Tag Archives: masculinity

When White Men Can Dance: Race, Masculinity, and Jock Insurance

by Katie Kaufman Rogers

Earlier this month, an Australian CrossFit athlete named Khan Porter posted a video to his Facebook page. The video opens on Porter in a gym. He sashays to the Beyoncé hit “Single Ladies.” Suddenly, mid-routine, Porter performs a 264 lb snatch: He lifts a cartoonishly huge barbell above his head in one swift motion, then drops it with a triumphant thud and picks up dancing where he left off.

The video has more than 1.7 million views. Porter has since followed up with a second post, saying, “I posted my video because I think the way the public reacted reflects a pretty cool shift in preconceived notions of masculinity and think that’s grounds for starting some more positive conversations about what it means to be ‘a man.’” The post goes on to address the connections between masculinity, mental health, and suicide.

Porter’s video and follow-up post have both received an outpouring of support online, from comments on Facebook to features and praise on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and espnW. Many commenters—including Porter himself—have likened the video to actor Channing Tatum’s recent appearance on the reality series Lip Sync Battle, in which Tatum performed a drag rendition of Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls).” The video of Tatum’s performance went viral, too.

It is tempting to embrace Porter’s hope that the widespread love for his video reflects a sea change in contemporary conceptions of masculinity—a move from rigid, fragile identities to more flexible, durable ones. But while it is true that masculinities are always in flux (Kimmel 1996), masculinities scholars debate the extent to which these changes are liberating for women and marginalized groups of men. Is the response to Porter’s video as revolutionary as these media outlets profess, or is it a mirage, tricking us into believing that patriarchy has fundamentally changed? Masculinities scholarship suggests that the video reveals the elasticity of an institution like patriarchy. It can stretch to change form or appearance, but its hierarchical structure and resulting inequality stays the same.

Sociologists Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe (2014) have devised a useful concept for understanding the continual shifting of masculinities. For Bridges and Pascoe, hybrid masculinities refer to the “selective incorporation of elements of identity typically associated with various marginalized and subordinated masculinities and—at times—femininities into privileged men’s gender performances and identities” (2014:246). In other words, men enact hybrid masculinities when they include bits and pieces of identities associated with marginalized “Others” into their own identity projects. These Others can include men of color, working-class men, rural men, queer men, and women, among others. Bridges and Pascoe argue that even though all kinds of people use hybrid masculinities, it is men who have the most privilege (i.e., white, straight, wealthy, cisgender) who are freest to enact these identities while still being seen as appropriately masculine.

Porter partially acknowledges this when he points out that gay men are not allowed the same flexibility in constructing hybrid masculinities as straight men (though it should be noted that this point also serves—intentionally or otherwise—to stress that Porter himself is straight). However, two additional privileges help make Porter’s hybrid identity “acceptable” to a broad audience. First, he has what Pascoe calls “jock insurance” (2003:1427), meaning he conforms so closely to the standards of hegemonic masculinity that he can behave in conventionally nonmasculine ways without having his masculinity questioned. These standards include traits like athletic prowess, attractiveness, and sexual skill. Porter’s website states that he is a professional CrossFit athlete. His Instagram account is filled with photos and videos that showcase his athletic ability, muscled build, and signifiers of wealth (e.g., a BMW, an expensive watch, vacation photos). Articles describing the viral video tend to mention Porter’s sexual desirability, calling him “super hot” “eye candy” with a “flawless” physique and “all-too-perfect upper body strength.” These elements of Porter’s performance and its reception work together to ensure that his dance moves do not detract from his manliness.

Second, Porter is a white man. Compare Porter’s experiences with those of Odell Beckham, Jr., star wide receiver for the New York Giants, to understand the advantage his race affords him. Beckham, who is Black, is also known for dancing. He grooves in the end zone after a touchdown and in videos posted online. He also posts photos on his Instagram account that show displays of tenderness and affection toward other men. These behaviors seem aligned with what Porter sees as a transformation in socially-accepted performances of masculinity. However, the response to Beckham’s hybrid masculinities differs dramatically from the response to Porter’s. Rather than celebrate Beckham’s identity, online commenters and media organizations have responded by interrogating his heterosexuality. Streams of comments on Beckham’s Instagram describe his sexuality as “suspect” and explicitly insist that he’s gay.

