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By Lucy Doyle
Leave it to a sociology professor to dare to venture back into the halls of high school to document the homophobic slurs of teenagers. In her 2007 book, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, CJ Pascoe traces the surprising usage of one of the most commonly uttered yet consistently misunderstood epithets in teenage discourse: fag.
Pascoe comes to Rice University this month with a lecture entitled “Bullied: Youth, Gender, and Homophobia.” I had the pleasure of ranting and raving with CJ on ironic homophobia, gay marriage, and Disney princesses in drag. You can catch her at Rice on September 24.
Lucy Doyle: In Dude, You’re a Fag, you come to the conclusion that being deemed “unmasculine” or “effeminate” may be a worse social crime than actually being homosexual.
CJ Pascoe: I think there’s this South Park schtick—this trendy, self-aware, ironic take on homophobia. Frankly, I think because of the success of feminism and gay rights, young men now know it’s not acceptable to blatantly express homophobic or sexist sentiments. So it’s much more subtle. It’s humor, it’s cool. If you aren’t laughing, then you just don’t get it.
Have you seen girls utilize an insult that’s comparable to “fag” in female-on-female bullying?
The closest you can get with girls is the popularity of insults like “slut” or “ho.” There are activists out there who research “slut discourse” in the way that I’ve researched what I like to call “fag discourse.”
In your experience, what are some ways girls express homophobia?
As for the ways in which girls express homophobia against other girls, I think it’s still subtle. When girls kiss other girls for the pleasure of men, I think that’s a form of homophobia. It makes it seem as if women would only engage in female pleasure for the sake of male pleasure. But if girls don’t enact their queer identity correctly, then it can also get politicized. If they’re cool girls, or jocks, or attractive, then they can get away with it in high school. But these other girls who were in the Gay-Straight Alliance and took political stances against homophobia, they were not cool at all. People who take serious political stances are sort of looked down on. If you’re gonna be queer, you have to be cool about it.
What are some of the most effective or common methods of gender rebellion that you saw in your high school subjects?
I would say the cool girls, who I call the “Basketball Girls,” absolutely rejected traditional practices of femininity. In terms of boys, I saw a lot going on in the drama class—you know, when they were backstage with other kids, suddenly they were pirouetting, putting on makeup. It was almost as if a straightjacket had been taken off, and they were able to deconstruct gender [roles that] had been placed upon them. It was beautiful.
Then there was Ricky, who was kind of the star of the book. He rejected gender norms on a daily basis, wearing a skirt regularly, wearing makeup when he wanted to. His presence announced to the other boys in the school that gender was an artifice that was put on. It put him in danger, in fact, and he eventually dropped out of school.
Was there a sense of community among the so-called “unmasculine” boys of your school?
No, and that’s a fabulous question. I didn’t see them really come together in any way. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true of other schools. They’re all different, but at this school, they all developed different coping mechanisms. One really lived in drama, another lived in dance, and another surrounded himself with groups of girls that he felt protected by.
Do you have reason to hope these kids will fare better after high school, in terms of finding a support network?
I’m actually in touch with a lot of them. Ricky is a professional female-impersonator drag queen. He’s incredible.
Would their lives have been different if things had been better in high school? Probably. A lot of them carry scars with them. When I was writing Dude, there were states that had no Gay-Straight Alliances. Things have changed. I think the one issue that schools are still really bad at addressing, because it is harder to address, is the issue of gender variance—genderqueer or transgender kids. They have no clue what to do with these kids.
What do you think will bring about greater acceptance of queer youth: kids who can “pass” who subvert social standards from within the system, or kids who express gender rebellion from the core of their being outward?
Well, we’ve had this massive success in the gay world, right? I could go on about this, but the entire notion of gay marriage feels like assimilation. Assimilation should not be the goal of the gay rights movement. For the sake of kids like Ricky—and of homeless queer youth, queer youth of color, trans youth of color—I think we, as a movement, need to focus on breaking down social norms rather than fitting in.
Taking a step away from your role as an observant sociologist, what are some methods of self-care, or even just self-preservation, that you wish you could share with your subjects?
I think I’d just tell them they’re not alone. There are adults who have had experiences like theirs, there are people their own age with experiences like theirs. Though it may seem bad now, they are not alone in that situation. There weren’t always chatrooms for queer kids, but now the Internet is a lifeline for them. And if they can’t find a community online that suits them, I’d say, “You should create one.”
What examples of self-empowerment did you see in the high-schoolers?
The Gay-Straight Alliance kids were probably the best at it. They knew what their rights were, which was amazing. They used online resources. They lean on each other in an amazing way. Drama was also really important.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’re excited about?
I’m working on two book projects, and one of them looks at LGBT-identified folks between the ages of 16 and 50 and their coming-of-age experiences, so there’s a big age range.
What: The Gray/Wawro Lecture Series presents CJ Pascoe: “Bullied: Youth, Gender, and Homophobia”
When: September 24, 6–7:30 p.m.
Where: Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, Hudspeth Auditorium, Rice University Entrance #8 (West Lots 4 or 5).
Details: Open to the public; reception to follow lecture. More information: events.rice.edu/index.cfm?EventRecord=26289