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The Queer Thing About School Shooters, Pt. 2

As I read, and wrote, all of the above, I kept going back to an essay by Michael Kimmel, “Masculinity as Homophobia.” So I wasn’t surprised to see Kimmel quoted in an old Washington Blade article, “‘Boy Code’ a factor in fatal school shootings?”. Kimmel’s focus is perhaps too specific, as masculinity is just one of many factors in these stories, but his remarks resonate with every story above.

The perpetrators of random school shootings since 1982, all boys, were “overconformists” to the popular notion that being a “real man” means aggressively defending your manhood when it is challenged, such as through prolonged bullying, said Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

And no weapon is more emasculating, or brandished more frequently on schoolyards across the country, than the homophobic rhetoric used to describe anything that makes a young man different from his male peers, Kimmel wrote in a June 2003 article for the journal American Behavioral Scientist.

“We found a striking pattern [while analyzing news] stories about the boys who committed the violence: nearly all had stories of being constantly bullied, beat up, and ‘gay-baited,'” Kimmel wrote.

“And most strikingly, it was not because they were gay — at least there is no evidence to suggest that any of them were gay — but because they were different from the other boys: shy, bookish, honor students, artistic, musical, theatrical, non-athletic, ‘geekish,’ or weird,” he continued.

Instead of the standard review of “what went wrong” with individual school shooters, the media, government researchers and society at-large must understand the roles standards of masculinity play in facilitating violent outbreaks by young men, Kimmel said in an interview for this article.

Of course, the stories of boys like Harris, Klebold, and Woodham, get a lot more attention than a story like what happened to Josh Belluardo.

Jonathan Miller, a high school sophomore, faces murder charges as an adult in the Nov. 2 school bus stop beating of 13-year-old Josh Belluardo. Neighbors and school officials said Jonathan has a “history” of cursing teachers, intimidating other children and making threats.

… Witnesses said Jonathan had been picking on Josh since school started. He had called Josh names and thrown objects at the younger boy. Before the bus stopped near their homes the afternoon of Nov. 2, children overheard Jonathan discuss whether he should hit Josh from behind or

from the front.

Josh was struck in the back of the head, kicked in the stomach and hit above the right eyebrow as he sat dazed on the ground seconds after he stepped off the school bus and began walking home. He lay in a coma for two days before his family disconnected him from life-support machines.

… Prosecutor Rachelle Carnesale called 14 witnesses to support her contention that Jonathan should remain in custody. The first, 16-year-old Travis Swett, said Jonathan hit him in the back of the head after they got off the school bus about a year before Josh was attacked.

Travis also was on the bus the day Josh was assaulted. He said Jonathan called Josh a “bitch” and a “faggot” and decided with friends that he would hit Josh from behind after they got off the bus.

Another 16-year-old on the bus the day Josh was attacked testified that Jonathan often picked on Josh. Kristen Raymond said she heard Jonathan say that Josh was gay and that “gay people deserve to die.”

But you will hear plenty of objections to calling what happened to Josh a hate crime, and none at all to applying the same label to the crimes of Harris, Klebold, Woodham, Loukaitis, Carneal, Williams, or Cho Seung-Hui; even though all of those actions are essentially borne of the hatred that begins with defining someone as “other” based on some standards or another, and despising them for it.

And though it’s a hatred that uses the vernacular of homophobia, its roots go much deeper, according to Kimmel’s essay.

“The word ‘faggot’ has nothing to do with homosexual experiences or even fears of homosexuals,” writes David Leverenz (1986). “It comes out of the depths of manhood; a label of ultimate contempt for anyone who seems sissy, untough, uncool.”

That fear is evident in the hatred of boys like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Harris and Klebold have an inventory of their ecumenical hatred: all “niggers, spics, Jews, gays, f___ing whites,” the enemies who abused them and the friends who didn’t do enough to defend them. But it will all be over soon. “I hope we kill 250 of you,” Klebold says. He thinks it will be the most “nerve-racking 15 minutes of my life, after the bombs are set and we’re waiting to charge through the school. Seconds will be like hours. I can’t wait. I’ll be shaking like a leaf.”

And lest we think that Harris & Klebold’s panoply of hatreds can be neatly divided into boxes, like racism and sexism, Kimmel points out that that the definition of manliness or masculinity is narrower than we might initially think.

In our efforts to suppress or overcome those fears, the dominant culture exacts a tremendous price from those deemed less than fully manly: wome, gay men, nonnative-born men, men of color. This perspective may help clarify a paradox in men’s lives, a paradox in which men have virtually all the power and yet do not feel powerful.

Manhood is equated with power — over women, over other men.

… Why, then, do American men feel so powerless? Part of the answer is because we’ve constructed the rules of manhood so that only the tiniest fraction of men come to believe they are the biggest of wheels, the sturdiest of oaks, the most virulent repudiators of femininity, the most daring and aggressive. We’ve managed to disempower the overwhelming majority of American men by other means ? such as discriminating on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, age, sexual preference.

