On Day of Silence, Introspection About Teen Homophobia

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 17, 2009

Early this month, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old boy from Springfield, Mass., hanged himself after months of incessantly being hounded by his classmates for being "gay." (He was not; but did, apparently, like to do well in school.)

In March, 2007, 17-year-old Eric Mohat shot himself in the head, after a long-term tormentor told him in class, "Why don't you go home and shoot yourself; no one will miss you."

So begins Judith Warner's column in the April 17 New York Times about anti-gay bullying. April 17 isn't just any day. It's the 13th annual Day of Silence. Sponsored by the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network, on this day across the country, students will speak volumes about anti-gay bullying by not speaking at all.

Students in middle school, high school and even college will come to school and participate in class but will not speak. Last year, 8,000 schools particpated. GLSEN expects even more this year.

According to a GLSEN release, "Some students are holding the day this year in memory of Carl Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old from Springfield, Mass., who took his life April 6 after enduring constant bullying at school, including anti-LGBT attacks. Carl, who did not identify as gay, would have turned 12 on the Day of Silence."

As Walker-Hoover's tragic story demonstrates, anti-gay bullying is a cancer that infects everyone, gay and straight. "Being called a 'fag,' you see, actually has almost nothing to do with being gay," Warner explains. "Words like 'fag; and 'gay' are now among the most potent and feared weapons in the school bully's arsenal. It's really about showing any perceived weakness or femininity--by being emotional, seeming incompetent, caring too much about clothing, liking to dance or even having an interest in literature."

It's taken the place of the older all-purpose putdown "nerd," according to a professor at Bennington College, David Anderegg. In his 2007 book, "Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them", he writes: "'Queer' in the sense of being 'odd' or 'unusual,'" but also, for middle schoolers in particular, doing "anything that was too much like what a goody-goody would do."

Warner cites sociologists who note that, while girls now praise such traditionally "non-feminine" activities like athletics, sports teams, science and math, and physical labor, boys seem, as Barbara Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, puts it, "frozen in time."

Warner points to parents who worry that anything that smacks of gayness--interest in fashion, say, or even music or fine art or theater--puts them in panic mode. "There were a few parents who were sort of alarmist about whether or not their children were going to be gay because of their music choices, the clothes they wore," said Malina Saval. Generally, she said, "there was a kind of low-level paranoia if these high-school-age boys weren't yet seriously involved with a girl."

Saval wrote a book called "The Secret Lives of Boys." But neither she, Warner, nor the other experts examine what might be some other factors at work. For one thing, it's no great secret or Freudian conspiracy that everyone--male and female--goes through a homosexual phase at the beginning of sexual development. This is something that was once commonly accepted--hence, calling homosexuality "the English vice," because of that nation's penchant for putting boys in boarding schools.

Once boys move out of that phase, they're overcome with shame and fear of being exposed. And, as study after study has shown, a good deal of gay bashing comes from personal gay panic.

Another factor might be that the changing of sex roles is leaving boys confused. Warner talks of a sociologist who spent time in a town where jobs were scarce and the daddy breadwinner is becoming an endangered species. In today's society, nearly all women work, and many make more than their husbands.

More, boys see men as sex objects. They feel pressure to look good, to be well groomed, impeccably dressed. This is nothing new, but wouldn't this cause at least a little confusion to an adolescent getting mixed messages about, on the one hand, being "real boy" (a la "The Dangerous Book for Boys," Boy Scouts and war games); and, on the other, seeing role model pretty boys like the Hansons, Jonas Brothers and Zac Efron? (This was nicely satirized in a "South Park" episode in which the gang felt left out because everyone was emulating the Disney "High School Musical" franchise, and one boy--in a witty "Zanna, Don't!" role reversal, with an obviously gay-as-a-goose dad, was being forced into theater when what he really wanted was to play basketball.)

Such speculation is interesting, but on the ground, some boys are suffering mightily. There has been a spate of suicides among boys who are taunted with "fag" epithets. And then there's Columbine, where odd boys out become so separated from the community that they resort to terrible revenge.

As the recent brouhaha over a YouTube "star", a 12-year-old boy who says he was once gay but now likes girls and opposes gay marriage, shows, there's still a lot of confusion out there. The boy has been mercilessly taunted and told to kill himself.

Warner is right, though, that it all boils down to parents and educators.

"The Day of Silence is a positive event during which students bring attention to the pervasive problem of anti-LGBT bullying in our nation's schools, a problem far too often ignored," GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said. One of GLSEN's missions has been trying to get school administrators to take relentless taunting seriously. In Ohio, a school is being sued by parents for continuing to ignore their pleas to make the taunting stop. It did--after their son took his own life.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).