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The Queer Thing About School Shooters, Pt 4.

I really hadn’t planned on writing a part four, since parts one, two, and three pretty much said it all. But some things bear repeating, especially when another kid gets called a “faggot” and brings a gun to school.

A 16-year-old was sentenced Friday to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the shooting death of his high school principal.

Eric Hainstock was convicted a day earlier of the first-degree intentional homicide of Weston Schools Principal John Klang last September in Baraboo, Wis..

…Hainstock said that a group of kids had teased him by calling him “fag” and “faggot” and rubbing up against him, the complaint said, and the teen felt teachers and the principal wouldn’t do anything about it. So Hainstock decided to confront students, teachers and the principal with the guns to make them listen to him, according to the complaint.

Not that it excuses bringing a gun to school and killing anybody but, like I’ve said before, I kinda know where the kid was coming from.

I was at work that morning, about 10:10 am EST, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began their shooting rampage at Columbine. I wandered down to the conference room with several coworkers and watched the news reports on television. As I watched the video of students running from the school, and heard more and more about Harris and Klebold, I thought to myself, “I know why they’re doing it.”

I identified with them. I didn’t want to, but I did. I didn’t want to identify with Cho Seung-Hui either. But I did. Because though I didn’t know him, I knew something about him.

…I don’t know if it’s possible to write this without coming off as excusing Cho or any of the other school shooters, but there’s a common theme that runs through their stories to some degree of another, one that I recognized because it runs through mine too. I suspected it from the moment I heard about the Virginia Tech shootings, and even more when I kept hearing Cho described as a “troubled loner.” But it wasn’t until I sat down and finally read the San Francisco Gate article that I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

…Am I blaming the victims of the VA Tech shooting? No. I’m blaming the guy who picked up the gun and shot them. He did what he did; what he chose to do, but after, hearing about his experience in high school, seeing his videos and reading among his words “You made me do this,” I almost think he was shooting at everyone who’d ever mistreated him, or that he perceived as mistreating him; as well as those who laughed at the bullying, saw it but did nothing about it, or even approved of it.

I’m also saying that we as a people, as a society, have to stop our part in supporting the social systems and conventions that end up creating people like Cho and the others. Or, as Amy Traub said, “our attempt to understand doesn’t end with the casting of moral blame,” but with recognizing that there are things we can do, things we can change about our culture and our society if we choose too, that i help prevent more tragedies like this one. If that’s what we want.

But, as has been pointed out before, that’s not what we want, or it hasn’t been for the last eight years or so. As Phillip Slater pointed out at HufPo a while back, we keep instilling what we don’t need.

This fear of weakness seems to have little to do with reality. It’s the anxiety of the schoolyard bully who has to keep beating up smaller kids to prove his manhood. George Bush, who avoided military service with every fiber of his being, had himself photographed on a battleship wearing so much military equipment he could barely move, and has shown extraordinary bravery in risking other people’s lives. Lyndon Johnson felt he had to escalate the Vietnam War or people would think he “lacked Kennedy’s balls.” “Acting presidential” has come to be media jargon for acting macho. And the constant phallic phraseology–“Standing up to” other nations, “being firm”, “standing tall”, etc., may explain why the United States is so far behind the rest of the world in electing female political leaders.

It’s considered ‘presidential’ to be incapable of learning from experience or profiting from one’s mistakes.

… It’s embarrassing to admit that this is a typical male attitude.

Men are trained from birth to be macho, to destroy, while women are trained to unify, to create. So men all over the world are superb at burning down villages, bombing infrastructures, blowing up cities, slaughtering civilians, and generally creating chaos and misery in the world. But do we really need more of this? If not, why do we keep training boys to be macho?

Children are naturally exuberant. They laugh and shriek and run all over the place and skip and dance. But before long boys are trained to believe that certain forms of exuberance, like skipping and shrieking, are unmanly. They have to channel their exuberance into narrow channels. In the ‘Boy Code’ the only approved form of exuberance is to be a loud, insensitive, destructive bully.

Before they’re ‘trained’ in their ‘proper’ gender role, male toddlers are just as sensitive, helpful, and generous as female ones. They’re just as interested in babies and as nurturant. But in most families all this is shamed out of them long before they get to school.

And why do we keep them policing the borders of that phantom territory called “manood,” even in high school, considering its lasting effects.

Homophobia has extensive effects on males whatever their sexual orientation (Kimmel 1994, Plummer 1999). You will recall that powerful homophobic codes enter boys’ repertoires during mid-primary school ‘ prior to sexual maturity, prior to puberty, prior to forming their adult sexual identity and prior to having much, if any knowledge of what homosexuality is. You will also recall that homophobic accusations are often based on non-sexual “surrogate markers” rather than evidence of sexual activity. Throughout adult life, homophobia continues to exert an influence over men in general. For example, aversion to things tainted by homophobia creates barriers and “no go zones” — certain foods are considered suspect (not just “fairy- bread”!), certain drinks are considered too “poofy” (especially if they are low-alcohol or come with umbrellas!), safety precautions in the workplace are “for fags”, small cars and driving below the speed limit are for wimps and poofs, and so on. Homophobia comprehensively influences how men present themselves to others, their social networks and their education, career and life patterns. Moreover, in doing so, homophobia exerts pressures that enforce conformity, that restricts men and which limits their potential. For example, the ability to express certain emotions is restrained by homophobia — the loss of face involved in relinquishing control over one’s emotions is deeply incriminating.

