Gay Bashing is About Masculinity

The tragic suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi has led to a wave of national hand-wringing anguish about the daily torture and humiliations suffered by young gays and lesbians. An article in The New York Times expanded the conversation to include the stories of several other gay teens who recently committed suicide, such as Seth Walsh of Fresno, CA, who endured a “relentless barrage of taunting, bullying and other abuse at the hands of his peers.” Walsh hanged himself last month–at age 13.

Yet, in our collective search for explanations and solutions we’ve missed one salient fact. Here are the names of the teenagers in The Times article: Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown. Notice anything?

They’re all boys.

Writing that gay “teens” suffer such relentless abuse or bullying obscures as much as it reveals. It’s not “teens.” It’s boys.

Yes, lesbian teens can be relentlessly tormented, harassed and bullied in school. They can be mercilessly taunted in cyberspace, and shunned in real space. But the amount of rage they inspire rarely compares to that experienced by boys.

And that’s not because of the current fad of faux-lesbianism among teenage girls. Sure, it’s true that many teen girls have “kissed a girl” and “liked it,” as Katy Perry proclaims. But there is something fundamental about male homosexuality that elicits what psychologists call “homosexual panic,” and a near-hysterical effort to circle the wagons and get rid of the perceived threat.

For my book Guyland I interviewed nearly 400 young people all across the country. I found that many of America’s high schools have become gauntlets through which students must pass every day. Bullies roam the halls, targeting the most vulnerable or isolated, beating them up, destroying their homework, shoving them into lockers, dunking their heads in toilets or just relentlessly mocking them. It’s all done in public–on playgrounds, bathrooms, hallways, even in class. And the other kids either laugh and encourage it or scurry to the walls, hoping to remain invisible so that they won’t become the next target. For many, just being noticed for being “uncool” or “weird” is a great fear.

Why are some students targeted? Because they’re gay or even “seem” gay, which may be just as disastrous for a teenage boy. After all, the most common put down in American high schools today is “that’s so gay,” or calling someone a “fag.” It refers to anything and everything: what kind of sneakers you have on, what you’re eating for lunch, some comment you made in class, who your friends are or what sports team you like. The average high school student in Des Moines hears an anti-gay comment every seven minutes, and teachers intervene only about 3 percent of the time. After spending a year in a California high school, one sociologist titled her ethnographic account Dude, You’re a Fag.

It’s true that gays and lesbians are far more often the target of hostility than their straight peers. But it’s often true that anti-gay sentiments are only partly related to sexual orientation. Calling someone gay or a fag has become so universal that it’s become synonymous with dumb, stupid or wrong.

And it’s “dumb” or “wrong”  because it isn’t masculine enough. To the “that’s-so-gay” chorus, homosexuality is about gender nonconformity, not being a “real man,” and so anti-gay sentiments become a shorthand method of gender policing. One survey found that most American boys would rather be punched in the face than called gay. Tell a guy that what he is doing or wearing is “gay,” and the gender police have just written him a ticket. If he persists, they might have to lock him up.

Many guys think being gay means not being a guy. That’s the choice: gay or guy. In a study by Human Rights Watch, heterosexual students consistently reported that the targets were simply boys who were un-athletic, dressed nicely, or were bookish and shy.

Take the case of Jesse Montgomery, who filed a Title IX suit in the Minnesota courts after suffering 11 years of verbal and physical abuse. Jesse was treated to a daily verbal barrage of “faggot,” “queer,” “homo,” “gay,” “girl,” “princess,” “fairy,” “freak,” “bitch,” “pansy” and more. He was regularly punched, kicked, tripped. Some of the torment was directly sexual:

One of the students grabbed his own genitals while squeezing [Jesse’s] buttocks and on other occasions would stand behind [him] and grind his penis in [Jesse’s] backside.

By the way, Jesse Montgomery is straight.

So, too, was Dylan Theno, an 18-year-old former student at Tonganoxie High School in Kansas. Beginning in the 7th grade, he was consistently taunted as “flamer,” “faggot” and “masturbator boy,” harassed daily in the lunchroom and on the playground. Teachers looked the other way or laughed along with the harassers. Why? Dylan explained:

Because I was a different kid, you know, I wasn’t the alpha male. … I had different hair than everybody else; I wore earrings … I wasn’t a big time sports guy at school.

Of course, if you actually are gay, the harassment is relentless–and often dismissed entirely by the adults in charge or, worse, considered appropriate. Take the case of Jamie Nabozny in the mid-1990s. Beginning in middle school, he was harassed, spit on, urinated on, called a “fag” by a teacher and mock-raped while at least 20 other students looked on and laughed. Each time the school principals and teachers shrugged off his complaints, telling Jamie that he should “expect” this sort of treatment if he’s gay and that, well, “Boys will be boys.”

Nabozny successfully sued the school district and the principals of both his middle school and the high school, who paid out close to $1 million in damages. His lawsuit opened a door for those who are the targets of bullying and harassment in school, because school districts and administrators may be held liable if they do not intervene effectively to stop the abuse.

But gender non-conforming boys still need protection–not just from the bullies but from the teachers, parents, administrators and community members who look the other way, at best, or collude with it.

Most Americans find explicit racist and anti-Semitic behavior unacceptable, an affront to their moral sensibilities. Racism and anti-Semitism are out of bounds even when they don’t become physical, and most of us believe that those who openly express those sentiments should be severely punished.  Why is the same not true of gay bashing?

