Be Butch or Be Bashed

Published in: January-February 2008 issue.


Dude You're a FagDude, You’re a Fag:  Masculinity and Sexuality in High School
by C. J. Pascoe
University of California Press
227 pages, $19.95


“CHEERING STUDENTS filled River High’s gymnasium. Packed tightly in bleachers, they sang, hol-lered, and danced to loud hip-hop music. Over their heads hung banners celebrating fifty years of River High’s sports victories. The yearly assembly in which the student body voted for the most popular senior boy in the school to be crowned Mr. Cougar was under way, featuring six candidates performing a series of skits to earn student votes.”

Thus begins Dude, You’re a Fag, which has the accessible narrative tone of a coming-out novel but is actually an incisive, well-researched, fascinating ethnography of a year in the life of students at a suburban, working-class public high school in Northern California. C. J. Pascoe, who now teaches sociology at the University of Puget Sound, did a year of fieldwork at the pseudonymous River High while a graduate student at the University of California, Berkelely. It’s a tribute to her skill as a storyteller that in this opening scene, and throughout most of the book, Dude reads more like a novel, or even a screenplay, than like a master’s thesis.

For most gays and lesbians, the thought of returning to high school for a year rates on a par with taking a hiking trip through Siberia. Many of us have doubtless wondered, though, exactly how—or if—high schools have changed for gay youth in the last decade. Never mind Stonewall; how have the Internet, Brokeback Mountain, and The L-Word changed the way gay kids grow up today? By spending a year in the trenches observing students in their native habitats—the classroom, the weight room, the quad, the parking lot, the principal’s office, school assemblies—Pascoe shines a light on these and other questions.

For native Californians like myself who came of age and came out in the early 1990’s at a high school eerily similar to River High, it is tempting to figure out what real-life city Pascoe is describing: “Riverton’s approximately 100,000 residents are over half white and about a quarter Latino or Hispanic. The rest identify in relatively equal numbers as African American or Asian [American].” But by disguising the city’s real-life identity—in addition to protecting the anonymity of her subjects—Pascoe performs a neat trick, recasting River High as what it most resembles: a typical American high school, complete with pep rallies, cheerleaders, homecoming dances, and Cougar pride.

Pascoe makes a convincing case for the notion that masculinity rules the high school roost above all else, and that establishing, guarding, and proving one’s masculinity is a full-time job for those who are willing or able to do the work. With a nod to queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick, she points out that while homosexuality is no longer pathologized, gay male effeminacy is pathologized, reminding us that the same edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders “that erased homosexuality as a diagnosis in the 1970’s added a new diagnosis in its wake: Gender Identity Disorder.” She also observes that a girl must “actually assert that she is a boy” to be so diagnosed, “whereas a boy need only display a preoccupation with female activities.”

For boys, the main way to protect and defend their fragile masculinity is through what Pascoe terms “fag discourse”—the omnipresent back-and-forth lobbing by boys of the word fag and its permutations “in a verbal game of hot potato, each careful to deflect the insult quickly by hurling it toward someone else.” Girls, although they are constantly prey to sexual harassment from boys (which, in her whole year at River High, Pascoe never saw disciplined or reprimanded), are immune to the fag epithet, which is “the lowest thing you can call someone,” in one student’s words. Girls do monitor each other for behavior that’s appropriately feminine, but not to the extent that boys monitor each other: “the word slut (or its synonym ho) appeared one time for every eight times the word fag appeared.” (The author dubs this obsessive masculinity game “compulsive heterosexuality,” a nod to Adrienne Rich’s concept of “compulsory heterosexuality.”)

Ironically, at River High lesbians are the main beneficiaries of this “crisis of masculinity.” Rebeca, an African-American member of the women’s basketball team, is by all accounts one of the most popular girls at River High, admired by boys for her attractive, curvaceous physique and ability to attract other women, and admired by girls for her strong, dominant personality. Moreover, the senior class president and homecoming queen is a masculine-identified Asian-American lesbian named Jessie. Pascoe is quick to note that masculinity, though traditionally ascribed to male bodies, is a mutable construct, one that girls can adopt to gain status while simultaneously re-inscribing and reinforcing notions of masculine power.

As mutable and fragile as masculinity is revealed to be in Dude, the book reminds us that there are some boys who are unable to escape the “fag discourse”: “For the one boy who permanently inhabited the fag position, life at River High was not easy.” For the gentle, effeminate Ricky, who enjoys choreography and wears make-up, the “double transgression of sexual and gender identity made his position at River High simply unlivable. The lack of protection from the administration meant facing torture on a daily basis.” Ultimately, Ricky, bereft of a supportive family or community, drops out of River High and moves to a nearby city to perform in local drag shows.

Exposed as never before to media representations of gays and lesbians, students at River High are able to elect a lesbian of color as senior class president, and even to say about gay men that “[b]eing gay is just a lifestyle. It’s someone you choose to sleep with. You can still throw around a football and be gay.” Today’s teenagers, familiar with the heteronormative image of gays they receive from television and movies, are now able to tolerate gay guys who toe the gender-role line, but “fags” like Ricky remain outcasts. This is what Riki Wilchins has termed the “Eminem Exception”—a reference to the rap artist Eminem, who has attempted to absolve himself of the label “homophobe” by claiming he uses the term fag for men who are weak and unmanly, regardless of sexual orientation.

Dude, You’re a Fag provides persuasive proof that gender identity should not be seen as an expendable addition to employment nondiscrimination laws, nor as an auxiliary to gay liberation—an optional “T” in our GLBT community. Gender identity is not a side issue but in many ways the central issue. Until we get this message, which Pascoe’s book so clearly spells out, boys like Ricky will be jettisoned, and only those gay boys who can throw a football and those lesbians who comply with notions of masculine supremacy will be able to enjoy the dignity that all humans deserve.


Brent Calderwood, a journalist and writer, is a doctoral candidate in English lit and queer studies at the CUNY Grad Center, New York.


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