Masculinity in crisis

[Photo: Front door of Jaheem Herrera’s apartment, by Curtis Comption, Atlanta Journal-Constitiution]

If the second 11 year-old boy in two weeks to commit suicide over bullying does not tell us that masculinity is in a state of profound crisis, what will?

From Pam’s House Blend: “Another Sad Suicide…”

A DeKalb County mother discovers her fifth grade son dead. He used a belt to hang himself from a bedroom closet. The family said the boy was bullied by classmates.

Pam notes that Fox journalists omitted reference to anti-gay taunts, but “other news outlets stated that the boy complained about being called gay and the mother confirmed this fact in a video interview.” (link to a Fox story here, which includes video of the mother’s interview, via Pam’s post).

Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover was only just buried a week ago.

Add to this the report I heard from a mother at a recent school family diversity task force meeting: a boy was assaulted by a group of five boys at our local middle school after months of anti-gay harassment.  You can see why I’m Googling “Mars colony” and clearing the family calendar for our son’s critical coming-of-age years. I might sound like a lunatic, but I am not kidding, they — and I don’t care who “they” are: society, generally? media and commercial cultural images, abstractly?  individual young people, specifically? — are going to rob my son of his full self, including what ever feminine dimension of it he prefers, over my dead body.

Masculinity is in severe crisis, and these boys, harassed to the point of injury or suicide, are screaming that out.

Some have been paying attention.  At the recent annual conference of the Council on Contemporary Families,  sociologist Barbara Risman of the University of Illinois at Chicago “suggested that for the middle-schoolers she’s studied, attitudes about sexual orientation are less open-minded, especially for boys. She says these boys fear the label ‘gay.'” From the USA Today article on the conference:

“Today, girls are free to do sports and be competitive. No one thought they had to play dumb to get a boyfriend. The women’s movement has done great things for middle school girls,” she says.

“It’s another story with boys. I feel like we’re in a time warp. We have not dealt with men and masculinity in a serious enough way,” she says.

“Boys police each other. There’s no room not to do anything not traditionally masculine.”

As any good scholar would, she qualifies her statements, and cautions against over-generalization.  But I don’t think the families of Carl Walker-Hoover or Jaheem Herrera would take much issue with her findings.

I linked to it last week, in a post on the Day of Silence, but will provide it again today: the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network study, From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, documented this four years ago.

And over ten years ago, organizer and educator Suzanne Pharr published Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, which she makes available in its entirety online. I’ll finish this up quick, so you can get on to reading or re-reading it.  Here’s what she wrote on page 17:

It is not by chance that when children approach puberty and increased sexual awareness they begin to taunt each other by calling these names: queer,” “faggot,” “pervert?” It is at puberty that the full force of societys pressure to conform to heterosexuality and prepare for marriage is brought to bear. Children know what we have taught them, and we have given clear messages that those who deviate from standard expectations are to be made to get back in line. The best controlling tactic at puberty is to be treated as an outsider, to be ostracized at a time when it feels most vital to be accepted. Those who are different must be made to suffer loss.

That loss, obviously, can extend as far as we’re capable of imagining, and then further.  I know the death of a boy, right around the age of these boys, and I can’t imagine this.  But as painful as it is, I think we have to try (examples abound).  Because we are missing something fundamental if we don’t all feel Carl’s and Jaheem’s families’ loss right now as, to one degree or another, our own.

There but for the grace of whatever we believe in go you and I.  And likewise, but for our intervention, it will go on.

3 thoughts on “Masculinity in crisis”

  1. I remember the hell that was middle school. I still remember my group teacher’s face when my then friend Ashley loudly proclaimed herself bisexual. That face alone was enought reason never to out myself.

  2. I really appreciate that you chose the phrase “masculinity in crisis” to use in this post. To call it that and define it as it is, not as the lack of sufficient “masculinity” feared by so many on the right, but rather this other thing, this lack of flexibility and terrifying policing of rigid gender standards.

  3. This news is shocking. It hurts to think about these boys.

    I think you have a good point in relating anti-gay harassment and masculinity; there’s a larger gender issue involved here that goes beyond merely bullying or homophobia.

    I’ve only recently started to experience peer policing of masculinity. A couple of friends are trying to teach me “how to be a man,” which apparently involves talking about breasts, avoiding expressive hand flutters, et cetera. “Men don’t giggle!” Or my favorite, “Men don’t hold hands and skip down the sidewalk!” I’m lucky to be in a relatively bully-free school, though; I can just laugh at these comments. Still, at first it alarmed me that well-meaning friends could consider this kind of advice useful. Maybe they’re trying to protect me from harsher –violent– forms of policing.

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