The Declining Significance of Homophobia – How Teenage Boys Are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality By Mark McCormack New York: Oxford University Press 2012.
This book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia[i], is, according to its author, a ‘Good News story’(p xxv). I capitalise ‘Good News’ for reasons that shall become clear. But focusing first on the main thrust of the thesis (and there is no reference to it but I am certain this is a book written out of a PhD thesis), the ‘good news’ is how teenage boys in the UK are less homophobic than in previous eras. Good news indeed.
McCormack’s research, with the fieldwork carried out between 2008 and 2009, consists of ethnography in three school sixth forms in the South of England. He used participant observation and semi-structured interviews with teenage boys/young men between the ages of 16 and 18. The argument he makes is clear: in line with Eric Anderson (2009)’s theories of ‘softening’ or ‘inclusive’ masculinities, McCormack tells us that the young people he studied do not marginalise and discriminate against each other on the basis of sexual orientation, or even perceived orientation. And this is because homophobia has declined in our culture, since the ‘homohysteria’ that characterised the 1980s and 1990s (Anderson 2009) (p32-36).
There are some positive aspects to this book. One is simply that I always value qualitative research, and especially ethnography. In this age, that McCormack himself describes as being ‘a world in which the social sciences must demonstrate their impact and pay their way’ (p 9), in-depth studies that focus on people rather than numbers are refreshing. I am also pleased that he overtly challenges what he calls a ‘victimisation framework’ (p130) often adopted by people from LGBT communities. McCormack acknowledges the ‘agency’ (p32) people have to contest their and others’ oppression. This goes against recent research, for example by the UK LGBT organisation, Stonewall, (p61) that I have found to be scare-mongering about bullying and the hopeless ‘plight’ of LGBT youth.
Another plus to The Declining Significance of Homophobia, is that even in 2012, feminist-dominated gender studies does not adequately cover the experiences and accounts of boys and men. As Tom Martin’s[ii] recent (failed) attempt to sue the Gender Institute at the LSE for discrimination against men[iii] suggests, whilst the name ‘women’s studies’ has been lost from most university gender departments, the bias against men and masculinity remains. McCormack rightly puts his book in the context of a small amount of existing research on men, boys and masculinities in the field of education, citing work (p xx –xxv) by academics such as Mac an Ghaill (1994, 2007), Epstein and Johnson (1994) and Rivers (1995). In doing so he critiques the concept of Hegemonic Masculinity, developed by R Connell (2005). I have criticisms of Connell’s theories, not least because they reinforce the misguided, in my view, notion that ‘patriarchy’ continues to allow ‘orthodox’ ‘masculine’ men as a group to dominate and discriminate against women (and ‘effeminate’ men) as a group (p39). McCormack does not let go of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, or of a feminist perspective (p xxix). But at least he is critiquing Connell’s ideas, not accepting them unquestioningly.
Unfortunately I have some major problems with McCormack’s book. My biggest issue is with his statement that this is a ‘Good News story’. Whilst McCormack is very critical of the historical role in religion in reinforcing homophobic attitudes (p59), and in particular ‘evangelical Christianity’ (p59), I think his book reads like an ‘evangelical’ tract itself, spreading the ‘Good News’ that homophobia is on the decline. There are two main reasons for my feeling. One is that his book relies incredibly heavily on the ideas of one man: his former- PhD supervisor, and ‘mentor’ Eric Anderson ( pvii). McCormack refers to Anderson’s ‘vision’, his ‘academic critiques’ and his ‘exciting theoretical developments’ in awe (pvii). The other reason I think the book is ‘evangelical’ is that McCormack also dismisses out of hand some very important work by other theorists in the field. It reads to me like this is Anderson’s Good News, and ‘academic critique’ of Anderson’s work is not encouraged by McCormack at all.
Anderson’s theories are used by McCormack to explain everything! Whilst I can see that McCormack is using Anderson’s theories of ‘inclusive’ and ‘softening’ masculinity to explain the demise in homophobic language and behaviours amongst contemporary teenage boys, I am less clear as to why he also relies on Anderson almost alone, to explain the homophobic cultures of the 1980s and 1990s, including the devastating impact of AIDS on people’s lives and attitudes. Other writers who are missing from McCormack’s book who have carefully examined the recent history of homophobia (including AIDS), include Mark Simpson (in Male Impersonators 1994 and in Anti- Gay 1996), David Halperin (In How To Do The History of Homosexuality, 2002), Steven Seidman et al (in Queer Theory/Sociology 1996), Steven Zeeland (in Barrack Buddies 1993) and Keith Boykin (in Beyond The Down Low 2005)[v].
The implied ‘defence’ made by McCormack for ignoring and/or dismissing other theorists and writers is in itself worrying. In part, his logic consists of his assertion that poststructuralism is invalid as an epistemological and theoretical basis for research on gender and sexuality. With a grudging concession to what he calls ‘soft’ poststructuralism (p8), that he says maintains that social identity categories have some use, McCormack is damning about poststructuralist theory. He writes:
‘…poststructural scholarship, being wedded to transgression and subversion, cannot theoretically legitmate particular forms of anti-assimilation; it must valorise all or none. That is, postructuralism does not have the conceptual tools to distinguish (‘bad’) sexist and homophobic norms from (‘good’) normative ideals such as antidiscrimination and law-abidance (Nussbaum, 199a) (p7).
