Is middle school homophobia “natural”?

So, my 13-year old son is super-tolerant, probably best described as pro-gay.  We’ve talked a lot about the issue due to the gay marriage debate and this has become a strong political stance of his.  (Heck, probably stronger than my position).  An obvious assumption would be, well, he’s gay.  Based on his poor ability to hide his on-line browsing habits, I’m pretty sure he’s not.  He just feels quite strongly that why should other people have a problem with it if someone is gay.  Anyway, he was complaining to me the other day how annoying it is that it is so common for his middle-school classmates to regularly use anti-gay slurs about each other.

That got me thinking.  We all know that young people these days are super-tolerant of homosexuality.  But that is young adults, not young teenagers– who are never, of course, the subject of public opinion polls.  I almost wonder if somewhere between 12-13 and 18, kids actually learn to be tolerant.  One theory of mine is that as kids are coming face-to-face with their own sexuality in a very personal way for the first time, it makes intuitive sense that they would really want to emphasize their male sexuality.  How better to do that, I suppose, than denigrate homosexuality.  Than, as cognitive and emotional maturity increases and they get strong messages from more mature young adults, they become tolerant.  Then again, this is all based on rank speculation from what my one seventh grader tells me about one middle school.  That said, it really got me wondering how common these strong anti-gay attitudes are among middle schoolers and why that might be.  Sometimes I just like to wonder aloud here.  Make of it what you will.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Is middle school homophobia “natural”?

  1. Doxy says:

    One theory of mine is that as kids are coming face-to-face with their own sexuality in a very personal way for the first time, it makes intuitive sense that they would really want to emphasize their male sexuality. How better to do that, I suppose, than denigrate homosexuality.

    I think the key question to ask about this is “Why do they need to emphasize their sexuality so much?” And it seems pretty apparent to me that homophobia is socially constructed and it is built on a foundation of misogyny. From their earliest infancy, children are socialized for gender. And for boys, that socialization is almost ALWAYS “Being male is the opposite of being female.”

    Just last week, there was a great article in The Atlantic called What About the Guys Who Do Fit the ‘Gay Stereotype’? Here’s a quote:

    Sociologists have long noted that homophobia is a fundamental ingredient of masculinity in modern American culture. In his seminal 1994 article “Masculinity as Homophobia,” sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, argued that “homophobia is a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood.” Since homosexuality is associated with femininity, feminizing and anti-gay comments are the primary mechanism for enforcing the boundaries of masculinity. If a guy steps ever so slightly outside of gender norms, his peers will bring him back into line by calling his heterosexuality into question (which implicitly challenges his gender). The pressure to prove and re-prove hetereosexuality is part of what it means to “be a man”—and it pushes men to embrace both homophobia and hypermasculinity. “Homophobia, the fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man, keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women,” Kimmel wrote. “Homophobia and sexism go hand-in-hand.”

    Homophobia, then, is not simply social disapproval and discrimination against gay people, but an entire cultural structure…disqualifying all but the “most virulent repudiators of femininity” from “real manhood”—in the process upholding gender inequality and maintaining a hierarchy of men based on sexuality, race, class, ability, and so on. [Emphases mine]

    What is encouraging to me in your story about your son is that apparently an ethic of fairness is beginning to chip against the iron-clad definition of masculinity in this culture–and that this could also have MAJOR ramifications for the way women are treated.

    As the mother of a 17-year-old son who is similarly disgusted with homophobia (and the mother of a 12-year-old daughter who is even more adamant and politically active against LGBT discrimination than her brother), this gives me great hope. I want my children to live in a world in which their lives are not tightly confined by gender norms based in fear and the desire to control others.

    Children must be “carefully taught” to hate–and in a culture that tries so hard to teach them that, they must also be carefully taught to love and respect others. So…kudos to you and your wife and to those in your lives who are helping you rear your kids to be such kind and decent people. On a day-to-day basis, parenting can be such a thankless job–but I hope you patted yourselves on the back after your conversation with David. You are DEFINITELY doing something right. 🙂

    • Steve Greene says:

      Great comments. Looking forward to reading that Atlantic piece (and mad at myself for missing it). I think you are exactly right. And rather than “natural” I think I would say that middle-school homophobia is entirely “normal” given our cultural socialization on gender.

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