"Fag" Is Turning into a High School Insult for Any Guy Who Doesn't Play Football
"I'm talking like sixth grade, I started being called a fag. Fifth grade I was called a fag. Third grade I was called a fag," seventeen-year-old *Ricky recounted as we sat at a plastic picnic table outside of a fast food restaurant in California's Sacramento delta region. Though he experienced this type of harassment throughout elementary and junior high school, Ricky said that the threats intensified as he entered *River High School.
At "all the schools the verbal part . . . the slang, 'the fag,' the 'fuckin' freak,' 'fucking fag,' all that stuff is all the same. But this is the only school that throws water bottles, throws rocks, and throws food." Harassment like this hounded him out of his school's homecoming football game. "Two guys started walking up to get tickets said, 'There's that fucking fag.'" During the game boys threw balloons and bottles at Ricky along with comments like, "What the fuck is that fag doing here? That fag has no right to be here."
While this singular event stands out as particularly hate filled, Ricky's story also illustrates the larger problems of homophobia and gender-based teasing in high school. Homophobic taunting is especially intense during adolescence, a time when sexuality and romance are at the fore of social life. For boys, and not just those who are branded as gay, walking through a hallway is like running a gauntlet of homophobic insults as their male classmates imitate effeminate men and hurl homophobic slurs. My book, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, examines this ubiquitous homophobia. During my year and a half of research at River High, I found that these comments, when coming from and directed at boys, often have as much to do with shoring up definitions of masculinity as they do with reinforcing notions of "normal" heterosexuality.
This is particularly true of the slur "fag." While the term "gay" is frequently used as a synonym for stupid, it lacks the gender loaded skew of the term "fag." Oftentimes when boys call someone a "fag" they simultaneously imitate effeminate men (in other words, behavior they consider to be "fag-like"). Their homophobic comments, jokes, and interactions, in a sense, serve to punish others into behaving in stereotypically masculine ways. Though homophobia is usually thought of as fear of same sex attraction, in high school, boys' homophobia is also about policing gendered norms.
At River High I saw and heard boys imitate effeminate behavior and hurl the word "fag" so frequently at one another that I came to call it a "fag discourse." Invoking this epithet and joking about "fags" were not just random incidents, but systemic and well accepted ways for teenage boys to communicate. Boys talked about others they considered to be "fags," made jokes about unmasculine mannerisms, imitated those mannerisms, and used the term to insult one another both jokingly and seriously. They lisped, pretended to lust after men, and drew laughs from primarily male onlookers. They frantically lobbed the epithet at one another, in a sort of compulsive name calling ritual. Because the "fag" slur is and isn't about sexual desire, both self-identified gay boys and heterosexual boys were subject to the label for failing at stereotypically masculine tasks or revealing, in any way, weakness or femininity.
When I asked boys at River High why they so frequently deployed the term and regularly imitated what they saw as unmasculine men, many readily answered that such homophobia was simply part of what it meant to be a teenage guy. *Keith explained, "I think guys are just homophobic." Regardless of assertions like these, their homophobia, for the most part, did not extend to girls. While *Jake told me that he didn't like gay people, he quickly added, "Lesbians, okay, that's good!" *Ray explained the seeming discrepancy to me: "To see two hot chicks banging bodies in a bed, that's like every guy's fantasy right there. It's the truth. I've heard it so many times."
What did the boys mean when they call another boy a "fag"? *Jeremy told me, "To call someone gay or fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that's like saying that you're nothing." Though many boys described the widespread acceptance of homophobia at their school, they also said the term "fag" did not necessarily have sexual implications. *Darnell told me, "It doesn't even have anything to do with being gay." Similarly *J.L. said, "Fag, seriously it has nothing to do with sexual preference at all. You could just be calling somebody an idiot, you know?" As *David put it, "Being gay is just a lifestyle. It's someone you choose to sleep with. You can still throw around a football and be gay." In other words, a guy could be gay so long as he acted sufficiently masculine.
When boys, straight or gay, didn't behave in a sufficiently masculine manner, they risked being hit with the "fag discourse." When I asked *Ben, "What kind of things do guys get called a fag for?" he answered, "Anything ... literally, anything. Like you were trying to turn a wrench the wrong way, 'Dude, you're such a fag.' Even if a piece of meat drops out of your sandwich, 'You fag!'" While Ben thought that a guy could be called a "fag" for "anything ... literally anything," specific behaviors, when enacted by most boys, almost always triggered a round of the discourse. Boys who exhibited stupidity, emotions, or incompetence; cared too much about clothing; touched another guy; or liked to dance were vulnerable to being labeled a "fag." However, given the extent of its deployment and the laundry list of behaviors that could get a boy in trouble, it is no wonder that Ben felt a boy could be called a "fag" for "anything." This range of risky behaviors made the specter of the "fag" a powerful disciplinary mechanism. It was fluid enough that boys policed their behaviors out of fear of being called a "fag" and definitive enough so that boys recognized unmasculine behaviors and strived to avoid them.