An image (with comments) posted on Odell Beckham, Jr.’s Instagram page. The photo features Beckham hugging close friend and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry after a game.
An image (with comments) posted on Odell Beckham, Jr.’s Instagram page. The photo features Beckham hugging close friend and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry after a game.
An image (with comments) posted on Odell Beckham, Jr.’s Instagram page. The photo features Beckham with his father and baby brother.
An image (with comments) posted on Odell Beckham, Jr.’s Instagram page. The photo features Beckham with his father and baby brother.

For instance, a photo of Beckham hugging longtime friend Jarvis Landry (a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins) drew dozens of comments like the following:

blessings_catchings He’s really gay people and it’s not because of this pic.

alexryansanch Looking very suspect.

marley_chapo He kissn his neck

Compare this response to the praise heaped on high-profile friendships of white celebrities. The so-called “bromance” of Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon, for example, has been celebrated by the media for years at no cost to public understanding of their manliness or heterosexuality.

These attacks on Beckham’s identity have taken a toll on the football field. Numerous sources including the Giants organization have stated that players have targeted Beckham with homophobic language all season, occasionally spurring confrontations with other players. Before a December game against the Carolina Panthers, players reportedly taunted Beckham with “gay slurs” during pregame warmups. Beckham went on to strike Panthers cornerback Josh Norman repeatedly on the head during the game, resulting in a one-game suspension. Panthers players continued to undermine Beckham’s masculinity after the game, publicly feminizing him with words like “bitch” and “ballerina.”

American culture regards NFL football players as paragons of masculinity and toughness. If anyone should be able to leverage “jock insurance,” it should be an NFL football star. Yet when we compare the radically different responses to Porter’s and Beckham’s enactments of hybrid masculinities, we can see racial disparities in the effectiveness of jock insurance. White men, it seems, have more space to construct hybrid identities (e.g., showing affection to other men, dressing in drag, dancing to Beyoncé music) than men of color.

Though well-intentioned, Porter’s “strategic borrowing” (Bridges & Pascoe 2014:252) of elements of black femininity may actually work to obscure and reinforce systems of patriarchy and white supremacy rather than dismantling them. Bridges and Pascoe write:

By framing middle-class, young, straight, White men as both the embodiment and harbinger of feminist change in masculinities, social scientists participate in further marginalizing poor men, working-class men, religious men, undereducated men, rural men, and men of color (among others) as the bearers of uneducated, backwards, toxic, patriarchal masculinities. Even as young White men borrow practices and identities from young, gay, Black, or urban men in order to boost their masculine capital, research shows that these practices often work simultaneously to reaffirm these subordinated groups as deviant, thus supporting existing systems of power and dominance. (2014:253)

Applauding Porter’s identity while criticizing Beckham’s reinforces racial disparities in public conceptions of manhood: Porter appears bold and enlightened for engaging in behaviors for which Beckham is painted as deviant. Porter’s video and accompanying statement celebrate the freedom of white men to play with masculinity, but they will do little to dismantle systems of oppression that punish men of color for the same behaviors. Rather than subvert the structural inequalities of patriarchy and white supremacy, Porter’s appropriation of elements of femininity and black culture amount to—in the words of sociologist Michael Messner—“more style than substance” (1993:724).

 

References

Bridges, Tristan and C. J. Pascoe. 2014. “Hybrid Masculinities: New Directions in the Sociology of Men and Masculinities.” Sociology Compass 8(3):246-258.

Kimmel, Michael. 1996. Manhood in America. New York: The Free Press.

Messner, Michael. 1993. “‘Changing Men’ and Feminist Politics in the United States.” Theory and Society 22(5):723-37.

Pascoe, C. J. 2003. “Multiple Masculinities? Teenage Boys Talk About Jocks and Gender.” American Behavioral Scientist 46(10):1423-38.


Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the areas of gender, race, and sexuality. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiearog.

“This Is Men’s Work:” Lessons on How to Talk about Masculinity and Men’s Involvement in Ending Violence against Women

by Juan Portillo

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“My Strength Is Not For Hurting,” read a poster that professor Christine Williams showed during the inaugural MasculinUT: Healthy Masculinities Project event on September 3, 2015. Williams was critical of the poster because of how it positioned men as subjects who can make a choice to be violent or not, while women were portrayed as silent objects to be protected. The poster is an example of recent efforts to involve men in the movement to end violence against women, contained in Michael Messner’s new book, Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women. The book, which came out earlier this year, was at the center of an “author-meets-critics” panel conversation between Messner, UT sociology professors Christine Williams and Ben Carrington, and undergraduate Student Government Chief of Staff Taral Patel.

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Examples of the “My Strength is Not for Hurting” campaign posters referenced by Christine Williams

The conversation around this poster was reflective of the tone of the event, which did not focus purely on the successes or failures of men’s involvement in the movement to end violence against women, but on the contradictions and lessons that can be learned about masculinity, race, and the institutionalization of the movement to end violence against women. The “Strength is Not for Hurting” campaign represents, to varying degrees, the state of men’s involvement (or attempts to involve men) in the movement: a depoliticized (read: distanced from feminism), sanitized (read: not messing with a gender hierarchy or questioning masculinity), professionalized and institutionalized effort that targets individual men, but is not critical of masculinity or patriarchy and the way they shape institutions and their logics. It stands in stark contrast with MasculinUT, which is a project headed by Voices Against Violence of the Counseling and Mental Health Center. MasculinUT aims to transform taken-for-granted understandings of masculinity on campus, and promote healthy models of masculinity with the ultimate goal of preventing interpersonal, relationship, and sexual violence on campus. The conversation over the poster and the history of men’s involvement in ending violence against women went in many directions that problematized taken for granted ideas about gender, race, and violence. Though not all questions were answered, the fact that we can have a complex conversation says a lot about the direction that anti-violence work can positively go in.

Messner’s co-authored book analyzes men’s involvement in the movement to end violence against women from the 1970s to the present, separating the men into different cohorts. As Patel summarized during the event, Messner explains that in the 1970s some men listened to and collaborated with women who were leaders in the feminist movement, creating coalitions with them to redefine masculinity and fight for gender equality by reaching out to young men. Messner calls these men the “movement cohort.” Patel noted that a key difference between men in the 1970s and young men today was the use of political labels to identify themselves in the 70s, compared to almost a phobia of labels nowadays. The “bridge cohort” is what Messner terms the men who worked in anti-violence programs and institutions with anti-violence policies during 1980s and 1990s; Patel found this part of the book relevant to him as a student in an institution that has to follow laws and policies to prevent violence against women. Patel saw the institutionalization of anti-violence programs (in universities and the military, for example) as the success of feminism, and observed that coalition building means that allies must listen to movement leaders. He also highlighted how the book respects and centers the work of women, without which men who do anti-violence work could not operate.

The final group that Messner’s book discusses is the “professional cohort.” This cohort of men is the most diverse racially and economically; this is partly the result of anti-violence programs targeting communities of color and needing to recruit young men of color that their target audience can relate to. It is also a cohort distant from political discourses, as they do not identify with feminism for the most part, and work under a public health and social work umbrella to justify their involvement in anti-violence programs. In this vein, Patel’s questions focused on what students can do now to build on the opportunities afforded to them by feminist work and continue building coalitions that recognize how gender violence is not independent from racial violence and class violence, among other types of violence experienced by students.

One of VAV's new posters for the "Yes means Yes" campaign.
One of VAV’s new posters for the “Yes means Yes” campaign.