This is an inaccurate and unfair interpretation of poststructuralism. What McCormack is doing, is equating all poststructural theory, with ‘relativism’. But many poststructuralist writers have grappled with the potential for their work to become ‘relativist’, and have shown clearly why it is not. Writers and theorists such as Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Bordo and Butler have all explained why their interest in the ‘deconstruction’ of meaning, does not and should not necessarily lead to a belief in the dissolution of meaning. And we only have to read accounts of Foucault being influenced by the Mai 1968 ‘manifestations’[vi], or watch youtube footage of Butler addressing the crowds at the 2011 Occupy demonstrations in New York[vii] to be convinced of their commitment to social justice and political activism. Even Baudrillard[viii], who was less resistant to the idea that deconstruction might lead to a complete obliteration of meaning, seems to me, to have actually very potently and politically predicted the ‘internet age’ with its cacophony of voices, its rows and rows of flat screens, and its ‘hyperreal’ imagery. If it has not disappeared altogether, then in the 21st century, surely ‘reality’ is much harder to grasp , to analyse and to categorise than it was in previous eras?
But it is Judith Butler who McCormack saves most of his anti-poststructuralist ‘zeal’ for. He uses her as a reference to state how ‘obscure’ a lot of poststructuralist writing is:
‘…the writing style of many poststructuralist theorists is so dense and obscure that it is understandable to only a subgroup of academics (Butler,1990). And they only imagine that they read clarity in the writing’ (p9).
He goes onto cite those (including, of course, Eric Anderson), who have criticised Butler’s writing:
‘… In a searing and accurate critique, Martha Nussbaum (1999a) argues that this writing is a wilful attempt to ‘bully’ readers into docility, and Anderson (2009) calls it a ‘violent, shameful act of academic exclusion’ (p33).’
Whilst McCormack calls Gender Trouble (1990) ‘impenetrable’, he provides no evidence in the form of quotes from Butler’s seminal work to back up his statement. We the readers are expected to trust McCormack implicitly in his analysis. And, if we may have been so foolhardy as to have read Butler ourselves, McCormack tells us confidently that those who read and understood her work, ‘only imagine that they read clarity in the writing’ (p9).
McCormack is using his book in part to challenge the queer (and poststructuralist) ‘turn’ (p6) that took place in gender and sexuality theory, and is attempting to replace it with something different, something better, something more ‘Good News’. He writes, towards the end of the book:
‘The consolidation of heterosexual identities in these settings means that decreased homophobia does not necessarily result in a dissipation of sexual identities. This would suggest that, and that deconstruction has its emancipatory limits (Anderson, 2009; Kirsch 2000; Weeks 2007) (p133).
Having earlier dismissed postructuralist queer theory as ‘obscure’ and ‘elitist’, McCormack is able to assert his belief that ‘identity-movement politics’ is the way forward for LGBT young people. I strongly disagree with this perspective, partly as a result of my PhD studies and post-doctoral research into ‘identity politics’[ix], and partly as a result of my own personal, very negative experience of ‘identity politics’ in action.[x] [xi]
The way in which McCormack’s attachment to Gay identity politics is shown in the book, is via his endless use of the word ‘gay’ to describe young people who do not identify as ‘straight’. He talks about ‘gay discourse’ (p114), ‘gay-friendly schools’ (p121), ‘gay students’ (p130), the ‘gay rights movement’ (p57) and ‘gay men’. McCormack mentions at the beginning that some of the young men at the sixth forms (UK equivalent of American High Schools) he studied, identify as bisexual, and one identifies as trans. But throughout the text he prioritises the term ‘gay’ to cover all LGBT young people, and in doing so, I believe, does most of them a great disservice. The theoretical justification he uses for this is worrying to me. Not satisfied with rejecting poststructuralism’s insights into problematic identity categories, he uses biological determinist theory to ‘close down’ the debate about how we come to be who we are. In particular he uses uncritically the widely-contested[xii] (see also: Simpson 1994) work of sex ‘scientist’ Simon Le Vay. McCormack writes:
‘Post-structuralism and social constructionism both recognise that current conceptions of gender and sexuality are socially constructed and historically situated (Foucault 1984, Weeks 1985). This means that although one’s own sexual orientation is biologically determined (Le Vay 2010, [emphasis mine]), the way society understands forms of sexuality is determined by the politics and people of the time, and this will vary across cultures.’(p6).
This ‘born this way’[xiii] version of sexual identity is gaining traction in the 21st century. Of course the subject is still debated, but the dominant view seems to be one which I find highly conservative, and indeed oppressive: that our sexual orientations are determined before birth, and the rest of our lives are somehow enslaved to them. I personally don’t identify my sexual orientation, not out of some political ‘stunt’, but because, aged 41, I still don’t know what it is! And that is not through lack of having tried to find out, in both ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ ways[xiv].