And believe me, it’s more tightly policed than some people say our border with Mexico should be. It’s the wall some people think should be built along that border, except it’s not just a wall intended to keep some out, it’s also intended to keep some in. And it’s longer than the Great Wall of China; lifelong, in fact. And though you can’t see it from space, I can assure you that for many of us there’s no way to get over it, no way to get under it, no way to get over it, and forget about even coming in through the door if you don’t have the right masculine credentials.

Listen to C.J. Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, which may have to get bumped up my “to read” list soon.

For these boys gay men could still be masculine, whereas a fag could never be masculine. Thus the term ?gay? functioned as a generic insult meaning “stupid” or “lame” whereas “fag” invoked a very specific gendered slur, directed at other boys. For these boys a fag was a failed, feminine man who, in all likelihood, was also gay. Boys participated in a fag discourse to ensure that others saw them as masculine by renouncing any fag-like behavior or same-sex desire. They did this by imitating fags and calling other boys fags. Boys imitated fags by lisping, mincing and pretending to sexually desire men, drawing laughs from male audiences who howled at these imitations.

They frantically lobbed the fag epithet at one another, in a sort of compulsive name calling ritual. In the context of River High (the pseudonym of the school where I conducted this research) being called a fag had as much to do with failing at tasks of masculinity as it did with sexual desire. More often than not these fag-like behaviors were those associated with femininity. Exhibiting stupidity, emotions, or incompetence, caring too much about clothing, touching another guy, or dancing were all things which could render a boy vulnerable to the fag epithet. In this sense what I call a fag discourse is not just about homophobia, it is about a particularly gendered homophobia as these renouncements of the fag are as much about repudiating femininity as they are about denying same-sex desire.

Who knows what it was that made Hainstock a “faggot” in his friend’s eyes? But there are indications that between home and school he was between the proverbial rock-and-a-hard-place.

Hainstock suffered from a home life in which he was a virtual slave, a school life in which he was teased mercilessly and he was continuing to feel the scars of childhood sexual abuse from an older step-brother, all factors leading to his decision to bring guns to school on Sept. 29, said assistant public defender Rhoda Ricciardi in her opening statement.

“This case is about a troubled boy from a troubled home who had nothing but trouble when he went to school, ” Ricciardi said.

...At home, Ricciardi said, Hainstock was responsible for all the chores and had to wait hand and foot on his overbearing father, who routinely called him “retard ” and “dumb ass. “

But school was no sanctuary, she said, because Hainstock was teased mercilessly and called everything from smelly to “fag. ” He also suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she said.

The “fag ” epithet cut deep, Ricciardi said, because Hainstock was sexually abused when he was 6 by a teenage step-brother and never received counseling. Hainstock tried to deflect that word by throwing it back at others, she said.

Complaints to Klang and teachers at school would stop the taunts temporarily, Ricciardi said, but they would always start again.

And from home, he went to school where he faced more abuse.

At school, he was stuffed into lockers, had his head dunked into toilets and was called a “fag” by his classmates, he said. As a result of the bullying, he attempted suicide three times.

His classmates’ comments “cut a little deeper,” he said, because at the age of 6, he was sexually molested by his 12-year-old stepbrother. He kept the alleged assaults a secret, he said.

Hainstock’s father, Shawn Hainstock, cried as his son testified.

When he came home from school, Hainstock said, his parents forced him to do most of the housework. When he failed to do so, he was disciplined.

Hainstock testified that his father often kicked him and also used a wooden board called “the board of education” to spank him.

The irony is that when Hainstock tried to give back as good as he got, hurling at others the slur used against him, he got disciplined for it. (Perhaps because he didn’t have the “masculinity cred” to back it up. In other words, he didn’t really have a license to use that term. It was reserved for those with the credentials to patrol that eternally threatened border.

And we’ll wonder next time, like we wonder now, just what pushed this young man over the edge, just like we asked all the other times.

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.

…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.”

Those may well have been the words that school administrators said to themselves, “You should be able to take it,” before turning their backs and absolving themselves with the assurance tthat it’s all just “part of being a teenager” and that the kid will have to “toughen” up, and the best thing for him is to let him fend for himself. Yeah. And maybe he’ll learn to stop whining. The irony is that the fault lies not with those who dish it out, but with those who are unable to take it. In Hainstock’s case, the Catch-22 is that he’s among those who get grief for not being able to take it and get punished for their attempts to dish it out.

He’ll learn something alright. He’ll learn what man other school shooters learned, and what Michael Kimmel summed up in his essay, “Masculinity as Homophobia.”

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

Hainstock “toughened up” alright, and his actions are evidence that he learned the above lesson well.

Instead, 16-year-old Eric Hainstock said, he just wanted to scare his teachers and fellow students into understanding how seriously being bullied was affecting him.

“If they were scared, they would listen,” Hainstock said.

Taking it like a man doesn’t mean silent endurance anymore, if it ever did. Not when more and more have at their fingertips, at a young age, access to the equipment to manifest their masculinity in just the way Kimmel described. Violence and fear is the most effective way to reach people, to prove to them that you’re a “somebody.” Make them afraid and they will know you are a man, “the man”, in fact., the same way Hainsworth’s father was “the man” at home, and let “the boy” know it.

And we’ll wring our hands and ask ourselves just what we should do about it. Even when it’s so obvious that even Homer Simpson gets it.

To be continued…

(And, yes, that means there will be a part five.)

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

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