In Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, published in 2006, sociologist C.J. Pascoe reports on observations and interviews with students in a California high school and interprets their behavior through lenses including feminist and queer theory. She observed that the ubiquitous practice of boys calling each other fags (or joking about being or pretending to be gay), was not merely a terrible way to harass actual homosexuals (although that happened too). She saw that "fag discourse" (in the Foucauldian sense of discourse) was a way of proving one's own masculinity (along with other practices such as publicly "getting girls" and boasting about it) and punishing those who failed achieve masculinity within the narrow confines of the dominant gender order. The dominant gender is defined as positing that all people fit into two discreet categories of male and female, that men and women (or boys and girls) naturally pair together romantically and sexually and that men are superior to women. The dominant gender order privileges males, over females, heterosexuals over queer people and cisgender people over transgender people. It also harms all of us by narrowly defining each person's acceptable range of expression based on perceived identity.
I became interested in this book because I was both a target and deployer of the "fag discourse" during my high school years (1997-2000). Unfortunately, Pascoe suggests, that makes my experiences quite typical. While I reached a point of maturity in my teenage years (after a girl confronted me in an incident described below) in which I conscientiously refused to participate in discourse I increasingly came to understand as sexist and homophobic, it wasn't until college that I started to encounter tools to creatively express myself and constructively create the type of community I didn't even know I wanted. In high school, I simply stopped participating, gently spoke my mind and observed in frustration.
I see many of the "regulative mechanisms" described by Pascoe in both the school environment I found threatening and the Jewish youth group that I experienced as saving me from it. Without giving it much reflection, I had thought that I was called a fag as a generic insult because I went through a period during which I happened to be unpopular. Through the queer feminist lens, I now see the possibility that I was perhaps expressing myself in ways that didn't conform to prevailing definitions of masculinity and I was punished for it.
I wonder what those behaviors may have been. Images come to mind of walking around during middle school recess, talking to my best friend, a girl, while other boys played sports. I was picked on and became shy and withdrawn. Why was I different?
1) Was it a result of growing up in a household with my sister and a strong mother. My father, who wasn't much of a presence to begin with, separated from my mother and moved out while I was in middle school. He likes soccer and was quite handy, but never taught me those things.
2) Or was it the fact that the masculinity I did exhibit was culturally different from the dominant masculinity in my hometown? Both of my parents were Jewish immigrants, from Israel and Argentina. Perhaps my masculinity was more Jewish or latino. Pascoe talks about how different definitions of masculinity are expected of and aspired towards by white and by black students. Dancing well or putting attention into ones clothing, for example, could get you called a fag if you are white, but lauded if you are black.
3) Did I internalize the ridicule I received for having a "girl's name" (Ariel) which was the same name as the lead character in Disney's Little Mermaid, which came out when I was 7? Until this day, I cringe when people pronounce my name like hers. In any case, I didn't quite fit in and I was punished for it.
When I entered a chapter of the B'nai Brith Youth Organization in the 10th grade, the older boys took me under their wing. I was an atheist at the time so I refused to pray at meals, but the youth group provided a social outlet that I didn't experience at school. When I introduced myself to this community, I started shortening my name to Ari so as not to be confused with the "girl's name". This is ironic because Ariel is a Jewish name and one might think I would find more acceptance within that community. The boys in my chapter introduced me to others, including girls, encouraged me to participate in trainings, hold chapter leadership positions and attend weekly events and monthly weekend-long conventions. I benefited in enormous ways for which I am still grateful today in terms of developing confidence, leadership skills and discovering the depths of fulfillment of doing service. Because the chapter had such a profound positive impact on me, I wanted to offer the same experience to incoming members.
By my senior year, I was so popular that I was elected "Regional Beau" at the annual Beau-Sweetheart dance (our version of homecoming). Leading up to the election, I declared that it was a bullshit popularity contest and that if I was elected, I would refuse to accept. I was elected anyway and I didn't refuse to accept. Pascoe tells the story of a non-normative lesbian elected as homecoming queen. As Pascoe points out, the ubiquitous practice of electing homecoming kings and queens that Americans take for granted as a "natural" part of high school is not a neutral occurrence, but reinforces the idea that people fit into two categories of boy and girl and that the two are different and meant to be paired sexually and romantically with each other.
Even though she almost always wore clothes considered masculine and rarely showed emotional vulnerability, when the lesbian described by Pascoe was elected, she cried and she wore a dress to the dance to everyone's surprise. She felt there was a policy requiring a dress from an amorphous undefined "they" even though in this instance there were no particular individuals or school policies to which she referred.
I see other heteronormative structures paralleled by those observed by Pascoe, within the organization and culture of the youth group:
- Chapters were divided into boys and girls chapters (this is not the case in Unitarian Universalist youth groups, nor even other Jewish youth groups)
- Constant humorous pretended flirting between boys
- A chapter tradition of signing the "play shirt" whenever one fooled around with a girl.
- Using "Good and Welfare" sharing circle to brag about "getting girls"
- Requesting popular songs at youth group dances, all-male chapter members congregating in the center of the dance floor and loudly replacing the song lyrics (which were often themselves already sexist) with our own lyrics that pronounced our masculinity and virility and accused other boys of being gay. For example (keep in mind that our chapter was Samson #2076).
- "2-0-7-6 BBG's suck on our dicks" to the tune "Sumpin' New" by Coolio.
- "Samson Man" to the tune of "Macho Man"
- "Bend over, lemme hear you say Berger" to the tune of "Boom Boom Boom, Let me Hear you Say Wayo" by the Outhere Brothers. (Berger was another's boy's chapter.)
One day, after I had been in the youth group for about a year, a girl took me aside and told me that the way I was joking about gayness was anti-gay. Somehow, like many of the students Pascoe interviewed that used the word "fag", I insisted that I had nothing against gay people. Who is to say our boy-to-boy flirting doesn't even have some elements of homoerotic bonding, I defended? Then she asked me a very simple question: if there is a gay person in the room (and nobody was out at the time) do you think your joking would make them less or more comfortable? I felt annoyed because my sense of masculinity was threatened. Nonetheless, I couldn't deny that she had a point and I stopped from that point forward.