High school and the difficult terrain of sexuality and gender identity are brilliantly explored in this smart, incisive ethnography. Based on eighteen months of fieldwork in a racially diverse working-class high school, Dude, You’re a Fag sheds new light on masculinity both as a field of meaning and as a set of social practices. C. J. Pascoe’s unorthodox approach analyzes masculinity as not only a gendered process but also a sexual one. She demonstrates how the “specter of the fag” becomes a disciplinary mechanism for regulating heterosexual as well as homosexual boys and how the “fag discourse” is as much tied to gender as it is to sexuality.
What follows is a video with her discussing her conclusions. I have specifically reserved comment on this idea because I have neither the experience or the requisite knowledge to proffer an opinion. I have decided to post this in order to learn from the thoughts of others, if you are willing to share.
Dalton Conley: C.J. in your recent book Dude, You’re a Fag, you talk about the label fag as less something about sexual orientation in the youth you studied and more about policing the boundaries of masculinity – the gender roles as opposed to sexuality. Can you elaborate?
C.J.: What I found out when I was doing the research for Dude You’re a Fag – I spent a year and half working with kids in a high school. I was struck by how often boys would call one another fag or faggot and it happened so often that it would echo in my head even when I was not at the research site. And so I started investigating what did they mean when they called one another a fag, because I think as most people would suspect or have a hunch, um I thought that they actually thought that they were calling one another homosexual.Right like they might as well be saying you’re so gay or you’re a homosexual and when I started questioning them about it, boys would say things to me like, “it has nothing to do with sexual preference at all, you could just be calling someone and idiot.” And so I kind of began to ask them, what kinds of things could you do that would get you called a fag and quickly a list came to the surface: if you danced, if you cared about your clothing, if you were too emotional, or if you were incompetent and so all of this things they defined as un-masculine. And so what I came to realize was that they used fag as insult to police the boundaries of masculinity — that it wasn’t really about same sex desire and in fact when I asked them about same sex desire, one boy said, “well being gay is just a lifestyle; you can still throw a football around and be gay.” And so that’s when I realized that being gay, while it wasn’t exactly accepted, it wasn’t that bad. It was much worse to be an un-masculine man that it was to be a masculine man who desired another man. And so that is what they were doing with the fag insult, or what I came to call the fag insult – was that they were policing the boundaries of masculinity and continually interactionally reminding one another how to be masculine.
Dalton Conley: So in this racially integrated working class high school where you did your field work, did you really encounter boys, adult teenage boys that were openly homosexual but very masculine and therefore were accepted by their heterosexual peers?
C.J.: So, at River High there were three out teenage boys and they were accepted to different extents by their straight peers. There was one boy, an African American boy who was normatively masculine. He wasn’t on the football team but as my boys would say, “you couldn’t tell he was gay, just by looking at him.” And so he passed in a sense. He also surrounded himself with girls and they set up sort of a protective border around him and he didn’t interact with most of the students at the school. There was another boy also was normatively masculine. He was very tall, he was large, he was a big kid. He could have passed for much older than 16, which is what he was. And boys never talked about him. When I said, “Who are the gay boys in your school, who would you point out as a fag at your school ?| This boy’s name was never brought up and indeed when I interviewed him, he never reported being harassed and my hunch is because he was normatively masculine and relatively large that boys didn’t target him. The boy who was targeted, Ricky, broke both roles of gender and sexuality. So, not only did he have same sex desire, he was very open about having same sex desire, he also broke gender rules and that he crossed dressed, he danced like girls danced, he had long hair and so for that reason boys targeted him relentlessly and they targeted him so relentlessly that he eventually dropped out of school.
Dalton Conley: What implications does your research have for public policy, for example hate crimes legislation? One conclusion one might draw is that this is harmless boundary work that may have been done using racial epithets in the past, as you mention, in a way it’s a sign of the success of the gay rights movement — so maybe legislatures and gay rights activists should chill out, not worry abut it so much. Is that the conclusion or maybe have a more activist policy conclusion out of all of this?
C.J.: So I think out of this research comes a couple of policy conclusions. When we look at some events in recent history over the past couple years we see a couple things. We see incidents such as the death of Carl Joseph Walker Jr., who was an 11 year old in Massachusetts who was teased and bullied for being very into academics and was subject to what I would call the fag discourse and he ended killing himself because of it. We know of cases of boys who engage in cross gender behaviour, who make public their same sex desire and they’re either teased for it or sometimes killed for it. We also know that 90% of school shooters who go on rampage school shootings have been subject to homophobic harassment and teasing. So we know that there are consequences to the fag discourse and most boys don’t go to those extremes but some boys do. And even boys who don’t like Ricky, the boy who was harassed in my book, end up dropping out of school because they just don’t get the support that they need. So I think that all of that leads us to conclude that we do need to have some sort of policy recommendations because there are very serious consequences. California has taken a step in the right direction. They passed the safe schools and violence act in which students are prohibited from teasing one another based on sexual or gender presentation. Very few states actually have such a law. Massachusetts actually has such a law and so I think that, that sort of bullying and harassment legislation is one of the first steps that needs to be taken. I think that we need to see is teacher training. Most teachers don’t recognize this thing has harassment. They see it as boys will be boys. They see what goes on between boys and girls as flirting and so we need to make teachers aware of this sort of behaviour and give them tools to deal with this sort of behaviour.