That economy of masculinity trickles all the way down to the school yard, where boys like the school shooters already mentioned find them selves severely shortchanged. And almost to a man, with the exception of Cho, most school shooters are white, male and heterosexual; all qualities that should give them some dibs on the being “the man.”

I’ve joked, on occasion, that the great complaint of the last 20 years or so of American politics boils down to the reality that being white, male, and heterosexual (throw in Christian or Protestant here, too, if you like) just doesn’t come with as many privileges it used to. If I were to make a sweeping generalization, I’d say that a good bit of conservative politics these days, boiled down to gravy, adds up to not much more than that. (Steven, at Booman, points out that being white, male, heterosexual and wealthy at least still has its privileges.)

It still comes with plenty, mind you, but some have been usurped by the groups included in Harris and Klebold’s litany of resentment ? “niggers, spics, Jews, gays, f____ing whites” ? who now lay claim to something that was more exclusive in the past, If you add the element of class, addressed in Kimmel’s essay, another group that went unmentioned in the diatribe above comes into play. Jessie Klein addresses them in her Huffington Post piece.

In high schools as well as colleges, popular kids tend to be wealthier and the boys at the top of school caste are often perceived as “jocks.” Those that don’t fit into these categories are often teased, or seen as relatively unimportant or even invisible. The boys who killed generally came from less wealthy backgrounds than those they targeted and almost all of them specifically aimed at those perceived as wealthy and popular: the “jocks and preps” in the school who were also the ones who bullied them. Like Luke, Michael, and Eric & Dylan and many others, sixteen-year old Evan Ramsey, who killed two students and injured two others in Alaska in 1997, had been picked on by popular football players, whom he targeted in his shooting after an argument with one of them.

The dynamic is similar to the one Kimmel points out in his essay.

When confronted with the analysis that men have all the power, many men react incredulously. “What do you mean, mean have all the power?” they ask. “What are you talking about? My wife bosses me around. My kids boss me around. My boss bosses me around. I have no power at all! I’m completely powerless!”

Now we have a relationship between men ? men giving orders and other men taking those orders. The man who identifies with the chauffeur is entitled to be the man giving the orders, but he is not.

The dimension of power is now reinserted into men’s experience not only as the product of individual experience, but also as the product of relationships with other men. In this sense, men’s experience of powerlessness is real ? the men actually feel it and certainly act on it ? but it is not true, that is, it does not accurately describe their condition.

Except that it does, through the lens of teenage tunnel vision, through which it appears things will always be the way they are. Boys like Harris, Klebold, Woodham, Cho, and the others are (in their minds) entitled to the trappings of “manhood” and feel the denial of such as intensely unjust, as seen in Harris’ rage over “not getting any,” or the anger any number of school shooters displayed over lack of attention from girls in their peer group.

Add to that not just having to endure the disdain but also the harassment of those boys who are entitled to and get to enjoy the trappings of “manhood,” and some of those boys who are literally and figuratively “on the outside of manhood” looking in, can hover around the boiling point constantly. Especially if the disdain and harassment is openly meted out and generally accepted. Her Huffington Post piece Jessica Klein writes about the existence of a “higher” cast of masculinity, unreachable by most school shooters .and then quotes a member of that “caste” concerning Harris and Klebold.

Classmates at Columbine High School described how the jocks teased Eric and Dylan. “Everyone would make fun of them” said Ben Oakley from the soccer team. And senior Dustin Thurmon, from the Columbine wrestling team repeated what many others expected: “They should have been able to take it.”

Another “caste” member made similar comments to Salon, all but suggesting that they had it coming and should have expected it.

One rumor that refuses to go away is that the two were gay — a story that led many to abuse them in life, and now, denounce them in death.

“They’re freaks,” said Ben Oakley, an angry sophomore from the soccer team, visiting the memorials in Clement Park for the first time Thursday. “They were in the Trench Coat Mafia, and that’s something around our school that we consider freaks.” He said students picked on the pair “all the time.”

“Nobody really liked them, just cause they …” He paused, then continued. “The majority of them were gay. So everyone would make fun of them.”

What’s unsaid, but implied in that last statement is that everyone should make fun of them. That, too, is one of the entitlements of belonging to the fraternity of “manhood” to which most school shooters are denied entry. (If you doubt that fraternity exists or that membership has its privileges, consider what happened in Glen Ridge, NJ, in 1989 when member of a high school football team sexually assaulted a mentally handicapped girl, and had the overwhelming support of the community when they were eventually brought to trail.)

It may even be a duty, as Kimmel points out that “we’ve constructed the rules of manooh” so narrowly that very few males qualify, and those who do “must ensure that the playing field of male competition remains stacked against all newcomers to the game.

So, though not actually queer, our school shooters are too queer to enter “the playing field of male competition” and not queer enough to qualify for another team. That leaves them nowhere to go except the sidelines.

Unless someone changes the rules of the game.

[See part 1.]

[To be continued.]

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

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