skirt. ... While other boys at River High engaged in continual repudiatory rituals around the fag identity, Ricky embodied the fag because of his homosexuality and his less normal gender identification and self-presentation" (65).
Contrary to the protestations of boys earlier in the chapter that they would never call someone who was gay a fag, Ricky experienced this harassment on a regular basis, probably because he couldn’t draw on identifiably masculine markers such as athletic ability or other forms of dominance to bolster some sort of claim on masculinity [67].
The harassment Ricky suffered was physical as well as verbal, and he got it from teachers as well as students, while administrators did nothing. (This despite the California state law which prohibits discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation.) Fag discourse was encouraged and indulged in by teachers, especially males according to Pascoe. Pascoe's teacher Barrie Thorne found this syndrome among researchers too, writing in her classic Gender Play (Rutgers, 1993, 99):
In the United States, ethnographers typically detail the social relations of older boys from the vantage point of a clique of popular athletes. … I detect a kind of yearning in these books; when they went back to scenes from their earlier lives, the authors couldn’t resist hanging out at the top. Cusick writes about his efforts to shake off male “isolates”: “I was there to do a study not to be a friend to those who had no friends.”
When several boys told her that they wouldn't go to a dance if Ricky was there, she asked them,
"Would you really not go to prom because a gay guy would be in the same room with you all?" They looked at me like I had two heads and said again that of course they wouldn't. Ricky's presentation of both sexual preference and gender identity was so profoundly threatening that boys claimed they would be driven to violence [70].
Focusing on random exclamations of "that's so gay" seems to me virtually a deliberate aversion of the eyes from the most serious problems that gay youth face in school. (Pascoe's Ricky, I'm relieved to report, didn't commit suicide, but he did drop out of school [page 71].) For one thing, it's simpler to squelch bad words in the classroom, though even that was too much for the teachers Pascoe observed at River High. Addressing the more systemic problems of teacher and administrator complicity in fag discourse, the acceptance of homophobic harassment as part of school life (where it is interwoven with sexual harassment of girls by boys, as Pascoe also shows), would be a daunting project. That may also be one reason for the romanticization of gay youth suicide: loving your dead gay students is so much easier than doing something about the bullying of living ones.

I'm not saying, by the way, that gay kids need to develop thicker skins. They -- or really, all kids -- need support, need not to be alone against harassment; they need people who will stand with them. It's not that I think being called names doesn't or shouldn't hurt; of course it often does. But we can fight back, and one of the most satisfying things I learned on coming out was what cowards bigots usually are, how they retreat when they're challenged and can't respond simply by ganging up on you. I'm thinking of a guy who was, like me, a regular on a computer BBS for years, a high school history teacher (no wonder our kids aren't learning anything!) my elder by a few years, who would accuse anyone who disagreed with him of being either female, or gay, in the schoolyard terms he'd learned and probably passed on to generations of his students. But in that environment, very few people took his bait. In that teacher's world, if you insinuate that someone's a fag, his only manly recourse is to challenge you to fisticuffs. Most people jeered at him instead; only one threw a tantrum at the insult and offered to take it outside. This refusal to be baited, along with the open contempt his attitude won him, frustrated him no end, but he never learned, just kept calling people girlymen, soft men, and whining about Political Correctness. The Internet can be a good place to begin learning to deal with such people, but of course it can't substitute for real-world interaction. If more males simply refuse to play these games, and stop backing up the would-be Alpha Boys who play them, then "that's so gay" will lose its sting. But I'm not going to hold my breath.