After reflecting on Patel’s comments and Messner’s responses, I see that MasculinUT is a mixture of both “new” and “not so new” ideas. Mesnner shared that in the 1970s, men had a vested interest in changing the definition of “manhood” to humanize men and fight against unquestioned gender assumptions (which society ascribes to boys and men) such as men’s aggressiveness, lack of emotions, and violent tendencies. Like Messner’s early experiences in the feminist movement, one of the goals of MasculinUT is to promote healthy models of masculinities that would afford young men on our campus a better quality of life by improving relationships, reducing violence (against women and among men), and improving men’s mental and physical health by encouraging the exploration of different emotions and interpersonal skills often thought of as feminine.

However, as Christine Williams pointed out during the panel, recent efforts by some men’s groups who stand against violence often reify the gender hierarchy by positioning men as subjects who have to be responsible for their male power, and women as objects to be protected. After showing the posters mentioned at the beginning of this post, she congratulated Messner on how the book operates with a framework that does not glorify or put down men’s efforts, but rather works to understand contradictions and tensions that arise out of men’s involvement in the movement to end violence against women. One of her most critical questions had to do with how much emphasis Messner puts on education programs to reduce violence, and whether or not education is a true site of transformation for masculinity. To this, Messner responded that education by itself is not an answer, and indeed it is wrought with problematic messages that rest on a gender binary and hierarchy. However, he pointed out that the book contains examples of men using educational and promotional materials as tools to start a conversation that is relevant to men’s lives. Moreover, he emphasized that the book also explores what it takes for men to get interested in the movement to end violence against women, and how much effort they have to put in to make it their career. By emphasizing this, he is not trying to glorify the men (who often are praised just for showing up to anti-violence programs), yet also not dismiss the complicated, contradictory, and often difficult work they engage in.

Professor Ben Carrington also highlighted parts of the book that discussed how anti-violence PR work is limited when the movement to end violence against women is institutionalized. Carrington reflected on how, as universities, non-profits, health organizations, and other institutions develop anti-violence policies and work to reduce gender violence, they often ignore how to transform powerful entities (such as athletics departments) and become complicit in the perpetuation of violence. Moreover, Carrington mentioned that the problem is individualized, as it is not seen as a cultural or structural problem, but a problem of individual men. Often, the men who represent violence in the eyes of the institution tend to be men of color, who become scapegoats that ultimately allow for assumptions of masculinity within the institutions to resist transformation. Carrington ended with a question about the limits of Messner’s definition of the “field” of men’s involvement in the movement to end violence against women, particularly how limiting the genealogy of anti-violence work from the 1970s to today leaves out important contributions of women of color that span hundreds of years of work against the violence of European colonists, slave-owners, and other powerful entities. If these were to be included, asked Dr. Carrington, is a white, liberal, feminist framework still relevant?

There is a lot at stake when writing about men’s involvement in a movement primarily seen as headed by white women, because under patriarchy men’s contributions can be glorified and their privilege overlooked, silencing women’s needs and contributions. Moreover, in a society that privileges whiteness, it is easy to ignore women of color’s involvement and intellectual contributions in anti-violence work, and ignore power dynamics that result in men of color and working class men being labeled as the most violent in an effort to resist an overall transformation of patriarchy that affords elite men privilege. While the book does address some of these issues, Messner shared that after having conversations with many feminist academics and activists, he now sees loose ends left in his book. If given a chance, he would include more historical information about important anti-violence work, particularly work done by women of color. He explained that his original genealogy arose from a conversation with his co-authors while reminiscing about their involvement in the feminist movement and in violence prevention work. Thus, the genealogy represents their own social location. This reminds me of how Dorothy Smith1 and Patricia Hill Collins2 write about how the tools we learn as sociologists to conduct research are rooted in masculinist, Eurocentric logics. It is easy to forget or trivialize women’s intellectual contributions and work when the very tools of our field are already infused with logics that center (often white and middle-class) men’s experiences and standpoint, even when working with a feminist framework in a field constructed by feminists.

