As a gay man and a Rutgers professor, I of course find the recent events at my university appalling. Friends, family members, and colleagues are asking me what I think, and trying to figure that out as the scandal unfolds is like attempting to walk through a hurricane. However, after viewing the videotape, listening to the ensuing commentary, and reflecting on my own experience as a gay man, psychotherapist, and researcher, I have several observations.
First let me say that the problem is not that Rutgers is a particularly homophobic or heterocentric place. In fact, many events and initiatives, such as this month’s Gaypril programming (http://socialjustice.rutgers.edu/) which includes information about LGBT families, sexuality, safe spaces, and bisexuality as well as new initiatives like the trans-friendly dorms, show that Rutgers is reaching to address the needs of LGBT members of the campus and educate the community as a whole.
However, like many institutions, Rutgers is a product of the surrounding society in which it is nested, and despite the recent gains in public acceptance and civil rights made by gay and lesbian people, homophobia remains alive and well and rears its head in settings and situations that suggest we still have a long way to go. Coach Rice is no doubt not alone in his reliance on anti-gay slurs to punish poor athletic performance. Such conduct fuels the mistaken notion that gay men by their very nature lack the toughness and strength to play competitive sports. Those of us from an earlier generation recall when this type of behavior on the field, on the court, or in the locker room was di rigueur. I am sure some classify it as a benign example of “boys-will-be-boys.” However, it is clearly not and here is why
When someone in authority uses this language, he or she is perpetuating a damaging myth—that gay men are soft, cowardly and incompetent, that homosexuality is antithetical to masculinity, and that being gay is shameful and disgusting—and these myths do harm. I can tell you from my experience that such statements, whether they are from peers or authority figures, mutilate the self-esteem of gay men, especially young men who have not fully realized or embraced their homosexuality. I have experienced and attended to these wounds within myself and in countless gay men I have treated over the years—and believe me they are persistent, tenacious, and tough to heal.
What’s more, they inflame the insecurities of those males are not gay. Masculinity standards are high and the penalties for not meeting them are harsh. Men are expected to hide their emotions, avoid appearing vulnerable, be physically strong, ever ready to have sex with a woman whenever the opportunity arises, and to not betray any physical or emotional attractions to other men. These expectations are impossible, unhealthy, demoralizing for both men and women, and the men who demonstrate a failure to meet them suffer the “humiliation” of being considered gay. No doubt, this heightens homophobic anxiety, particularly in all-male settings, such as the sports field.
The blessing in disguise here, especially for those of us who were raised with the idea that anti-gay slurs in sports and other all-male environments are ok, is that such behavior is now considered unacceptable by a large segment of our society, including among some professional athletes. When someone calls a young athlete a faggot or a fairy based on his performance, we need to realize this is not an effective motivator but is instead a weapon of psychological abuse. Even so-called lesser offenses or “microaggressions” such as classifying something gay as a negative (as in “that’s so gay”) has profoundly damaging effects on gays and non-gays alike.