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Opinion

Homophobia hurts straight men, too

The suicide of college freshman Tyler Clementi painfully spotlights the dire consequences of homophobic bullying on gay men. But a homophobic culture that condemns male affection and emotion as "gay" hurts all men – and our culture at large.

By / October 6, 2010



New York

In the 1986 movie Stand By Me, an adult protagonist – played by Richard Dreyfuss – looks back wistfully on the friendships he formed in his youth. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve,” he muses. “Does anyone?”

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For most American men, the sad answer is “no.” In surveys, men report that they rarely sustain intimate, long-standing friendships with other males after childhood. And the reason might surprise you: According to a large body of research, they’re afraid of being seen as gay.

I thought of this research as I read about the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after a roommate secretly filmed Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man and posted the clip online. Clementi died by himself, but he wasn’t alone: Since the school term began in September, three other adolescent boys around the country also committed suicide following taunts from classmates about their sexual orientation.

In response, gay and lesbian groups called on schools to institute more stringent protections for gay students. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got in on the act, attributing these “unnecessary tragedies” to the “trauma” of homophobic bullying. “This is a moment where every one of us . . . needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms.”

A longstanding problem – for all

He’s right, of course. But to fight intolerance against gay boys, we also need to acknowledge its toll on straights – and our entire culture. Homophobia hurts all of our boys, by driving a wedge between them. Sharing your deepest feelings with another man? That’s so . . . gay. Or so we’ve been taught.

And we’ve known about this problem for a long time. In the early 1980s, observing hundreds of elementary-school boys, sociologists Barrie Thorne and Zella Luria noticed that kindergarteners and first-graders hugged, joined arms, and held hands. But by fifth grade, boys had forsaken these customs in favor of mock violence – poking, pushing, and shoving – or ritual gestures like high-fives.

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