Beating masculinity into the boy

[Not about language, but about social attitudes towards what is perceived to be gender deviance in boys, with some stories from my own life. And along the way, two of what will become a series of Wonderful Dad tales, about my father.]

I’ve already posted one thing from Ariel Levy’s “Reservations” piece in the New Yorker on the Shinnecock tribe of Long Island. Here’s another, about beating masculinity into a boy:

This past August, a seventeen-month-old baby named Roy Jones was punched to death on the reservation, allegedly by his mother’s boyfriend, who explained, “I was trying to make him act like a little boy instead of a little girl.”

In the context, this reads like just a horrifying story of dysfunctionality on the rez, but in fact the phenomenon of fathers trying to beat masculinity into their sons is widely distributed in working-class men, where it’s a manifestation of the great significance these men place on masculinity and its associated values (toughness, daring, aggressiveness, playing sports, and so on).

Second story, told in a somewhat fictionalized form in one of my gay-baths pieces, in a segment about an encounter with a young man named Mark, probably the most spectacularly satisfying trick of my sexual life (boyfriends are something else again). The background, in a digression during my telling of the sexual part of the encounter:

When we move, later, to telling each other the stories of our lives, that’s done by talking low into each other’s ears while we’re curled up together.  That’s just for us, genuinely intimate discourse, where we can feel the warmth of each other’s bodies and smell each other’s breaths.

And when we reach that state, we get into the Father Zone:

It becomes clear that Mark had a Father, not someone who could conceivably have been a Dad, Daddy, Pop, or Papa. Sir, yes, but none of those others. Mark is in fact named after his father, as am I, but he has a different middle name (his mother’s original family name; the placement of his mother in the middle turns out to be apropos), while I’m actually a Jr., with the whole Swiss naming package that my dad got from his dad (he got it with my grandfather’s first and middle names reversed; the Zwickys are not enormously inventive in the naming department).

The point is that he was expected to replicate his father, with maybe a few adjustments for new times. I was too, but my parents quickly discovered that I was mostly not what they had anticipated (I was, however, clearly my father’s son, the Zwicky family resemblances being just too strong to ignore) and, amazingly, readjusted themselves rather than trying to readjust me. This gave me a mostly happy childhood, with no sports and plenty of reading and piano-playing. Things did not go so well for Mark.

Mark’s father was an Army officer, in the family tradition, and a stern and demanding father. Big Mark – oh lord, why do people do these things? – expected Little Mark to be tough, athletic, a real little man (or little real man). What he got was a sissy boy who came out defiantly as a faggot at age 12, a boy whose only adventures into something like sports were running … and tennis …

Unsurprisingly, there was some issue, in Big Mark’s mind, anyway, about whether Little Mark was really Big Mark’s son. Blame it on the mother.

Moving around a lot can be a good thing for a fagling. In each new school, Mark got a grace period as a new kid, an unknown factor – until he slipped into his role as the class faggot. Then he’d suck some cock and guys would spit on him, push him around, call him nasty names, sometimes beat him up in a not very serious way (a sort of ritual thing, to assert their manhood against Mark’s lack of it).

… Big Mark, who heard about the taunting and abuse (but not about the cocksucking), tried to get Little Mark to fight back, like a man. To no avail. As so often happens at this particular father-son impasse, Big Mark, uncomprehending and frustrated, began trying to beat Little Mark into manhood.  I suppose there are cases where this works, though I’ve never heard of one. Instead, Mark merely became angry, resentful, full of hate. And, frequently, with his ass and back and legs covered with bruises from Big Mark’s broad leather Army belt. Mark’s mother tried to run interference, tried to get in the middle, but reason and pleading didn’t work.

There are other nasty stories of gay childhood: bullying by other kids, sexual abuse from male family members, and families who just throw the kid out on the street when the kid comes out to them. Here I’m focusing on a specific theme, the father or step-father (or, occasionally, older brothers) who try to toughen up a kid they perceive to be insufficiently masculine by beating them (often verbally abusing them as well).

The motivations for such behavior are, no doubt, complex and mixed, involving a desire to change the kid’s behavior for his own sake, anger at perceived gender-inappropriate behavior (which threatens the social order), a desire to make the kid a replica of you, and a drive to punish the kid for his behavior. Usually, the mother gets blamed, and often she is abused as well.

My story is about as far from Mark’s as you can get. Only once in my childhood did my dad move to punish me physically, after I vanished for hours when I was 9 or so, leaving my parents desperately fearful. When I reappeared, as dark was setting in, after hours of wandering happily and widely through nearby fields and woods with another boy, during which we lost track of time and gave no thought to our parents, my parents were at first relieved, then explosively angry.

My dad took me up to my bedroom and told me he was going to spank me for what I’d done. I dutifully pulled my pants down and offered him my ass to be spanked.

And he slapped me once, half-heartedly, then said, nearly in tears, that he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t hurt me. Pulled up my pants for me. Hugged me. Told me how scared he’d been and how irresponsible I’d been. And I realized just how bad my behavior had been, to drive my wonderful dad to consider hitting me.

I was contrite, genuinely contrite, in a way I probably would not have been if I’d taken my physical punishment and then it would have been over, slate cleared. A good lesson.

Third story, with the background as told on soc.motss in 1988, since revised.

