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The Queer Thing About School Shooters, Pt. 3

[This is the last of the series. See parts one and two for background.]

Not queer. Too queer. Not queer enough. It’s probably as maddening as it sounds, though in some ways I wouldn’t know this as well as the school shooters I’ve been writing about for the last couple of days. I’ve been queer. Too queer even, but never have I not been queer enough. That, in some ways, may be a saving grace that boys like the school shooters I’ve been writing about lack.

Returning to Kimmel’s essay for a moment, there’s a statement near the middle of it that came to mind when I started thinking about the triangulation that’s become the theme of this series of posts: not queer, too queer, and not queer enough.

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

With the exception of Cho, the school shooters discussed so far have all been young, white, heterosexual males; three forms of ID that would seem to grant them membership in the dominant culture, and most people probably assume it does. The problem is, they — the shooters — don’t think so, and they have experiences to support that belief. As I said before, they have drummed right out of the “fraternity of men,” and the cards they carry don’t make them eligible for membership in an other group.

Each of the groups that Kimmel mentions have one thing that most school shooters seem to lack: a community or other cohesive group that affirms of validates them where the dominant culture does not, that even values the characteristics that the dominant culture devalues, and that serves as a kind of bulwark against or refuge from the the prejudice of the dominant culture and ameliorates at least some of its effects.

To some degree or another, women, gays & lesbians, ethnic minorities, and others have either formed their own communities or established social networks in which they can support and empathize with one another. But these communities, networks or whatever we choose to call them also serve to preserve or raise the esteem of their members, who are bonded by a common experience and identity.

As a African American child, at some point I became acutely aware of the racism in the world around me, but that was countered by being raised in a community where I was taught that my race did not make me less than anyone else (or more, for that matter) and where the negative message about race in the dominant culture were effectively countered. As a gay man, I later found a community in which my orientation wasn’t something to be despised or hidden, but deserved the same degree of respect as anyone else’s.

But being black and gay, I was doubly queer, in a way that Michael Eric Dyson pointed out when talking about black homophobia.

One of the reasons I think black people tend to be more homophobic is that our heterosexuality has already been treated as queer by a dominant society. So black people should tap into our symbolic queerness to understand the homophobia that we house is antithetical to our own identity. Because we’ve been treated like gays in a very serious way so I think that’s critical. And then what’s interesting is that in hiphop is the same kind of tension as in the black church; homoeroticism up against homophobia. Hate gay people but got your pants down to the butt crack. Can’t stand gays but standing up saying you love jesus more than any other person in your family.

Historically, the groups, Kimmel mentions have aleady been “treated as queer by a dominant society,” and either developed or already had in place communities and subcultures to counter that. When we look at most of the school shooters discussed so far, most of them are in the bind of being “too queer” for the dominant culture but “not queer enough” to have access to a subculture group that offers them an positive, alternative identity that reaffirms who they are rather than reinforcing what they’re not.

Instead some of them gravitated towards small groups of others like themselves, who are also rejected by the dominant culture. Some with draw until they either implode or explode.

We know that the dominant culture exists in the microcosms of larger society where these guys did their killing. We’ve heard from its members in the previous post. In this clip from Zero Hour: Columbine, Brooks Brown, a friend Eric Harris, and one time target of his hatred, described the dominant culture at Columbine.

Instead, Harris and Kelbold fell in with 30 some-odd students who comprised a loose “anti-clique” called the Trench Coat Mafia. After breaking up with his girlfriend, Luke Woodham joined a small group of students who called themselves the Kroth.

Woodham said that shortly after that Grant Boyette, an older friend, confided that he worshipped Satan and asked Woodham to join his group, saying Woodham had “the potential to do something great.”

Boyette promised that he could either get Menefee back or get even through the occult, Woodham said.

Woodham said that shortly after that Grant Boyette, an older friend, confided that he worshipped Satan and asked Woodham to join his group, saying Woodham had “the potential to do something great.”

Boyette promised that he could either get Menefee back or get even through the occult, Woodham said.

He said he became a believer after he and Boyette cast a spell and a teen-ager they knew was run over by a car and killed the next day.

“One second I was some kind of heart-broken idiot and the next second I had power over many things,” he said. “My mind didn’t know how to take it.”

But they’re expected to “take it.” Remember the Columbine athlete who said “They should be able to take it.” At Michael Carneal’s sentencing, a witness to his rampage had this to say.

“I don’t care if you’re sorry,” said Kelly Hart, the victims’ classmate. “I know you can’t get this sentence here, but I would love to see you get the death penalty. So what if you were called a few names? We never did anything to you. The girls you killed did not deserve to die. To me, you chose the death penalty for them.”

Without denying the pain and terror this young woman experienced at witnessing MIchael Carneal murdering her classmates, or her grief over their deaths, her words combine with those of the Columbine athlete to form what is too often the general response to complaints about bullying: “So what? You should be able to take it.” I heard that response so often myself that perhaps I’m hyper sensitive to it now, but it rings clear even now as we ricochet between grief and anger in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. It’s echoed in the comment from an MSNBC message board that I noted earlier.