The "fag discourse" usually came in the form of teasing and jokes (although, as Ricky's experience illustrates, it also appeared as harassment undergirded by the threat of violence). Often the word itself wasn't even spoken. The image of a "fag" as an unmasculine man was so common among the teenage boys, they could initiate the discourse through humorous imitations or allusions. One day in auto-shop *Jay was rummaging through a junk-filled car in the parking lot. He poked his head out of the trunk and asked, "Where are *Craig and *Brian?" *Neil responded with "I think they are over there," pointing, then thrusting his hips and pulling his arms back and forth. The boys in auto shop laughed. Because the "fag discourse" was so familiar, the other boys immediately understood that Neil was indicating that Craig and Brian were having sex. In this case, something as innocent as being alone with another guy was enough to be teased.
Compared to Ricky's experience at the football game this discourse seems relatively mild and lighthearted. Both Craig and Brian were stereotypical masculine boys. They may have been labeled as "fags" because they were alone together, but odds are their classmates wouldn't throw water bottles at them. On the other hand, for boys who didn't consistently exhibit typical masculine behavior, River High was a dangerous place, as Ricky's experience shows. Because Ricky was a dancer, identified as gay, had a kind and gentle spirit, sometimes wore makeup, and sported shoulder length hair, he spent his days in school preparing for the next attack. He ended up dropping out of River High in part because of the rampant harassment he suffered and the administration's refusal to protect him.
Education and Legislation
This sort of homophobic- and gender-based teasing and harassment is not unique to River High. In the spring of 1999, the problems associated with adolescent masculinity captured the national spotlight when two teenage gunmen opened fire on students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had been relentlessly teased for being "fags" or "gay," though neither boy identified as homosexual. In another case, several boys killed seventeen-year-old Gwen Araujo in the fall of 2002 in Fremont, California. She was savagely murdered after the boys she had sex with discovered she was biologically male.
Though these two incidents were unusual, many adolescent boys have been the victims of similar violence that never gets reported. Such boys' experiences are likely to mirror those of a teen named Aaron Yays, a New York middle-schooler. Aaron was teased mercilessly and suffered repeated beatings from other students for his interest in figure skating. As Aaron's experience indicates, even subtle gender transgressions make teenage boys susceptible to homophobic taunts, jokes, and violence. While teasing may be part of a normal American adolescent masculinity, the "fag discourse" carries with it the potential for physical violence not necessarily found in other milder sorts of adolescent verbal jockeying.
Parents, students, and legislators have started to address this sort of harassment. Defending their sons' rights to be free from homophobic slurs, parents have initiated lawsuits in order to protect boys who, for example, wear dresses, sport ponytails, or publicly identify as gay. Students have formed clubs such as Gay/Straight Alliances in order to support each other in their differences. California is one of the few states to take a proactive legislative approach to the problem of homophobic harassment in high school. The legislature passed the groundbreaking Assembly Bill 537, The California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act, in 2000. This bill prohibits discrimination in schools based on perceived or actual sexual or gender identities. The District of Columbia, Maine, Minnesota, and New Jersey have also enacted laws that prohibit harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in school.
Unfortunately, as Ricky's experience demonstrates, these laws are not always enforced. Boys' homophobic harassment, sex talk, and predatory behavior have become so normalized that oftentimes adults don't identify it as harassment. Parents, teachers, school administrators, and other people who work with youth need to recognize these behaviors and hold them accountable, rather than turn a blind eye to boys who hurl the "fag" epithet. It's not enough to reprimand or discipline a boy for calling someone a "fag." To simply punish students who are harassing other students without explaining larger issues of power and inequality leaves them confused, angry, and unsure of what they did wrong. As the late educator and activist Eric Rofes wrote, we need to make our schools "safe for sissies." In doing so we can make them safer places for all boys.
*Names have been changed.
C.J. Pascoe is a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California, Berkeley. Her recent book on gender and identity in high school, "Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School" was published by the University of California Press. Her current research project entitled Living Digital examines how teenagers navigate digital technology and how new media has become a central part of contemporary teen culture.