Before I went to college I was personally acquainted with exactly one openly gay person. Chuckie and I were playmates in the first grade. An­ agreeable, imaginative kid, the perfect person to spend a rainy Saturday­ afternoon creating a world with under a card table transformed into a secret­ room by the artful placement of an old sheet. After the incident of the­ stolen, or perhaps borrowed, turtle — his turtle —  his trust in our­ friendship was undermined, and by the third grade we had gone separate ways: he­ was absorbed in opera (how on earth does a 9-year-old kid Pennsylvania Dutch country pick up on things like this?) and scorned my interests, which at the­ time ran to adventures on bicycles, collecting insects, and ham radio.

By the fifth grade he was wildly effeminate, had taken to appearing in school wearing both rouge and lipstick — not heavily done, you understand, but still not anywhere near invisible. In the tenth grade he was kicked out of school for resolutely pursuing his passion of the time, sucking cocks in the second-floor boys’ room. He might have lasted the course of high school (though still generally despised and reviled) if he’d had any circumspection about his extracurricular sex, or if he hadn’t let it, uh, eat away his­ curricular activities (he skipped most classes, appeared late for the ones he­ got to, actually showed less interest in what was happening when he was there­ than the three hookers, originally in our class, who were re-doing the eighth grade, over and over, until they were 16 and could get the hell out).

He ran away, presumably to New York, and disappeared from our view. In 2003 I reconnected with a number of childhood friends, asked around about Chuckie, hoping that people would recall him and that someone would know what happened to him. My friends did remember him, affectionately in grade school and with increasing alarm later. It seems he killed himself a few years after dropping out of school.

Even at this distance, I’m sad; I was hoping he somehow would have triumphed, found a lover or pleasure in a life on his own, averted AIDS, and as a tough old queen, now be retiring from a lifetime of set or costume design at the Metropolitan Opera (his great ambition when he was 8!).

That’s the background story. Then into the Father Zone. I wrote to my high-school friends in 2003 (somewhat edited here):

Chuckie was a sissy-boy (this is actually a technical term in the literature on sex and sexuality) from early on. (Like me) sensitive and artistic, and (unlike me) effeminate. He also attached himself to opera and fashion at an astonishingly early age.

His dad, Chuck Sr., did his best to shame or beat Chuckie into masculinity. It was awful to see. Even at the age of 7 I saw that this was a tactic likely to work in reverse.

My parents had no problems with my playing with Chuckie, who was a wonderfully imaginative kid. My parents did have a problem with Chuck Sr. (who had played sports with my dad in high school). I overheard several conversations between them in which they were trying to work out how much they could intervene on behalf of the kid. I know my dad tried to talk reason to Chuck Sr. but was rebuffed and threatened physically by the man. My dad was not a confrontational person, so he dropped it. But to his credit, he did make the effort.

And then we ceased to have anything to do with the family, though they lived only a block away at the time.

I think Chuck Sr. was turning into an alcoholic at the time. He certainly blamed his wife, publicly and nastily, for everything that was “wrong” with the kid. My wonderful dad told me, directly, that there was nothing wrong with Chuckie, the boy was just different. (Unspoken lesson from him to me: you’re different too, there’s nothing wrong with you, we love you.)

When I got an award from my high school for being a distinguished alum, I gave a little encomium to my dad and how he coped with having such a “different” kid.

I used to think, at the age of 8 or so: what if my dad had been like Chuck Sr.? My dad gave me respect and encouragement, and Chuckie’s dad gave him abuse and disappointment. Could I have withstood an onslaught like that from the most important man in my universe?

I don’t know. It’s a very unpleasant thought.

4 Responses to “Beating masculinity into the boy”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Excellent comment from Emily Rizzo on Facebook:

    Based on my years of PFLAG meetings, it does seem that the same sex parent has more difficulty accepting a gay or lesbian child. I think it’s because parents, as you point out, have a desire to make the kid a replica of themselves but also because they take it as a rejection of themselves as role models. It seems to work with mothers and lesbian daughters as well.

  2. irrationalpoint Says:

    “I think it’s because parents, as you point out, have a desire to make the kid a replica of themselves”

    I wonder if it isn’t that same-sex parent similarities are part and parcel of how gender expectations work. Society expects boys to grow up like their fathers; and girls to grow up like their mothers. If a boy resembles his mother more than his father, that would itself be considered gender-variance by many people (and similarly, mutatis mutandis, for girls). In other words, tension with a same-sex parent, or closeness with and similarity to an other-sex parent, is seen as *constitutive* of gender-variance by many people.

    “Usually, the mother gets blamed, and often she is abused as well.”

    As you note, mothers are often abused in these situations, but anecdotal reports (I’m not aware of any studies on this) suggest that the blaming and the abuse of children is itself often used to abuse mothers, in households where fathers are abusive. That is, an abusive parent might hit or otherwise abuse their kids, at least in part, to abuse their partners. Or abuse the partner to abuse the child — there’s *lot’s* of data on the psychoemotional effects on children of growing up witnessing partner violence.

    Shudder.

    –IP

  3. It Gets Better / Wonderful dad « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the way, I was, of course, asked to talk about my childhood and adolescence, which led me into Wonderful Dad territory. So here are some Wonderful Dad stories that have to do with […]

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    […] Good Dad is even more preposterous. I’ve told some of my Wonderful Dad stories on this blog (here and here). They should make it clear that there’s no dad-shaped hole in my emotional life; I […]

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