Our culpability in this situation, as a society, has been mischaracterized. Where we fell down was not in our lack of coddling this idiot or some misstep in guiding his defective and deviant urges towards more constructive ends. We are a society based on self-sufficiency, and those who are not self-sufficient are intrinsically barred from being full members of our society. Where we fell down was not Cho. We fell down with everyone else in that classroom. We taught them to be cowards, and then told them it was good that they were.

Not only does the commenter reinforce the “So what? They should be able to take it,” response, but carries it to the next logical step by starting to impugn the “manhood” of unarmed Virginia Tech students who failed to rush an armed gunman firing automatic weapons. Like anyone else who doesn’t measure up to that standard they are candidates to be “intrinsically barred from being full members of our society.” The irony is that he’s castigating the students for being “less of a man” than Cho, for not embracing the most basic tenet of “manhood” according to Kimmel.

Violence is the single most evident marker of manhood. Rather it is the willingness to fight, the desire to fight.

Instead they chose to “lie there” and let themselves be “penetrated” by the “bullets” from Cho’s “gun.” It is a definition of masculinity that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Even Dylan Klebold, in the midst of orgiastic violence and in a murderous rage, with gun in hand, fell impotent before this test of “manhood,” when faced with a wounded jock who symbolized everything that had inspired his bloodlust in the first place.

I won’t unpack that statement any further, but it underscores the problem this series of posts attempts to identify, and it brings back some comments and questions from a previous post on the VA Tech shootings.

So it begs the question: how are we raising our boys in particular to not know how to deal with anger and emotions, to act out violently against others, especially women? To be very controlling? Why is the perpetrator’s almost always being male taken for granted? If we want to solve the problem we have to look at a number of factors: masculinity in American culture, tied in with the glorification of violence and death, tied in with Cho?s sense of alienation and isolation because he came from an immigrant family and did not “fit in”, and, perhaps, the lax rules on gun control. I would really like it if someone finally addresses the issue of gender and masculinity and how that played as one of the main factors in this tragedy.

… and

Good point. I heard two psychiatrists on NPR’s “Science Friday” talking about the Virginia Tech shooting. Both were experts in studying mass murderers. One of them pointed out the two common features in almost all mass murderers, and I was shocked that being male was not one of them. It’s taken for granted that mass murderers will be male, but it seems to me that the question of why that is deserves study.

In an earlier post on gender issues I wrote about the increasingly narrow definition of what makes a man a man.

Competitive. Aggressive. Control.Conquest. Domination. If those aren’t foremost in your personality, if they’re secondary to qualities usually associated with women, you’re not a man. You?re something less than a man. You’re like a woman, as the article says. In the rawest of masculine vernacular, then, you get fucked. You are meant to get fucked. And if you’re a man whose “like a woman” the shorthand for all of the above is “faggot,” a term we’ve heard lately from actors, authors, and asshole political commentators, leveled at various people up to and including a presidential candidate.

… But drawing that line of demarcation around manliness or masculinity, thus defining it, means defining those outside that line as well. And if the authors above are defining “what makes a man a man,” then those who fall outside that definition have be seen as not being men no matter how we define ourselves. In that context we are not “real men,” but are either something other than men or something less than men.

And thus, while none of the authors above would necessarily use the terms, we become “sissies” or “faggots” for falling too far outside their ideals of manliness or masculinity. We don’t “act like men” or “like men are supposed to act.” So we are like something other than men. Or like something less than men.

As Ian writes, perhaps the narrowing of what “manhood” means is something that needs correcting.

The basic good code of a certain brand of masculinity, as opposed to macho, is that you don’t pick fights, and that you never tolerate the strong bullying the weak. Bullying, in fact, is seen as a declaration of weakness – if you were strong, you wouldn’t be picking fights with weaklings, now would you? And if you were confident, you wouldn’t need to prove anything, would you? Certainly you don’t back down from a fight – but you don’t go looking for it either.

Maybe that’s a model of masculinity that is falling out of favor. I don’t know. But I’m loathe to throw out masculinity – the question of what it means to be a man – entirely, because in so many men I’ve known it has been a force for good; something that made them stand up, be counted and take responsibility – not something that was evil.

What Ian says echos a book I read and reviewed not long ago, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, and the documentary based on it, which addressed raising emotionally strong boys.

Teach boys that emotional courage is courage, and that courage and empathy are the sources of real strength in life. “Popular movies aimed at boys seem to prize only one kind of courage: standing up to a physically larger opponent. The willingness to fight an enemy, to outwit a dinosaur, to defeat an alien monster, to look into the eye of a villain with a gun, is the media’s definition of male courage…Most important, boys need models of emotional courage in their own lives, not just in the media. We need to recognize and identify for them emotional courage in the lives of women and men, in our families and in the lives of children and others around us. In life and art, we need to provide boys models of male heroism that go beyond the muscular, the self-absorbed, and the simplistically heroic. Many adults display emotional courage in their work or personal lives, but rarely do we allow our children to witness our private moments of conscience or bravery.”

But first, we’d have to see what we’ve become.

