[EDITOR'S NOTE:] The following is a guest post by Michael Crawford. Michael is an African-American LGBT activist and blogger based in D.C. He has worked to advance LGBT civil rights at the national and state levels as a former staff member of the Human Rights Campaign and an organizer of the Millennium March on Washington. He blogs at bloggernista.com.
That's the slur that UC Berkeley sociologist C.J. Pascoe heard quite often as she researched her new book of the same title on masculinity and sexuality in high school. Boys used the word "fag" not necessarily to describe another boy as having same-sex sexual desires, but the word was thrown at other boys who were considered feminine and not fitting in with rigid notions of what a boy should act like.
Boys participated in a fag discourse to ensure that others saw them as masculine by renouncing any fag-like behavior or same-sex desire. They did this by imitating fags and calling other boys fags. Boys imitated fags by lisping, mincing and pretending to sexually desire men, drawing laughs from male audiences who howled at these imitations.
Its been more than a few years since I have been in high school, but this seems about right. Boys are taught as they grow up a narrow code of masculinity that proscribes acceptable ways for boys and men to act, think and feel. Anything that smacks of "acting like a girl" is considered suspect and a sign of weakness. Pascoe also found that the boys she studied differentiated between "gay" and "fag."
For these boys gay men could still be masculine, whereas a fag could never be masculine. Thus the term "gay" functioned as a generic insult meaning "stupid" or "lame" whereas "fag" invoked a very specific gendered slur, directed at other boys. For these boys a fag was a failed, feminine man who, in all likelihood, was also gay.
Pascoe goes on to describe how this intimidation of boys considered weaker or less masculine becomes a kind of name calling ritual that is as much about denying homosexuality as it is about not appearing feminine. You would think that as boys grow older and become men that they would out grow this social anxiety around proclaiming the masculinity by targeting men and boys that are seen as not "acting like men." And, you would be wrong.
We can see evidence of this in the ongoing national debate around allowing openly gay soldiers to serve in the military, Tim Hardaway's "I hate gays" comments and the recent Snickers commercial in which two men accidently kiss and have to immediately take action that restores their fragile sense of masculinity like ripping out their own chest hair. On a more personal level, notice how some men will not sit next to their male friends in a movie theater or on the subway. They leave a seat between them so as not to appear to be too physically close to other men.
Its been said before that homophobia and sexism are intertwined and Pascoe's study would seem to be more proof that that is the case. By challenging sexism, we challenge homophobia. And, by challenging both we give boys the opportunity to grow into the men they truly are rather than the men they think they should be.
Read an article by Pascoe describing her work here.