Alex Blaze

Straight people are hurt by homophobia too

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 06, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

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Jonathan Zimmerman has an interesting column in the Christian Science Monitor about the recent gay teen suicides discussing how homophobia hurts straight boys:

boys holding hands.jpgAnd we've known about this problem for a long time. In the early 1980s, observing hundreds of elementary-school boys, sociologists Barrie Thorne and Zella Luria noticed that kindergarteners and first-graders hugged, joined arms, and held hands. But by fifth grade, boys had forsaken these customs in favor of mock violence - poking, pushing, and shoving - or ritual gestures like high-fives.

Why? As they got closer to puberty, the boys began to use homophobic epithets - homo, queer, and especially fag - to demean each other. So they couldn't risk bringing those labels onto themselves. "As 'fag' talk increases, relaxed and cuddling patterns of touch decrease," Thorne and Luria wrote. "The tough surface of boys' friendships is no longer like the gentle touching of girls."

And it's not just physical intimacy that decreases, of course. Other scholars watched teenaged boys at the movies, where they often sat apart even if they came in together. Most of all, they avoided showing their emotions to each other. Even at a tear-jerk movie, it seems, boys aren't supposed to cry. That's "gay," too.

That's violence of a sort. Straight men actually do like each other and being forced to express intimacy in the form of violence forces a part of their humanity to die. It seems directly related to the rise of suburbia and exurbia, where families live further and further apart, where the only people adults interact with are their families and co-workers, but only in a work-related setting.

It makes me wonder about the barriers that we set up between ourselves, as queer people, and others when it comes to politics. We have our little issues, and they're about us, and within those contexts there are victims and enemies and the enemies hurt the victims and everything's very clean and simple. It's reductionist because there's no way that someone can hurt another person without hurting themselves, no way a group of people can decide that certain behavior is off-limits for others without limiting their own potential as well.

Bullies were often once bullied themselves, and our battle scars from youth and adulthood as victims of bullying often lead us as LGBT people to bully one another or people we see as potential threats. On the other side, anti-gay bullies who are straight are bullying parts of themselves at the same time, parts they label as gay and feminine or lesbianic and masculine. That's the thing about violence: it always creates more violence because victims become defensive and it always hurts the attacker because people are not naturally violent towards one another, but they do have other natural motivations (greed, conformism, power, fear) that make them think violence would serve them.

Anyway, I just went to Morocco last week, a country where homosexuality is officially illegal, and, as other people who've been to parts of Africa or the Middle East can testify to, I saw lots more same-sex hand-holding and touching than I saw opposite-sex affection in public. Even when I was in southern Italy last year I saw more same-sex affection than I would in the US.

Straight guys aren't naturally the way they are in America; it's artifice and part of their inherently social nature has to be tamed in order to conform.


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Regan DuCasse | October 6, 2010 4:41 PM

Alex...outstanding analysis! I commented recently on a new poster campaign launched by a pair of young black men called "Love My Boo".
These pictures show them in various poses of affection and it brought something home to me about casual ss affection.
Popular media, especially the hip hop and film culture, depict guns constantly. Violence is associated with glamor and masculinity, and objectification of females is rampant.

This culture of distancing males, especially from this sort of healthy physical contact, and more towards assault style contact, does send mixed or the wrong messages. Even about how to properly show affection to females also.

It is SO sad that the tech age that allows kids to text, keeps them from actually CALLING who they are texting to hear their voice. Or going over to their friend and actually seeing their faces, learning those body language cues that are so important.

We are a species that NEEDS healthy touch. Hand holding is one of the most important, connecting and affirming gestures we have.
And yet, it IS discouraged in ways that I don't understand.
Our needs and the empty things some of us feel, are distorted. And that's when substance abuse, overeating and extreme porn take the place of the sort of casual contact that keeps us focused, supported and supporting of others.

"To have and to hold..."
Hand holding, deserves to be exalted in our culture. No words are required to translate it's silent meaning and it's gravity.
And we can't say enough, that we are truly an uncivil species, when that gesture, between males, causes enough rage to kill those who held the hand of another.

I would have to say I agree, and my own experience in China is similar to what you report seeing in Morocco and Italy.

I've often observed that a lot of straight guys here in the States come across like big, dumb gorillas, artificially lowering their voices, withholding any expression of emotion and refraining from showing any affection to another male or getting too close.

I think a lot of this is a sort of silent backlash against GLBT rights. As we become more visible and accepted, there's this impulse among a lot of people, mostly among straight men, to distance themselves from us. Now that gay people are everywhere, the risk of being seen as "gay" is greater, so you'll see more straight men going to absurd lengths to avoid any association. By contrast, when you see American photographs from the 1800s, it's common to see men posing with their arms around each other or holding hands.

I grew up with two straight step-brothers, and both of them (but mostly the older one) would chastise me and call me a "fag" for any display of behavior not of the aforementioned "gorilla" variety. I try not to have a chip on my shoulder over the experience, but I think this kind of repressive, macho culture in this country that really kills people's souls. There's a degree of personal growth that's stunted when you're devoting so much attention to repressing natural and healthy behaviors and emotions.

But I don't think that homo(eroto)phobia should be confused with Americans' ideas about their "territorial bubbles." That's probably more related to the growth of suburban and exurban living, as you said, resulting in inflated expectations regarding personal space.

There are several books I could recommend, displaying how straight males have changed their methods of displaying affection over the years:

Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography by John Ibson

At Ease: Navy Men of World War II by Evan Bachner.

It amazes me that men could be so free in showing affection for their friends. What we've lost sight of is the ability to be intimate without being sexual.

gregorybrown | October 7, 2010 11:19 AM

Not only do hetero men miss important links by their fear of touch and too-closeness--they waste a lot of time and energy gauging distances between others. Two men walking closely without contact, or leaning in to talk, or somehow subtly violating the Codes of American Maleness, HAVE to be disciplined, humiliated--especially if the hetero men (and their women) are part of a group.

We used to call the seat you would leave in between you and another guy the "gay seat." You didn't want to sit together or you'd be gay. Even after coming out there were several times that "the gay seat" would be between me and a date at the movies, etc. It was a small town and just seemed safer.

I am certain that homophobia does cause straight boys/men to put physical distance between them. But I also want to share a sweet other side to the dynamic. My son is 15 and heterosexual. I notice that he and his guy pals are quite affectionate with each other: hugging, sitting closely with each other, throwing their arms over each other's shoulders, having physical closeness even during sleepovers when I might expect otherwise. Yes, my son lives with 2 lesbian moms, knows many LGBT people and is a good ally. But, he and his friends exhibit very little of the physical avoidance of each other that some straight guys feel forced to display. It is my hope that my son and his friends are part of a generational shift in rejecting the notion that straight guys can't be physically affectionate.

Regan DuCasse | October 10, 2010 3:33 PM

Sue, that is why so many kids I know with gay parents are different in a way that is essentially wonderful, but freaks out the traditionalists.

The kids I know, have parents and siblings that don't share their ethnicity. Sometimes they have a sib with a disability, or HIV.
And of course, traditional roles around gender aren't going to happen, and they won't be anti gay.

In other words, racism, sexism, homophobia, dispassion for the sick or handicapped, are not a part of their upbringing.

'Traditionalist' could be a euphemism for someone who believes firmly in the cold hearted, arrogant, alpha supremacy of heterosexual males, then sons like yours, won't be someone like that.

Your son will be representative of a future, I'd prefer to be more like "Star Trek" than more like "Birth of a Nation".
Or, "Idiocracy."
And THANK YOU!!!

Good luck to you. Teenagers are a mystifying tribe unto themselves.