So what has changed? For one thing, the United States has become much more dog-eat-dog, more competitive in recent years. We admire those who achieve at any cost, and it seems that we have less compassion for those who fail. (Just look at how eager we are to vote people off the island or to reject them in singing competitions.) This certainly increases frustration on the part of losers.

We’d have to acknowledge what we’d rather ignore.

In their video diaries, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two Columbine killers, openly declared that they hoped to “kick-start a revolution”. Which would explain why the hours of video diaries are still being kept from the public, sealed by Jefferson county officials to this day because they have been deemed “contrary to the public interest”.

Which is probably true. The rage that motivated Columbine’s killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, remains grossly, wilfully misunderstood by the official mainstream, yet it has found persistent sympathy in unofficial Middle America. The pain and rage are real: since 1950, America’s teen suicide rate has soared by 400%.

Why, when even attempts were made post-9/11 to understand Arab anger (feeble though they were), does America refuse to even try understanding Columbine?

Why do they continue to blame cheap, easy suspects like video games, the internet, lax morals and the NRA, when the most obvious suspect – Columbine, and every other school like it – is sitting right in front of them? Because that would be tantamount to suspecting that something is genuinely hateful about Middle America.

Better to ignore that; it leads to a dark, dark road. So instead, this anniversary, once again the media is telling comforting lies about “the healing” following Columbine, while ignoring the persistent widespread outbreaks of armed plots and attacks across the country, and the rage and pain that continue to fuel these rebellions.

It is easier to blame events like this on “evil” men, on “”Satan,” on “erotic over-stimulation, on erotic under-stimulation, on pharmaceuticals, on bad parenting, on (more tellingly) the “feminzation” of our culture and our young men, on anything that lies safely beyond our ability to change somehow. Doing so absolves us of any responsibility, or any need to change ourselves. It’s the easiest response as it requires the least of us.

Yet I think that the qualities that Ian mentions and Raising Cain encourages are not, never were, and need not be intrinsically “masculine” or “feminine.” To me, both have always been cartoonish extremes of qualities that are essentially human, and to the degree that we encourage some and discourage others in one another, based on gender, we create an imbalance. I think we all sense that imbalance, and too often the response is to correct it by pushing ourselves close to one extreme or another.

If we can only get everyone clearly on one side of the line or another, we’ll finally “get it right.” We can finally get everyone on one “team” or “the other.” But we’ve always had people who end up on the sidelines; sometimes because they’re queer. But also because they’re not queer, too queer, and not queer enough. We can either ignore the people on the sidelines, or despise them for not being able to “make the team.”

Or we can change the rules of the game. Not necessarily by “throwing out” masculinity or femininity, but by considering that they’re artificial boxes we ourselves made to categorize qualities that are inherently human, but present in each of us in varying degrees. Of course, that means giving up the easy certainty of knowing “what makes a man a man” and what makes one something “other” than a man.

Finally, this is not an apologia for any of the school shooters anywhere. Nor is it intended to excuse their actions. In an excellent article for Newsweek about the Virginia Tech tragedy, Sharon Begley writes that ? while genetics, environment, mental health and culture all play a part? “Mass murders also need individual will to pull the trigger.” And there are thousands who face the same kind of bullying that these boys faced, but didn’t shoot up a classroom. (Myself included.) That doesn’t mean, however, that those of us who didn’t go that route were unaffected or somehow “got over it.” Even if we turn the inevitable anger and frustration of those experiences inward on ourselves, we are still affected, as are our families and communities.

My point in the focus of this series of posts is basically what I said earlier.

There may not be a policy that can make things like this never happen again, but if we do the hard work of reaching beyond simple “evil” as an answer, we may find it in ourselves to prevent the next tragedy from happening. But it will require taking an honest look at our words, actions, thoughts and beliefs in terms of how they impact others and ourselves. And then, if we want to make a difference, if we want to prevent the next tragedy from happening, we will have to change whatever in our words, actions, thoughts and beliefs needs to change in order to bring about the change we want to see in the world. (That?s a much longer way of saying what Ghandi said.)

But if we do the work mentioned above, we can respond by changing what is within our reach. When the Iraq war started, I felt pretty hopeless and — like a lot of people — pretty helpless. Nothing I’d done — no march that I attended, no vigil I joined, no petition I signed, no calls to my legislators — did one bit of good towards stopping what I believed was going to be a long, bloody war that would leave many Iraqis worse off than they were, and that we would find no easy way out of.

One evening, as we were driving home from a social event, I looked out of the car window and saw a banner tied to a wrought iron fence outside of a church. It read, “How are you living your life to prevent the next war?” I had to think about it for a while before I understood what it meant.

There is precious little any of us can do to change the mind of one individual who is bent on destruction (of others and/or themselves). There is even less we can do to change the dynamics of their families. But we are, each of us, the architects of our communities, our society and our culture. And therein lies our ability to affect changes that might make a difference, not at the point that another angry young man acts on his desire to blow a whole in the world, but at the point where the alienation that leads to that moment begins.

How are we living our lives, raising our children, and changing our communities to prevent the next school shooting?

Crossposted from The Republic of T.