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OCTOBER 1, 2010 7:26AM

Why gender should matter to men

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I’ve been following with shock and dismay the recent spate of suicides among LGBT youth lately. This month, four young men took their lives after being bullied and/or outed (or simply mocked and perceived) as gay. The latest is a truly awful story — a college freshman hurled himself off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly streamed a same-sex encounter online.

One thing I noticed, however, was that all the recent suicides were teenaged boys. I tried to find statistics for lesbian suicides, and I couldn’t find any. I have a theory — entirely unscientific, but more than purely speculative — that young women are both more open to queer sexuality in themselves and their friends than young men. I attribute this openness to the successes of feminism. It works like this:

In the 70s, second wave feminists confronted the limitations of traditional gender roles with a positive message — that girls could become anything they want, including male dominated professions like law or medicine without any any cost to their femininity. This message was wildly successful — law school enrollment by women is up about five times since 1972; in med school, women have grown from about a quarter of graduates in 1980 to just about half in 2006.

On the other hand, there was no complimentary message directed at boys. Instead of empowering boys to enter the “feminine” professions, like nursing or elementary education, boys were still shown a narrow and limited definition of masculinity. As a result, boys grew into men who interact with the world in narrow ways — men are expected to fight men and fuck women, in much the same way their fathers and grandfathers were. As a man who identifies as bisexual and genderqueer, this is something I think quite a bit about.

For gay and bi men, their sexuality is a step outside the narrow gender identity other men expect their “peers” to occupy. The “fight or fuck” imperative takes over, and the bullying begins. The bullies feel threatened by the presence of an alternative to the required role; the bullied are both struggling to find their place in this rigid gender structure, and are probably too young to have fully developed sexual identities.

If it’s really going to get better, there needs to be a gender message directed at boys that they, too, can be anything they want to be. That there are more ways to interact with the world than a fight or fuck dichotomy. That complexity and incongruity ought to be celebrated, not mocked. That preferring the violin to football doesn’t make you gay.

This is a long tail solution that may take decades to take root. I fear that more young men may take their lives in the meantime.

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I think a large part of the education needs to be geared towards heterosexual children, which the mainstream is still attempting to avoid, because that's where the problem really exists. As long as people think it is okay and fun to ridicule others for being different than the norm, it's going to continue to lead towards horrific events, like Matthew Sheppard and this latest case.
All over the world mostly man are doing suicide more than woman..There are many psychological reason behind that.Men are more ambitious ,more competitive more adventurous.more risky.Women always take roll of please to men.she never take unnecessary risk, no so competitive.
Perceptive analysis. A viewpoint I haven't encountered in the reams off stuff I've read on this topic. R
The recent spate of suicides is tragic. Thanks for posting on this important subject.
Working with youth, one thing that I have noticed is that bullying generally occurs in high school aged students and is usually gone in college. However, these two students who humiliated this young man were an an exception to that.
My take on it involves brain development. Because their brains are not fully developed, their "lizard brain" is stronger than it will be when they are adults.
I agree that civil rights should be taught from kindergarten on. THe fact that the right wing preys upon fears of gayness is almost insurmountable. What they learn at dad and mom's knees should be balanced with what they learn from society as a whole.
Gender does matter because it does not mean just women, but boys, girls and men. It is a societal construct.
Thanks for popsting on this.
This latest suicide shocks and saddens me too.

And as the wife of a male nurse, I agree 100% with your assessment. My husband is a recent graduate (5 years ago) and was one of two men in his class of 50 nursing grads. This is wrong. It's still seen as a "women's" field. My daughter has her first male teacher in elementary school this year, and she's in 5th grade.

Thanks for writing.
Thank you all for your comments. A few specific replies:

@Duane- you are correct. Until the straight community realizes that all this stuff applies to them as well, there won't be any lasting change.

@MediGeek- I don't think anyone has written about gender from the masculine perspective because all the big work on gender studies is being done by women.

@o'stephanie- The bullying does usually stop after high school, and if these kids had made it to sophomore year their attitudes would have been completely different. Rutgers has a huge, active queer community and all three of the kids involved would have be fine by the winter break, but they didn't make it that far.

@froggy- Only two men out of fifty? Sheesh...
I think you have am extremely valid point. Even though queer women have to deal with much of the same taunting and abuse, we don't get the "macho man" crap nearly as much (all though we get the "let me show you what a real man can do" BS from them). I also think, for some bizarre reason, being a lesbian is much more "socially" acceptable than being a gay guy.
I wonder if we can call the feminist movement a complete success when the very nature of the movement originally championed the idea that women could excel at traditionally male professions, rather than any profession they wanted (mother and housewife, anyone?).

As a society we still value the male over the female, so it's no wonder that gay boys are killing themselves and gay girls are not. Whether it's accurate or not, gay boys are perceived as more feminine (and therefore societally weaker) and gay girls more masculine (and therefore societally more powerful.)

Of course the individual stories of gay boys and girls don't necessarily follow this simple logic, but for the sake of this discussion I think it partially explains the disparity.
Thank you for posting this. Also, many suicides of gays are not reported as such because the family may not approve and no one may even know...xox
Heterosexual males drool when imagining two women.. you know... kissing their delicacies... Heterosexuals (males of females) don´t find two men rolling on their backs arousing!.... sexuallity tabues are focused on the penis not in the vagina....
Great post...
You may have a point. But don't forget one of the perps in the Tyler Clementi case is a woman.

