In our boys, a hatred bred of fear

June 08, 1999|By Susan Reimer

IN A PRESTIGIOUS New England prep school long known for its liberal social conscience, a pair of senior boys cornered an underclassman and carved the word "HOMO" on his back, from shoulder to shoulder, using a pen knife.

The victim had made the mistake of saying he liked the British rock band Queen, whose lead singer died of AIDS. He waited two days before coming forward to report the assault, which took place in late May.

One of the two boys accused in the incident had been accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, which last week rescinded its offer.

Homophobia is a form of bigotry that is still winked at in this country. Young men perpetrate horrible violence on each other in its name.

"Homophobia is in the air boys breathe," says psychologist Michael Thompson, himself on the counseling staff of a Cambridge, Mass., school for boys.

"It reaches the highest levels. These kids," says Thompson of the boys in the prep school attack, "had privilege and they had the most to lose."

Homophobia has been suggested as a provocation in the Columbine High School murders, too. The killers supposedly had been taunted by classmates, who accused them of being gay.

And homophobia was apparently a factor in the gruesome murder of college student Matthew Shepard, who was strung up on a remote fence post, beaten senseless and left to die by two young men, one of whom apparently feared Shepard was making a pass at him.

"What are you? Gay?"

"That is so gay."

"He is so gay."

Those of us with adolescent children, boys or girls, hear that word tossed around ceaselessly as a synonym for "weird" or "stupid." It is not a neutral term. It is pejorative. It is meant to wound.

And the frequency and casualness of its use makes those wounds not less painful, but more so, because the accusation of homosexuality has lost none of its power over young men and boys.

"It is the No. 1 insult," says Thompson, author of "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys," in an interview.

"Because it is the most easily available wounding insult. To understand why, you have to understand the sexuality of boys."

Adolescent boys are at the height of sexual responsiveness. They are plugged in, hard-wired and super-charged on five to seven bursts of testosterone a day. As Robert Klein said in one of his comedy routines, the sight of a bus can cause an erection in an adolescent boy.

"Combine that with the fact that his partner of choice is probably himself," says Thompson. "Boys between 11 and 15 have a limited number of heterosexual experiences. You feel so alive and so sexual, but you can't say for sure what you are. You are scared."

Our culture absolutely prohibits affectionate touch between boys. Even among men, it is not common or easily done.

"The ease with which they are stimulated combined with the severity of the prohibition makes all boys on guard," says Thompson. "They are scared and confused and they turn this confusion into a weapon."

In "Raising Cain," Thompson wrote that the amount of teasing that goes on among early adolescent boys about possible homosexual leanings is staggering. And boys fear homosexuality, he writes, because it invites terrifying pack retaliation.

"They are forcing on each other the narrowest definition of masculinity because they don't really know what the term means yet and they are afraid they might not make the cut," he says.

And boys do not shed this fear even as they mature into manhood, which is why violence against homosexuals is defended with such righteousness. It is considered appropriate, even laudatory, to respond to a perceived pass from another man with a punch in the mouth.

"This is the one thing that isn't changing," says Thompson. "We are more tolerant as a culture of many things. But not on this issue. If the adults are threatened, the kids are going to be the same way."

Michael Gurian, a family therapist in Spokane, Wash., and author of "A Fine Young Man," says that accusations of homosexuality are part of the probing for weaknesses among boys and men that has an anthropological purpose. No species wants its weaker members to reproduce, so it will use whatever weaknesses it finds to drive them out of the herd.

Religion, which long ago had a stake in the propagation of the faithful, also discouraged homosexuality, Gurian says. But it took the pop culture of the late 20th century to perfect it.

"It is a culture that is based on disrespect and on relating through `dis-ing,' " Gurian says. "Grown men are more restrained. Once we get past the stage of probing for weaknesses, we drop the language. But men are still homophobic."

It is no surprise then that it is up to mothers to re-direct the chain reaction that leads from sexual uncertainty to verbal abuse to physical attack as their sons sketch in the details of their sexual identity.

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