"There's a faggot over there! There's a faggot over there! Come look!" Brian, a senior at "River" High School yelled to a group of 10 year-old boys. The group of boys dashed after Brian as he ran down the hallway, towards the presumed "faggot." Peering down the hallway I saw Brian's friend, Dan, waiting for the boys. As the boys came into his view, Dan pursed his lips and began sashaying toward them. He swung his hips exaggeratedly and wildly waved his arms on the end of which his hands hung from limp wrists. To the boys Brian yelled, referring to Dan, "Look at the faggot! Watch out! He'll get you!" In response, the 10 year olds screamed in terror and raced back down the hallway.
I watched scenes like this play out daily while conducting research for my book Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. I saw and heard boys imitate presumed faggots and hurl the fag epithet so frequently at one another that I came to call it a "fag discourse." I use the term fag and not gay, advisedly. Boys at River High repeatedly differentiated fags from gay men. For these boys gay men could still be masculine, whereas a fag could never be masculine. Thus the term "gay" functioned as a generic insult meaning "stupid" or "lame" whereas "fag" invoked a very specific gendered slur, directed at other boys. For these boys a fag was a failed, feminine man who, in all likelihood, was also gay. Boys participated in a fag discourse to ensure that others saw them as masculine by renouncing any fag-like behavior or same-sex desire. They did this by imitating fags and calling other boys fags. Boys imitated fags by lisping, mincing and pretending to sexually desire men, drawing laughs from male audiences who howled at these imitations.
They frantically lobbed the fag epithet at one another, in a sort of compulsive name calling ritual. In the context of River High (the pseudonym of the school where I conducted this research) being called a fag had as much to do with failing at tasks of masculinity as it did with sexual desire. More often than not these fag-like behaviors were those associated with femininity. Exhibiting stupidity, emotions, or incompetence, caring too much about clothing, touching another guy, or dancing were all things which could render a boy vulnerable to the fag epithet. In this sense what I call a fag discourse is not just about homophobia, it is about a particularly gendered homophobia as these renouncements of the fag are as much about repudiating femininity as they are about denying same-sex desire.
After listening to my tales about adolescent masculinity at River High people often ask me if this is a phase peculiar to high school, one that boys leave behind as they enter young adulthood and college. While the intensity of the fag discourse may decline with age, observations of and discussions with college students indicate that the gendered rituals central to adolescent masculinity do not disappear as youth leave high school and move to college. While college classrooms are often constructed as non-homophobic and gender equitable spaces and while many colleges have anti-bias policies that cover gay people, students enter the classroom having been steeped in the fag discourse during their former school experiences. Additionally, some college students spend some of their non-class time (after all, courses are only a part of the college experience) engaging in masculinity rituals reminiscent of those I saw at River High.
Two years ago a student reminded me about the way in which the fag discourse might color students' understandings of what they learn in college classrooms. During my senior seminar entitled "Masculinities," Bradley, a former Marine and football player, continually sat back of the classroom arms folded defiantly, sneering at students' attempts at sociological analyses of inequality. As a result, I found my self surprised when he visited my office hours. Apparently inspired by a piece on the social construction of gender in childhood, Bradley poked his head in to my office asking, “You got a sec, teach?” I said “Sure,” taken aback that after his angry outbursts in class he wanted to speak with me.
As he folded himself in to what now seemed a ridiculously small chair he asked, “Teach, now, I have no problem raising a girl to be tough, but what am I gonna do if my son wants to play with Barbie dolls?” I couldn’t answer before he began to tell a story of childhood gender socialization. “You see,” he told me, “when I was little I loved playing with Barbies. My sister, she always told me to put ‘em away. One day she got so fed up she dragged me outside and shoved Barbies in all my pockets and made me stand there while my friends laughed at me.” We spent the next hour discussing a sociological analysis of his experience, how boys have to deny femininity and weakness or suffer teasing and harassment. Bradley, in this instance, serves as a classic example of the legacy of the fag discourse, the way in which some young men might come to class shaped by negative memories of gendered norms. Like some other young men in my classes, Bradley learned early in life to renounce femininity and stereotypically feminine interests or suffer ridicule.
These sorts of classroom experiences to which faculty are privy are only a small part of the college experience for many students. Students play sports, go to parties, organize clubs and pledge fraternities and sororities. In my book I note that the fag discourse runs particularly rampant in primarily male spaces. In auto-shop or the weight-room at River High, boys constantly insinuated that other boys were having sex with one another, that the friend sitting next to them on a weight bench was a fag or that their buddy across the room "loves the cock." Similarly, on college campuses primarily male organizations such as fraternities are particularly fertile ground for the fag discourse. Fraternity members have told me that their pledging rituals are filled with references to femininity and faggots. In these stories fraternity brothers humiliate pledges by teasing them for being feminine or gay. One fraternity member showed me a picture of his fraternity's relatively mild hazing rituals in which four pledges stood against the kitchen wall. Each boy's face sported lipstick, blush and eye shadow. One pledge's hair stuck out from his head in pony tails and another in braids. Other fraternity brothers reported to me that they had to describe themselves as "cum coveting," "cock craving" "faggot magnets," while fraternity brothers laughed at them.
A look at other fraternities indicates that the rituals described to me by these fraternity members were not isolated ones. Last year, for instance, at the University of Vermont fraternity members were accused of forcing pledges to wear cowboy gear while listening to homophobic insults, an activity seemingly inspired by the movie Brokeback Mountain. Not long ago a fraternity member at the University of Texas was found dead after a night of partying, with homophobic epithets such as "fag" scrawled across his torso and legs. Sometimes fraternities do hold their members accountable for engaging in this type of gendered homophobia. For instance, a member of a Dartmouth College fraternity called a passerby a "fag," inspiring his fraternity brothers to hold a panel on inclusivity entitled, "Don’t yell fag from the porch."
It seems that the fag discourse, while particularly pervasive in the social pressure cooker that is high school, doesn't disappear once young men reach college. While my book documents the sort of gendered homophobic teasing that constitutes masculinity in adolescence, a similar sort of fag discourse is far from absent in a college setting. As with the 10 year-old boys at River High, college men are still watching out for the faggot who might get them, whether that faggot is part of their memory as with Bradley and his Barbies or a part of their social worlds in which they label each other fags as part of fraternity rituals. The official line of most universities, espoused by administrators, teaching assistants, and faculty members, is that the learning process should be non-homophobic and gender equitable. But, faculty, administrators and teaching assistants would do well to remember that the academic portion of college is only a small part of the student experience. Indeed, the world students inhabit and construct outside the walls of our classrooms and offices is a different one than the sheltered worlds within it.
C.J. Pascoe is a sociologist at the Digital Youth Project of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley.