This originally appeared on Cognoscenti. Republished here with permission.
From a young age, boys receive the same lesson: Conform to narrow gender performance rules or face humiliation and, very often, violent repression.
I was late that day on my way to the lunch room in high school. The hallway was almost empty. A couple of older boys called me over to where they stood to one side. Suddenly eight other boys emerged from a nearby stairwell and grabbed my arms and legs. Despite my desperate struggle, they overwhelmed me. With my head restrained by many hands, one of the boys, his mouth coated in bright red lipstick, forced his lips to mine and, then for the finishing touch, inserted his tongue. The assembled gang chanted “You know you like it!” followed by “Fag, Fag, Fag…”
The assault didn’t last long, and when it was over I was left alone, very alone, with my anger, my hurt, and my humiliation. I was young—only 14—but I knew two truths: 1) to be singled out as a “fag” by other boys was a deeply shameful thing, and 2) there was no adult I could safely go to for comfort or any kind of support.
Fifty years later I can report there are changes for the better. Women organizing and the struggles of LBGTQ communities are responsible for much of the progress. One local institution that was helpful to me is Close to Home, a Dorchester community organization which works for the prevention and healing of domestic violence and sexual abuse. I signed up for a writing workshop they sponsored, seeking to refine some journaling I had begun about the high school incident.
As I worked on successive drafts I realized that the incident—and the intense feelings it unleashed—had presented me with a rather profound life choice. I could seek protection from more humiliation and abuse by learning the skills of cruelty and domination, or I could ally myself with others in the struggle against social cruelty and structures of domination.
When the writing group performed our monologues for the community several of the performances recounted incidents of rape. Working in this ensemble for weeks, I learned so well the pain and spirited resilience of these women. I felt humbled and grateful when they assured me that they wanted my story told along with theirs.
I came to understand my experience as an example of an “ordinary” sort of gender abuse. Issues of social position and identity are highly charged for boys in middle and high school. Some boys take on the role of enforcing gender conformity, in part because of their own insecurity about masculinity.
Gender conformity enforcement by peers is always part of the experience of growing up for boys—the incident in which I had a role was just one variant. Most boys are not chosen, as I was that day, to play the part of the designated deviant. Most boys are either bystanders or gang members. Still, we all receive the same lesson: Conform to narrow gender performance rules or face humiliation and, very often, violent repression. It doesn’t take long for boys to get this message. This is how deeply internalized structures of dominance and oppression get passed on from generation to generation.
Feminists and scholars of gender have long pointed to the function of homophobia in regulating the behavior of men and boys. Protection of LGBTQ youth from commonplace abuse in schools also benefits “straight” children, serving to protect them from gender conformity assault. Today boys and girls are beginning to have more freedom to grow into varied expressions of masculinity and femininity.
For boys and men, this “liberation” has been a long time coming. Pioneering pro-feminist scholars and activists, including Michael Kimmel, Harry Brod, and John Stoltenberg, began work on masculinities in the 1970’s. In 1975 male students in a women’s studies class in Knoxville, Tennessee, organized the first National Conference on Men and Masculinity. During the following decade, men and women founded organizations across America explicitly to challenge men’s violence against women. Many of these organizations also offered space for men to explore how they can change their experience of gender and their relationships with the men and women in their lives.
Today, men are organizing around the world. In 2009 activists gathered in the first Global Symposium on Engaging Men and Boys in Gender Equality held in Rio de Janeiro and subsequently launched Men Engage, a network of hundreds of organizations in communities around the world. And in 2013, the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities was founded at Stony Brook University. The Center will bring together researchers, practitioners, and activists in conversation and collaboration with the intent of enhancing projects involving men and boys.
A half century after I suffered, alone, from peer enforcement of gender conformity, I see good reason for hope that soon this sort of abuse will no longer be an ordinary part of boys’ lives. With increasing confidence I look forward to boys enjoying the freedom to grow into men better able to find satisfying relationships with their chosen loved ones as well as with diverse people in their communities.
Charles Knight is a senior fellow at the Project on Defense Alternatives and an advisory board member of Voice Male magazine. He lives and works in Cambridge, Mass.