I am not accusing the authors of the book or pointing fingers particularly at them, but rather reflecting on what it takes to produce feminist work that includes sophisticated thoughts about men and masculinity in a feminist scholarly effort, from the point of view of men. As Smith and Collins argue, one way to account for the limitations of both our social location and masculinist, Eurocentric sociological methods and theory, is to trust and respect feminist work that arises from the experiences of women of all walks of life. This is something that, as a feminist scholar, Messner is doing since the release of the book. He has addressed questions such as Carrington’s by recognizing the limitations of his book and incorporating the tools and ideas of feminists of color to enrich the work without taking credit for those ideas. He wrote the blog post titled “Intersectionality Without Women of Color?” to engage in reflexivity sparked by listening to feminists of color. He starts his post by writing:

A book should never be treated as a statement of some final Truth. Instead, a book is best put to use as moment of condensed insight that focuses and clarifies ongoing conversations. Still, when you are the author of a book, and engaging in such public conversations, you sometimes learn things in the give-and-take that you wish you had known while writing.

This is where I see the success of this event and hopefully, of the new MasculinUT initiative on the UT campus: engaging in dialogue that results in meaningful transformations of our understandings of gender and violence, and the multiple intersections with race, class, and more. I foresee a lot of difficult conversations happening as Voices Against Violence moves forward with this project on the UT campus. When talking about the power inherent in relationships shaped by gender, race, and class (among other identities), and more importantly, about transforming those relationships to prevent violence, I don’t see an easy way to prevent disagreement or prevent MasculinUT from engaging in problematic discussions. What I do see is that it can be possible to have a dialogue where MasculinUT and the student body can learn from each other and together develop a fluid platform to address issues of violence, gender, race, class, and more. What this event taught me (in connection to feminist epistemology and methodology), is that this type of work requires an interrogation of logics and practices that exist through, and outside of, ourselves. We cannot rely on our experiences and our points of view alone to understand how violence works and how to prevent it. We need to trust, listen to, and respect what people with vastly different experiences have to say, whether this is in the form of theories developed by feminist scholars, or the solutions that activists of different backgrounds have come up with when engaging in anti-violence work. Being reflexive of our standpoint as we do research, having compassion for the people who engage in education programs that target men, questioning the rationalization for targeting men of color, and being critical of taken-for-granted notions of masculinity will only enrich the work that we do, and Messner’s responses (during the panel and in the blog linked above) are one way of transforming our narratives and our tools as sociologists. In line with his book, I do not want to glorify Messner for his work; however, I do want to celebrate the lessons to be learned in the contradictions and tensions that his work contends with, and the way that he listens to, honors, and works with other stakeholders in the movement to end violence.

 

References

1. Smith, Dorothy. (1987). The Every Day World As Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Northeastern University Press.

2. Collins, Patricia Hill. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.

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Juan Portillo is a Graduate Assistant for Voices Against Violence, working on the MasculinUT project. He is also a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Sociology at UT Austin.

 

Scouting and Homosexuality : A Case for the Gender Police?

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Over the past few weeks, the Boy Scouts of America’s policy on gay Scouts and Scoutmasters has been featured heavily in the news.  I am an Eagle Scout who studies masculinity here at the Sociology department and thus feel compelled to weigh in on this important issue.  But to properly unpack why heterosexuality is so near and dear to the Boy Scouts, we need to establish a bit of historical context.

Allow me to set the scene:  It’s the year 2000.  Y2K has passed, Britney Spears is still culturally relevant, and we’re still seven long years from the iPhone.  Over on the Supreme Court, the issue of gays and Scouting is already at hand.  In the 2000 case Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, the court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA)  were legally able to exclude homosexuals from BSA participation under the constitutional right to freedom of association.  Because BSA operates as a private organization, the court saw exclusion as justified when “the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public of private viewpoints.”  According to the court arguments, opposition to homosexuality is part of BSA’s “expressive message” and thus allowing gay male leaders or scouts would interfere with that message.

Which begs the question: What does “expressive message” mean, and why is homophobia part of the message?

Boy Scouts was first founded by Sir Robert Baden-Powell in England.  Baden-Powell formulated a militaristic and authoritarian vision for the British Boy Scouts, stressing obedience and duty.  Scholars have likened this version of Boy Scouts to a factory producing uniform men “under detailed specifications for particular uses [with] both supplied by a coherent ideology stressing unquestioning obedience to properly structured authority” (Rosenthal 1986).  Essentially, the job of Boy Scouts was to make “manly” men who would then slide easily into discipline-heavy, autonomy-light positions like factory work, middle management, and ideally the ranks of the military in the service of the British Empire.

