My post last Thursday on men and feminist anger has drawn more than 130 comments, the highest total for any post so far this year. It's been discussed elsewhere, like at Pandagon, as well as at a couple of the infamous men's rights advocate discussion boards.
At the MRA sites, some of the comments turn to the inevitable questioning of my sexuality. I've written before, here and here, about the typical strategies used by anti-feminists against pro-feminist men. Though pro-feminist men get hit by many slurs, by far the most consistent tactic is to question our heterosexuality. The "if he thinks that way, he must be gay" is a line with which virtually every pro-feminist man is well familiar.
A couple of weeks ago, a male student of mine in my women's history class asked me about this. "Hugo, how do you handle so many people thinking you're gay?" He was asking as much for himself as for me; though he is straight, he reported that since he signed up for a women's studies class, he's been the target of mild but consistent anti-gay slurs. I gave him a quick answer, ruefully conceding that "being called gay" is something that every man who does this work -- even by taking a class in feminist studies -- is going to have to endure.
In my elementary school days, the words "faggot" and "queer" were the two most potent insults that boys used on each other. Long before I understood what they meant, I knew that they were "fighting words." I remember getting into a scrap with Ricky De La Rosa in third grade because he called me a faggot; I had no idea what the term meant but I knew it was something I had to deny. I also learned -- quickly -- that verbal denials were insufficient. The only effective way to fight back against this particular label was to hit. Though I didn't understand what the word meant at age eight or nine, I did grasp that it was closely correlated with weakness; hitting back "proved" (at least temporarily) that the charge was a false one.
By the time I hit junior high, I did understand what homosexuality was. As we transitioned into puberty, the obsession with rooting out "queerness" and "faggotry" only grew. In my memory, girls rarely called boys "faggots", but they did say "Omigod, that's so gay!" to refer to anything that they disliked. It was clear that homosexuality correlated with everything weak, bad, "less than"; it was the one charge that had to be denied and the one charge most difficult to disprove.
I probably got called "gay" more than most of my peers. In my childhood and early adolescence, I wasn't athletic. I was a "drama nerd", and was active in a community theater company. At that age, most of my good friends were either girls or other boys who, like me, were seen as softer, more intellectual, less masculine, and, definitely, "queer." Mind you, I had figured out early on that I wasn't sexually attracted to men. Though many things in my life were complicated when I was young, I never went through a "crisis" of sexual identity. By the time I was thirteen, every fiber of my being was interested in girls. I may have been too shy at that age to do anything about it, but I was never personally in doubt of my own flagrant heterosexuality. (When I read Phillip Roth in college, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say I winced in recognition!)
But as anyone who remembers this time surely knows, when a group of boys calls you "gay", it's rather hopeless to reply hotly, "But I like girls, I really do!" One particular embarrassing episode in eighth grade stands out to me. Three of the "popular boys" kept asking me, not very nicely, if I was gay. "Come on, Hugo, you can tell us", they proclaimed. "Just admit it", they urged, like detectives questioning a guilty suspect. I protested that I liked girls, and my tormentors inquired, "Which ones?" I then let slip the name of the one girl -- Frances -- on whom I did have a huge crush. (Of course, Frances was a bright, outgoing girl who was the best basketball player of either sex in the whole eighth grade. Young and clumsy Hugo always fell for the "jocks", who were utterly unattainable.) The trio smiled, and spread my secret through all of York School. Frances, who had been friendly, stopped speaking to me altogether. It was not a happy time.
That was more than a quarter century ago. Long before I ever took a women's studies class, I was called a "faggot". Long before I cared about how I dressed, I was called "queer." In junior high school, my clothes came from the Sears catalog. (Tuffskin jeans, anyone?) I may pay attention to fashion these days, but I didn't when I was a kid, and I can assure you that I heard anti-gay epithets just as often back then. Long before I began to publicly challenge men to change their lives and reconsider what it means to be masculine, I was a target of a tremendous amount of invective. I know full well that I wasn't alone. I've sat in countless groups with other adult men, straight and gay and bi, and listened to their stories about growing up with what has often been called the "fear of faggotry."
Fear of faggotry is the earliest form of social control that young men use on each other. Even before they understand what homosexuality is, they use the fear of being labeled "gay" or "queer" to hold other males in line. Fear of faggotry sets limits and boundaries. Young men learn very, very quickly that certain behaviors (crying in public, being too friendly with girls, not showing an interest in violence) get called "gay" and hence unmasculine. By the time most American boys hit puberty, they've been well-conditioned to take often frantic measures to avoid this most common -- and most feared -- of charges. What they learn is that public displays of compassion, of thoughtfulness, of gentleness, of verbal or artistic dexterity will all earn the epithet "faggot." Fear of faggotry thus renders young men inarticulate; it causes them to obscure and "closet" the softer and more human sides of their nature.
As an adult, heterosexual, pro-feminist man, I don't spend time trying to disprove the charge of homosexuality. After all, to do so would suggest that I thought there was something fundamentally wrong with being homosexual. Young men who aspire to do pro-feminist work had better get over any internalized homophobia lickety-split! Running around saying "Look at me, I"M NOT GAY!!!" is not only unlikely to impress anyone, it also indicates a profound discomfort with the whole notion of diverse sexualities. If being called "fag" or "gay" makes you quake in your boots, my friend, you still have a considerable amount of work to do. I don't say that to be unkind or insensitive, but to be brutally honest. One of the litmus tests for whether or not a man is ready and willing to live as a pro-feminist is how he responds to the nearly-certain anti-gay slurs that will be thrown his way. If he reacts with frantic defensiveness (as I did in eighth grade), then it's evidence he's got a ways to go on his journey.
Several of my colleagues and a huge number of my students are convinced I'm closeted. "Married four times, eh? Likes to wear tight jeans, Versace loafers and Paul Frank watches? Teaches women's studies? Something must be going on there..." I've heard it throughout my career and I'll likely hear it for as long as I continue to teach this subject. Yes, some of my personal aesthetic choices go against a masculine stereotype. (Then again, I'm obsessed with college football.) But those who are most likely to question my sexuality do so less because of how I dress or how I walk and more because of my public commitment to feminism. This is by no means unique to me; as I tell my male students, if they decide to live out a pro-feminist life they will have to endure plenty of slings and arrows -- the charge of homosexuality chief among them. "You do this work", I tell them, "and men and women will question your sexuality for the rest of your life. Are you strong enough to endure that?" It's a direct challenge, and, in a not very subtle or ironic way, an appeal to the traditionally masculine virtue of courage.
Please understand, I don't think I -- or any other pro-feminist man -- is "heroic" for putting up with a lifetime of anti-gay slurs. Yes, the "fear of faggotry" is real and powerful. But men who do pro-feminist work still have countless privileges that their sisters do not. Though we must put up with endless cries of "faggot" and snarky remarks behind our backs, we still get to walk through our lives in male bodies with all the entitlement that entails. Anytime we want, we can abandon our pro-feminism and reassert our male privilege, something our sisters, wives, daughters and mothers cannot do. Compared to the threats and burdens women face, the charge of "faggot!" -- as frightening as it may be to young men -- is small potatoes indeed.