Be a man: when boys take up guns to kill those who torment them with words like “faggot,” we shouldn’t be surprised.
When I was 8, my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack. As the youngest of five siblings (four of us, boys), I looked to my brothers for guidance on how to act in this unsettling and unfamiliar territory. At dad’s funeral I got the message. When I started crying, my brother Mike looked down and barked, “Stop crying. Be a man. Don’t be a faggot.”
While astoundingly insensitive in his timing, my brother was simply passing down the code of masculinity he’d been taught. “Real men’ don’t show their feelings, and those men who do are faggots—which is the last thing any real man would want to be. It’s a lesson I have spent nearly three decades trying to unlearn.
Many important lessons—the kind that shape our lives—are learned long before college or grad school. Sadly, today’s boys seem to be learning the same lesson—with far deadlier results. Consider these examples:
* On February 2, 1996, Barry Loukaitis, a sophomore at a Moses Lake, Wash., junior high school, gunned down fellow student Manuel Vela Jr. in retaliation for months of being called “faggot.” Even though a teacher and another student also died in the assault, Loukaitis was convicted of only one count of first-degree murder—because the jury saw clearly that it was only Vela that Loukaitis had planned to kill.
* On December 1, 1997, 15-year-old Michael Carneal killed three students and wounded five more at a West Paducah, Ky., high school after months of harassment following the publication of a student newspaper column in which it was rumored that Carneal was gay.
* On May 22, 1998, 15-year-old Matthew Santoni stabbed 16-year-old Jeffrey LaMothe to death in downtown Northampton, Mass., after months of being called “faggot” by a group of fellow students of whom LaMothe was the ringleader
Why haven’t you heard more about these incidents? Well, sadly, homophobic harassment in our schools is so commonplace that it is no longer news. But surely seemingly novel phenomenon of youth taking up firearms in response should have made headline. And here’s the real kicker. None of the boys who perpetrated these attacks identifies as gay.
What’s going on here? As we begin another school year close on the heels of one in which schoolyard shootings became a dreary staple of the nightly news, it’s time to analyze why some young people are driven to kill. Obviously, we could prevent some killings if we restricted the ease with which anyone can get a firearm, but that would not get at the root cause of the problem. We need to own up to the fact that our culture teaches boys that being “a man” is the most important thing in life, even if you have to kill someone to prove it. Killing someone who calls you a faggot is not aberrant behavior but merely the most extreme expression of a belief that is beaten (sometimes literally) into boys at an early age in this country: Be a man—don’t be a faggot.
As Suzanne Pharr so eloquently explained in her landmark work Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, antigay bigotry is inextricably intertwined with the maintenance of “proper” gender roles by which little girls are supposed to be “sugar and spice and everything nice” and boys are supposed to be, well, quite the opposite. When boys take up guns to kill those who torment them with words like “faggot,” we shouldn’t be surprised. They’re just doing what we have taught them to do. At Barry Loukaitis’s sentencing, Manual Vela Sr. had the chance to confront his son’s killer and said, “You thought being called a faggot was bad; maybe `sweetie’ will sound better to you now.” Like father, like son.
The cycle of violence starts early—in the :nursery rhymes kids learn to recite; in the classrooms, where students hear antigay comments 26 times a day on average and where teachers do nothing an astounding 97% of the time; and on the football fields, where coaches still use the drill “smear the queer” to teach tackling skills. In this culture boys learn early: Be a man—or else.
Jennings is executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and is the author of Telling Tales Out of School: Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals Remember Their School Years.