In the transition from British Boy Scouts into the Boy Scouts of America, we see a reformulation of Scouting to fit its new American setting.  The secular and imperial social context of England produced a Boy Scouts that was equally secular and aspired to produce future soldiers for the British Empire.  In the US, we took the militaristic garb and organization, added copious amount of quasi-religious morality (aided by the essential part churches have in hosting Scout troops), and put it in the service of shoring up a “crisis in masculinity.”  Hold on a sec:  crisis in masculinity?  Where did that come from?

Let’s think about the beginning of the 20th century in the United States.  Industrialization and wage labor were fundamentally changing domestic and work lives.  Instead of a family owning a farm and working it together to put food on the table, men now went to work to earn the money that would put food on the table while their wives sat sequestered at home.  The creation of separate (public/domestic) and unequal spheres of life for men and women created a new basis for male privilege.  At the same time however, fewer men owned their businesses, their homes or farms, or even controlled their own labor.  According to sociologist Michael Messner, “these changes in work and family, along with the rise of female-dominated public schools, urbanization, and the closing of the frontier all led to widespread fears of ‘social feminization’ and a turn-of-the-century crisis in masculinity” (Messner 2007: 35)

With the “feminizing” effects of the big city, female teachers, and a life of waged labor seemingly entrenched into modern social life, men looked for ways to “masculinize” boys early in their development.  This, they hoped, would inoculate them against the deleterious and emasculating winds of 20th century existence.  And HERE is where Boy Scouts enters stage right.  Boy Scouting in America – like its British counterpart – was created with the express purpose of “masculinizing” boys.  We might think of Theodore Roosevelt as the personification of the kind of masculinity the BSA was hoping to produce: strong willed, adventurous, self-sufficient, knowledgeable about nature and camping, definitely not feminine and DEFINITELY not gay.

And thus the good ship BSA continued to sail for many a decade.  It should come as no surprise that being “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight” and spending weekends with your Dad became quite uncool over the years.  Equally uncool was the idea of spending the night in some mosquito infested park instead of hanging out at your friend’s house eating delivered pizza in the air conditioning.  When I first came to Scouting in the 1990s – no doubt partially borne from my father’s own observed “crisis in masculinity” in his overweight, clumsy, bookish son – it was clearly a social world operating under Fight Club rules: no one talked about being in Boy Scouts, no one actually wanted to be in Boy Scouts, and in fact, there IS no Boy Scouts.  My troop was populated by awkward young boys, and many of them – like me – were pushed into Scouting by their fathers as a way to bond and learn about being a man.  We learned outdoor skills to be self-sufficient.  We learned what to do in emergencies and gained a sense of agency.  We took turns being patrol leaders and learned leadership.  We even dutifully absorbed guidelines on personal hygiene, grooming, and ethics.  In some ways, you might even call Scouting “Masculinity for Dummies,” albeit a masculinity that seemed more suited for a bygone age where the square knot and orientation-by-compass were essential daily tasks.  The point was, the popular guys, the guys who got girls, the guys who were on the football team – these were NOT the guys at my troop meeting.  We were guys who knew more about Lord of the Rings than women or sports; we named our patrol after the Warg, a vicious animal from Tolkien’s series.  That is what our fathers sensed, and that is partially why we all gathered in that room on a weekly basis.

As any good sociologist knows however, norms are socially and historically contingent and what is “good, true, or possible” in a given social context will always change, if given enough time.  To be sure, the contemporary BSA experience still attempts to turn boys into normative, masculine men.  But the boundaries of normative masculinity change.  Most of us live in big cities, work for a wage, have been taught be female teachers…..and yet there is no dearth of masculine men.  While not completely normative, it’s even OK for men to be fashionable, be sensitive, be vulnerable.  Thanks to those Peter Jackson films, it might even be cool to like Lord of the Rings now!