Photo of President Theodore Roosevelt quotation on Manhood etched in stone from Flickr user Cliff1066 under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. An excellent article! So much of gay bashing is wrapped up in being not manly enough, or too feminine. Homosexual panic comes to the fore when young men act like women. In that way, how do we think about the women in our society? It shows how devalued they are, how worthless unless they're on the arm of the 'right' guy, wear the 'right' things, act the 'right' way. Maybe that's why lesbians are so often stereotyped as unattractive and 'butch'; they act more like men and are therefore more acceptable than gay men. In the kyriarchy everyone loses.

    • This sexist attitude is alway why lesbians are perceived as more accepted, when really, they're not taken as seriously. Lesbian sexuality is still wrapped up in men, whether it's someone thinking they're doing it for attention as a phase or wondering how two women could possibly have sex. It's why female bisexuals are taken as straight but male bisexuals thought gay, since penetration is the definitive sex act. I think for many of the reasons listed above, insecure straight men are intimidated by the gender fluidity of lesbians who aren't wrapped up in domestic servitude. It's why so many of their pop culture depictions have them having babies, forcing them into femininity. And for the butches, the joke is that they're pretending to be men but a poor imitation – and too ugly to get a man if they secretly wanted to. Otherwise, you're absolutely right.

  2. no.

    It's gender enforcement. The further away from the idealized gender a person is, the more likely EXTREME violence will find them. Sure there's an ASPECT of the masculine & forcing such on others. BUT it also goes the other direction, where TS men for example, are beaten & brutalized to try & "feminize them". Lesbians face rape with the excuse "this will make you like men"… Apparently the rapists are too stupid to clue in that rape doesn't make anyone LIKE what's done to them.

    Bashing, regardless of the direction OR the target, whether they're gay, lesbian, bi or Trans, is about CONTROL and VIOLENCE. It's no less a crime than rape as a weapon of war. And make NO mistake. LGBT people ARE being warred upon.

  3. Roger Barton says:

    A sad corollary is that a gay male student who LOOKS masculine, doesn't flaunt his sexuality, and participates in the "right" sports will usually not get hazed… even when his classmates and teammates know he's actively gay or at least bi. I knew I was gay by 13 or 14, but I had been training in martial arts since I was a kid, and was on the wrestling team in jr. hi and high school. I never had anyone try to fight me for being gay until I was almost 30 and had already done two tours in the USMC. I'm not saying that less-than-macho students should hide, or try to "pass", but they should learn to defend themselves, and develop a support group. That could be band, the school paper, science club, or maybe one of the sports teams if he can develop an interest. If you've got a group of buddies in the school, some of them at least will try to stick up for you.

  4. Thank you for bringing masculinity into this conversation about teen suicides. However, you're forgetting Phoebe Prince and Aiyisha Hassan. I don't think we know yet why Aiyisha committed suicide, but Phoebe Prince's bullying and torture at the hands of students was about her sexual practice and ultimately her gender role. People aren't talking about her in this context because we understand her as sexually straight BUT to deviate from expected female adolescent sexuality in anyway queers you and brings negative attention down on you.
    Back to masculinity, it feels critical that we talk about the fragility of masculinity and patriarchy – how being so high and having access to so much power and privilege means that you have really far to fall.
    The last thing I wanted to suggest is that we not pit gender harassment (thank you commenter above for calling out the misogyny inherent in this!) against racism and antisemitism. I can't speak to antisemitism (I just don't remember it being present at my high school), but BELIEVE ME, racism is alive and well and perpetrated by students, teachers, and administrators at every grade level. Sure there are people actively challenging it and teaching children a different way of relating to each other, but racial justice is certainly not the cultural practice of our public school systems.

  5. broadblogs says:

    In the last four years the level of homophobia among men has gone down drastically. Today men are no more homophobic than women.

    Part of the reason is that women’s status has risen. If women and men are equal, then men acting like women (sexually, stereotypically) isn’t the big threat it had once been.

    Of course, gays coming out helps (who knew they were our friends and family!)

    Interestingly, many men are starting to see that spouting homophobia can hint at their own insecurity and even be a front for the gay man inside.

  6. janet bajan says:

    but – isn't most physical violence about masculinity?

  7. lindsey says:

    I dont think its about gender roles. Straight women who do a male dominated job and dont have childen are breaking out of gender roles. In the days when feminism was at its hight lots of women took on masculine dress etc and there were no bashings targeted at them. Stay at home dads dont get bashed by groups of thugs either. Lesbians do get attacked too, not just butcher ones. Butcher ones are easy to spot as gay, but less butch ones are more likley to be attacked as a couple as they can be spotted as gay. MTF cross dressers get called gay or are thought of as gay, ones who are known as not gay or ones who are with a woman when dressed are less likley to get attacked. The reason women can get away with more gender role flexibility is bc we have had feminism so its not just accociated with homosexuality. If men “act more like women” they are viewed gay as other advantages of men doing this are not seen. The more equality we get in society the less gender roles crossing behaviour is seen as gay. In a sense it makes gay people harder to spot. Society is quicker to accept gender roles changing once it is not seen as being gay. The butch thing in lesbians is in a way a response to homophobia as in the past couples would pair up butch and femme so the butch could defend them both.

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!