By privileging ‘gay’ terminology in his book, I think McCormack, even on his own ‘identity politics’ terms, is not helping bisexual, trans, asexual and non-identified young people find their way in the world, or indeed find their voices and experiences in the literature. Another of my criticisms of McCormack’s exposition of his research findings, is that he does not give enough space to the accounts of the young people in the study. Apparently he conducted over twenty semi-structured interviews in the three research sites (p15), but hardly includes any quotes from those interviews. When he does quote the students he is very quick to impose his interpretation of their words, rather than giving them a chance to speak for themselves. [xv]
I have one final criticism of McCormack’s book, which extends to a general criticism of masculinities theory and research overall – it relates to what could be seen as an unmentioned, under-researched, unacceptable great big pink ‘elephant in the room’.[xvi] The elephant’s name? Metrosexuality. McCormack makes one single, cursory reference to metrosexuality in his book, in relation to work by David Coad (2008) on metrosexuality and sports (p64). But I think his whole thesis and his research would be improved immensely by giving serious consideration to this ‘21st century’ phenomenon, of men expressing their ‘desire to be desired’ via consumer and media culture (Simpson 2011)[xvii]. According to Mark Simpson, originator and key theorist of the concept of metrosexuality,
‘Contrary to what you have been told, metrosexuality is not about flip-flops and facials, man-bags or manscara. Or about men becoming ‘girlie’ or ‘gay’. It’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. In much the way that women have been for some time. It’s the end of the sexual division of bathroom and bedroom labour. It’s the end of sexuality as we’ve known it.’ (Simpson 2011)[xviii]
And there lies a clue as to why McCormack ignores Simpson’s ground-breaking theories. Because, according to Simpson, metrosexuality, including ALL men’s display of ‘feminine’ traits such as narcissism and passivity, marks the beginning of the end of sexual identity categories[xix]. And it is sexual identity categories that McCormack is so keen to hold onto. Also, McCormack’s mention of young men using facebook and the internet for example, would make much more sense if put in the context of Simpson’s theories of ‘mediated’ and ‘commodified’ masculinities (Simpson, 2011).
McCormack and Anderson are not only holding onto gender and sexuality categories. They seem very attached, additionally, to ‘binary’ notions of gender. They talk about masculinity in terms of (having once been) ‘hard’ and now becoming ‘soft’. McCormack seems to be uncritical of the categories used by both theorists and young people themselves, of ‘masculine’ men being ‘hard’ and ‘effeminate’ or ‘camp’ men being ‘soft’. This view is critiqued comprehensively by Mark Simpson, who highlights how machismo is actually often ‘camp’[xx], and how men who attempt to appear ‘uber-masculine’ often display very ‘feminine’ traits.[xxi]
The final paragraph of McCormack’s book is a defence against imagined ‘critics’ of his work. He says that if readers accept his position that homophobia is declining amongst young people, they will accept his research as a valid addition to the literature, documenting this ‘changing social zeitgeist’. Well, this reader does and doesn’t accept the validity of McCormack’s Good News. On one hand, as I stated above, I see it as a valuable (if flawed) addition to the qualitative and ethnographic literature in masculinity in education studies. On the other hand, I see it as an ‘evangelical’ sermon on the importance of Eric Anderson’s theory of ‘softening’ and ‘inclusive’ masculinity, that, ironically, is not inclusive at all. For it dismisses the proven value of most poststructuralism to the study of sex and gender, it clings on to sexual identity categories that are becoming less and less relevant as the 21st century progresses, and it ignores the ‘social zeitgeist ‘ of metrosexual masculinity that has been clearly documented by Mark Simpson since 1994. In short, I found this Good News story somewhat depressing, and am much relieved, having finished reading it, to return to the ‘exciting theoretical developments’, not of Eric Anderson, but of wonderful writers such as Simpson, Butler, Foucault and The Daddy of sex and gender theory himself, Freud.
Dr Elly Tams is an author and freelance researcher. She also publishes and blogs under the pen-name, Quiet Riot Girl. Her debut novella, Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls, is about a world in which Foucault, the famous French homosexual philosopher, in fact (in fiction) had a daughter.
[i] McCormack, M (2012) The Declining Significance of Homophobia – How Teenage Boys Are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality, New York: Oxford University Press
[v] Simpson, M (1994) Male Impersonators (Cassell), Simpson, M (1996) Anti-Gay, Freedom Editions
[vi] Foucault. M (2000) . ‘Interview with Michel Foucault’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press
[xv] Also, as his research is not ‘action research’[xv] it is not clear how young people could use his findings to improve their lives. That task seems to be left to academics, educators and adult ‘activists’.
[xvi] http://quietgirlriot.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/the-metrosexual-elephant-in-the-room/ Mark Simpson first described metrosexuality to me as ‘the elephant in the room’ but this is anecdotal. I have used his phrase since.
[xvii] Simpson, M (2011) Metrosexy, Amazon Kindle
[xix] Simpson, M ‘The End of Heterosexuality As We’ve Known It’ (2010):