The 'Faggot' Factor

The Chickens Came Home to Roost at Columbine High

When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire in their high school on April 20, they couldn't have imagined how many people would benefit. For the students who survived, it was a chance to perform in the biggest media circus since Monica. For the news networks, it was an excuse to cut away from the parade of desperate Kosovars that had been turning viewers off in droves.

Law and order types found a platform for their long-standing plan to turn high schools into military camps, while liberals saw a powerful opening to pound home their demand for regulating guns. The president seized the triangulating moment, calling for both stricter gun laws and a Hollywood summit on teen violence. And everyone could agree that violent video games were to blame.

What's missing from this litany is any sense of how the culture on the ground contributed to the massacre at Columbine High. It's easier to crack down on nose rings than to confront a system that assigns status in proportion to gender conformity, relegating boys who can't meet the standard to the ranks of America's most despised minority, that legion of failed men known as "faggots." That's what the ruling jocks called members of the Trench Coat Mafia. If they'd been out and proud, no doubt the treatment would have been even more severe— a gay student from a nearby school told one reporter he'd been pelted with rocks by his peers. But at Columbine no one dared to be openly gay. So the "fag" treatment was reserved for kids like Harris and Klebold who didn't make the macho grade.

Did they really wear nail polish and hold hands in the halls? No one actually saw it, but rumors that the killers were gay abounded, stoked by America's favorite fuck-raker, Matt Drudge. In the days following the shootings, Drudge put two stories on his Web site based on nothing more definitive than a posting from a self-proclaimed "gay biker" praising the shooters as "a bunch of our fellow homosexuals [who] decided that they had taken enough." Drudge seized on the black nail polish favored by goths as further evidence that the killers were part of a pack of murderous poofs. That was proof enough for Jerry Falwell of Tinky Winky fame; he reportedly called Harris and Klebold gay on Geraldo Live. Followers of another antigay divine, the Reverend Fred Phelps, picketed Littleton memorials with signs that claimed "Fags Killed Them."

Here is a telling expression of the double bind that maddens most stigmatized groups: They are considered both defective and extremely dangerous. Blacks and Jews have suffered from this paradox of perception, as have gays. Now it's boys who can't or won't butch up sufficiently. The same teens abused for being failed men are regarded as repositories of deadly rage. From all over the country last week came reports of young misfits picked up for "showing signs." It's America Under Siege! — and God help the goth who whistles a destructo tune.

In a nation enraptured by— yet deeply envious of— its young, the Columbine massacre is the perfect pretext for cracking down on teen culture. Never mind that the kids who shot up their schools weren't all part of some joystick jihad. Never mind that in at least two cases— Littleton and Paducah, Kentucky— the killers had been labeled "faggots." It's much easier to blame songs and games that tap the violent recesses of the id than to explore the impact of sexual taunting and its meaning in society.

Consider the media's response to the rumors about Harris and Klebold. Nearly all news accounts hastened to report that there was no proof the killers were gay. "It's revealing," says Gregory Herek, a research psychologist at UC Davis."There's an implicit understanding that it's a horrible thing to accuse someone of being gay— and that, if they actually are gay, it would be fair to ostracize them." So deeply held is this belief, even in pedagogic circles, that it's common for the stigmatizing of certain boys to go unaddressed. "A typical response," says Verna Eggleston, executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which works with gay and lesbian youth, "is for the guidance counselor to say, 'What are you doing to make them think you're gay?' "

The consequences of this collusion are stark. Gay teens suffer from astonishingly high rates of suicide; one recent study found that 32 percent of gay adolescents had tried to kill themselves. But there has been virtually no research about how straight kids react to being labeled gay. "The actual question of sexuality is probably irrelevant," says Herek. "The important thing is that this is an agreed-upon insult, one that demands an aggressive response, especially from someone who is heterosexual and trying to prove it."

The word faggothas never merely meant homosexual. It has always carried the extrasexual connotation of being unmanly. But these days, the implications of that insult have expanded. To say that a certain behavior is "so gay" can apply to anything stupid, clumsy, or outré. It's probably the most effective way to call a guy a loser, and in this age of sexual candor, when high school students know that some of their peers may actually be gay, the accusation has an even more fearsome ring. Add the general crisis of masculinity and you've got a generation for which identity is a much thornier issue than it used to be.

Can one have a girlfriend and still be a "fag"? Absolutely, since it's men who brand each other with that epithet. Wielding the f-word is a way for some guys to dominate others by convincing them that their masculinity can be lost. Teenagers are especially susceptible to this Big Lie. Take a kid who's seething with insecurity, bait him on a regular basis, and you've given him a good reason to celebrate Hitler's birthday.

Harris and Klebold responded to their degradation in a typically compensatory way— they assembled their own cult of rogue masculinity. But the jocks who oppressed them didn't have to go in for Hitler or Marilyn Manson. For these top men, homophobia was a socially sanctioned way to rebel. It made them sexy, proved their power over boys who had to take the burn, and reclaimed the throne of a reviled masculinity. Athletic achievement was only the surface sign of their status; bigotry was what made these jocks local gods.

So far, no one has suggested that the administration at Columbine High is responsible for the homophobia that blew up in their faces. Better to blame the killers' parents, exempting the rest of the community. After all, boys will be boys— especially in Colorado. This is the state where voters passed a law in 1992 forbidding any local jurisdiction from enacting a gay rights bill. (The Supreme Court later threw out this ordinance on the grounds that it excluded homosexuals from the political process.) Colorado is also where Matthew Shepard was taken to die after he'd been strung up on a fence and beaten senseless in nearby Wyoming. In the town where he expired, a float in the homecoming parade featured an effigy of Shepard with the words I'm gayaffixed.

When John F. Kennedy was murdered in 1963, Malcolm X had a shocking reaction: "The chickens have come home to roost," he said. It's possible to see the massacre at Columbine High in the same unsparing terms. But it's much more satisfying to round up the usual suspects. After all, they're "faggots."

Research: Steph Watts

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