Other things have showed less progress, however.  One of the most universal aspects of masculinity is its tendency to define itself as whatever is not feminine.  Thus misogyny and female objectification are still rife in our society, and we have Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, not People Scouts.  Hegemonic masculinity and heterosexuality are also deeply associated.  Thus homophobia – especially among adolescent men, according to CJ Pascoe – continues to exist. On this last point however, all is not lost: Pascoe’s work on high school masculinity revealed that while a gay identity was frequently used as a feminizing epithet, attitudes towards actual gay and lesbian students were more complex and even respectful.  According to Pascoe, while calling other teenagers “fag” is a powerfully stigmatizing word used to hurt and demean, it is primarily deployed to chastise teenagers that are acting feminine instead of those who choose a gay identity.

OK, now we’re caught up to the recent kerfuffle over gays and Scouting.  Less than two weeks ago, the BSA announced a shift in their “no gays allowed” policy upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000.  Rather than a blanket “gays allowed” reversal, their shift was to be based on a quasi-“state’s rights” approach, where each local Scout council would be allowed to decide the policy that best suited their social and cultural context.  That way, the troop in San Francisco could march in the Gay Pride Parade, the troop in Oklahoma City could tell their Scouts that homosexuality was neither moral nor straight, and the BSA could wash its hands of any responsibility.  The liberals get social equality, the conservatives get the right to their own views, and the libertarians get “Big BSA” off of their backs so things can be decided at the local level.  Everyone wins, right?

If you’ve paid any attention to the “culture wars” surrounding gay marriage and abortion, you probably already know the answer: Of course not!  Progressive supporters of the change said this would revitalize the dwindling interest in Scouting; conservative opponents said this would produce a wave of departures from church sponsored troops.  Change supporters said this would create important dialogues; opponents said this would create ideological walls between troops.  The companies that use liberal ideology to sell their products cheered and gave the BSA money; the companies that use conservative ideology to sell their products jeered and threatened to deny funding.

But with our historical context and sociological imagination up and running, we can see that this is slightly more complex than the media narrative.  The Boy Scouts of America were generally founded to inculcate masculinity in boys and specifically to endorse a hegemonic masculinity that is heterosexual at best and homophobic at worst.  So when the Supreme Court or Random Conservative Pundit says that allowing gays in Scouting goes against its foundational “expressive message,” this is quite a bit of truth in this.

The rub is the aforementioned sociological truism that gender norms are dynamic, fluid, and subject to change across time.

Eagle Scouts deliver petitions to BSA Headquarters. (Courtesy AP)
Eagle Scouts deliver petitions to BSA Headquarters. (Courtesy AP)

If today’s society, today’s Boy Scout leaders, or today’s Boy Scouts decide that excluding gay people on the basis of sexual orientation is no longer acceptable, that truth is as valid and real as the “truth” of masculinity the BSA was founded upon.  If the hard fought legal battles and cultural visibility the GLBTQ community have won in the decades since Stonewall mean that homosexuality is no longer seen as immoral or unclean to today’s Boy Scouts – as evidenced by the 1.4 million signatures a group of Eagle Scouts delivered to BSA headquarters –  then that is something their leaders have to deal with honestly, responsibly, and with an open mind.

Perhaps that will still be the case even with the decision Wednesday from the BSA to have more deliberations before a final decision.  On one side stand people who no longer see a conflict between social acceptance of homosexuality and “being a man” in the year 2013.  On the other side are people who sense that something fundamental about masculinity and Scouting is changing.  Both may be right.  But as our trip through history shows, this has as much to do with masculinity and gender policing as it does with homosexuality.

Further Reading and References:

Denny, Kathleen E. 2011. “Gender in Context, Content, and Approach : Comparing Gender Messages in Girl Scout and Boy Scout Handbooks.”  Gender & Society 25: 27

Messner, Michael. 2007. Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender and Sport. Albany: SUNY Press

Pascoe, CJ. 2007. Dude, You’re A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press

Rosenthal, Michael. 1986. The character factory: Baden-Powell and the origins of the Boy Scout movement. New York: Pantheon.