Apparently feminism was of no interest to her.
15-year-old Billy Lucas lived in my hometown. He went to my alma mater. Some of the same assholes who were in charge of that school system when I was there have moved up the ranks since.

Girls get bullied for their real or perceived sexual orientation too--I'm straight, but was constantly taunted with "lesbo" all throughout junior high and for most of high school. The administration put up with it and the then vice-principal of Greensburg Junior High (now the school superintendent) basically told me I'd brought it on myself, that I needed to dress to fit in better. This was after I'd been cornered in the cafeteria by three boyfriends of the girls who were the ringleaders in this. They had the charming suggestion of maybe raping the lesbo out of me to "cure" me--but of course, these were "good boys from good families," so nothing was ever done.

Add this to the current principal of Greensburg High School's on-camera statement that they didn't know Billy was being harrassed, but then saying that he brought it on himself by being "a little tornado, making the dust fly," and yeah, you've got an institutional problem.
This is so completely right on. Thank you. It's understandable that we get caught up in the latest tragedy and I'm heartened that a broader slice of society is finally looking at gay teen suicide. Unfortunately, as we focus on the tragic, too many among us obsess on the immediate causes rather than the proximate ones.

The gender straightjackets that most men in our society wear -- gay and straight -- have a LOT of unintended side effects. That queer boys get bullied is way too common. But so too is the domestic violence, gang violence and, yeah, war. How much of the trauma that our society goes through on a regular basis is the byproduct of men not being given the adequate skills to come to terms with all aspects of their being, whether it's their sexuality, their sensitivity or their vulnerability.

We have so much healing to do. I'm grateful for your writing in helping us focus on our outmoded idea of what it means to be a man.
There have been some very interesting work written on masculine studies. Pieces that back up your argument well. I recommend:


Also, surprisingly, this volume on professional wrestling addresses the "fight and fuck" attitude pretty directly:

In response to the several commenters who wrote about lesbian directed bullying, thank you, and I have found a few blogs posts and whatnot with first hand anecdotes and experiences. I have not found evidence of higher rates of lesbian suicides.

However, I still think the girls/women are more accepting of non-normative sexuality than boys/men. This is unscientific and based on personal observations. For example, compare the tumblr site FuckYeahBisexuals (http://fuckyeahbisexuals.tumblr.com/), where the women identified as bi far outnumber the men, with craigslist casual encounters ads, where the ads from men (including a noticeably high number of self-identified straight or closeted men) looking for queer hookups far outnumber the ads from women.

I know that comparing identity to activity is a problematic thing, but it is really the only to peek inside the closet — women seem more open to identifying as queer, while men seem less comfortable with identification whatever their actual activity level.
First, I sure wish there was a way to delete the spam comments attached to this post. They're annoying and make it hard to follow the thread.

Second, I agree that it's generally harder to be a gay man than to be a gay woman (and probably even harder to be a trans any gender). But I don't think this is because of the ~success~ of feminism. Women are encouraged to be attracted to other women by a male-dominated culture that thinks lesbians--at least heteronormative looking lesbians--are hot. And since women are objectified in ways that men tend not to be, women are more likely than men to consider the attractiveness of other women--and, therefore, to consider their attraction to other women. If lesbians have it easier, then, it's a pyrrhic victory at best.

This is not at all intended to negate or minimize the struggles of gay and bisexual men. Their struggles are our struggles, and the liberation of queer men is tied to closely to the liberation of all women that we can't afford to ignore it or pretend it doesn't have anything to do with us.
@Jenna — You have a valid point about the easier time that gay women face. I still think that there needs to be a better gender narrative directed at boys generally.
For the love of Christ, Einstein, quit straining at a gnat and think *evolution*. Trying to find societal explanations is fine if a more obvious explanation is unavailable, but in this case you're wasting your breath (rather, finger energy). Guys feel weird (even hateful) about gays because eons of evolution have wired them them to be suspicious and even over-cautious about anyone who doesn't "run with the pack", so to speak. People don't need the "successes" of feminism or new gender messages to feel perfectly at ease with homosexuality - they just need several more eons (or hopefully just centuries) of evolution. Better education and gender messages are fine, but the lack thereof is NOT the reason why gays are regarded with suspicion and hate - you can blame the mindless and reproductive-oriented preferences of evolution for THAT...
@LuciferJames... Let me see if I follow you correctly, okay?

It's "evolutionary" for hate and bigotry to exist? And that people can't help it but to feel suspicious of gays, because of biological imperatives?

So those poor bullies can't help it. That's the upshot of your comment, isn't it? They are just hardwired to hate? So we really have no meaningful way to control our behaviors, then, because we all just follow our biological directives, blindly, like an automaton.

We are not automatons, and evolution does not account for social phenomena, like bullying. Sex and gender are not the same thing.

Oh, and I thought about invading your blog to post offensive comments, but you don't actually have one. Meaning that you are a troll and a coward, incapable of forming an opinion of your own. Any further comments from you will be deleted.