Teenage boys sitting on each other’s laps, exchanging back rubs and dolling out hugs: This was the sight that researcher Mark McCormack found when he went to a British high school to research masculinity.
It was a shocking departure from the aggressive homophobia that he himself observed as “a shy, geeky, closeted teenager” in the late ’90s and early 2000s. For his new book, “The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys Are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality,” McCormack spent the year observing social interactions and collecting data from three high schools in the U.K. Over and over again, he saw the same surprising scene: young straight men being physically affectionate and emotionally expressive with one another. What’s more, he found that homophobic behavior is a rarity and that when someone does express anti-gay beliefs, they “are reprimanded by other students.”
His message — which builds on that of his Ph.D. advisor, Eric Anderson, author of “Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities” — flies in the face of a spate of horrifying stories stateside of bullied gay teens committing suicide, but McCormack says the U.S. is a decade behind the U.K. on this particular front. That said, he also believes that recent attention paid to gay teen suicides doesn’t accurately reflect the reality of homophobia in America today, or how much progress has been made: “We need to look beyond the worst-case examples to see what is happening in the majority of schools,” McCormack writes. ” We do no-one any favors if we only fight prejudice that is, for some, yesterday’s battle.”
Salon spoke to McCormack by phone from his office at Brunel University in West London about the disappearance of the insult “that’s so gay” — across the pond, at least — and why the U.S. still lags behind.
How has homophobia changed over the past couple decades in the U.K.?
In the past, homophobia has been hugely significant. Being gay was criminalized up until 1967, so it’s only in the past 45 years where it’s been possible to be openly gay. In the ’80s and ’90s, when I was growing up, there was Section 28, which prevented teachers from talking about homosexuality; they didn’t feel able to combat homophobia in schools.
It used to be in the ’80s that there was “homohysteria,” which is the fear of being socially perceived as gay. What boys needed to do was to make sure they weren’t seen as gay. It was kind of this game of tag where boys would deploy homophobia competitively because the person perceived as gay would be the person who was bullied and marginalized. What better way to prove that you’re not gay than by being homophobic yourself?
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