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michael kimmel

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Michael Kimmel is Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He has written widely about ideals of manhood and masculinity in American culture. His books include Manhood in America: A Cultural History (1986) and Gendered Society (2000).
There are several different types of people who gay-bash. But somehow, it all seems to meet around the concept of masculinity.

I think that's true. That's the meeting point for a variety of homophobic responses--the gay bashing, gay murders. One interesting thing is that a large number of the gay bashers seem to hang around gay bars. What's going on? What are they doing there? Part of what I think we're seeing is an externalization of a kind of attraction-repulsion. They go, "It's alluring," then they hate themselves for it, and then they externalize it: " It's them, not me. And if I kill that, I'll kill that part of me."

I'm not a psychoanalyst, but I do think that a large amount of violence comes from that terror of weakness, so it's a compensation. . . . for a feeling a terror, a feeling of humiliation and shame. That's what feeds it. . . . Men don't beat up their wives when they're feeling great about themselves, when they're feeling strong and powerful. They beat up their wives when they're feeling powerless. It's to restore power. It's to get something back. It's compensatory. It's similar, I think, with gay bashing. There is a terror of losing power. . . . If you could destroy that, you can destroy it within.

Do you think that we, as a culture, have any responsibility for that? We have, in some ways, constructed what the ideal man is.

Part of the reason that we see so much is precisely because the definition of a real man is undergoing dramatic change, and transformation. It becomes increasingly confusing. When things get confusing, a lot of people hold on for dear life to something that feels like a rock. And they're not going to let go. They become even more wedded. And others say, "Well, let's just let go, and see what happens." It depends a lot on what the cultural climate is. I do think we bear some responsibility for this. As a culture we don't condone gay bashing, or something like the murder of Matthew Shepard. More often, we bear responsibility for condoning the attitudes that lead to it, that put that out on the continuum. All of us can probably locate ourselves on a continuum. The murder of Matthew Shepard would be at one end, and a sort of perfect man might be at the other end.

And we're all really in the middle

All of us know, in our adolescence, in our workplace experiences, how easy it is to make a gay-bashing joke, how easy it is to call someone a faggot. It's a way to say, "I'm not one. You're one. You must be a sissy. I'm not." Every one of us knows that our adolescent masculinity is built on these events. If we look back at them, I think many of us feel a tremendous amount of shame--"Look what I said. Look what I did. Look at the kind of stupid, racist, sexist, homophobic things I said when I was a child and didn't know any better." A lot of men get very defensive these days because they don't want to feel ashamed about this. They don't want to go back there and remember the kinds of things that we all did. It was in the water. It was in our culture. . . . It was everywhere you looked. It was normal. It was natural. . . .What the gay movement has done is to make [homophobia] not normal, not natural. It's clear that that's not okay. And we're confused about it--we don't know what else to be. . . .

But I think there is both a growing terror and a growing acceptance of gay people in America--and those two are related.

The more accepting we become, the more you're also going to see backlash. That's part of the issue. Backlash always happens during periods of real change and real progress. It's two steps forward and one step back. . . .

Why is it so threatening for a straight man to be seen as gay?

First of all, it has to do with what we fantasize that "being gay" means, which is to say, for men, being the passive receptor. To be gay inverts the gender order. In the public fantasy, in the homophobic mentality, to be gay is to be a man acting like a woman, or a woman acting like a man. One of the most common questions that straight people ask gay people is: "Which one of you is the boy, and which one of you is the girl?" It upsets the order of things. It throws the whole cosmos into chaos. You don't know who's the boy and who's the girl, and that's the only way we're able to see things.

Our culture, because of these very irrational fears, is unnecessarily limiting.  I know that homophobia limits my ability to be close friends with other men; sexism inhibits my abilities to relate with women.  . . . In a heterosexual relationship, you always have gender inequality, because you have a man and a woman, and they bring with them gender inequality. You can't get away from it. But a gay relationship actually makes gender equal. It neutralizes it. If there's going to be a power imbalance, it has to be based on something else. And it often is--on race, on size, on class, on all manner of things. But in the idea of a gay relationship is also the possibility of both being the penetrated and the penetrator, both the active and the passive. When people ask gay couples which one of you's the boy and which one of you's the girl, the most common answer is, "We both are," because you can move back and forth. And that really makes things confusing. . . .

How would you define homophobia? What is it?

Typically, the way we define "homophobia" is an irrational fear of homosexuality or homosexuals--as if their difference somehow is a threat to us, somehow threatens the social order, somehow threatens the cosmos. That's the general way we understand it.

Girls and boys grow up feeling love, and tenderness, and affection for their mothers and fathers, for their same-sex parents. Babies are capable of recognizing love from and toward members of the same sex as well as the opposite. Since we have that memory in our bodies, it's very obvious that we could be afraid that it could just pop out at the wrong moment. So homophobia is the fear that things might get carried away.

One of the things that I've noticed lately is that that leads to a third level of homophobia, which is the fear that other people might perceive us as being gay. This is where it ties in most directly to the ideologies of masculinity or femininity as we know them. To make sure no one could get the wrong idea that I might somehow be gay, one goes through an elaborate repertoire of behaviors, ideas, displays. . . . That terror that someone might see us as gay fuels all the ways in which we talk, act, dress, move in the world--to make sure no one could get that idea. As a result, homophobia becomes a real straitjacket, pushing us toward a very traditional definition of masculinity. . . .

What can you say about the discomfort that we feel when a man is "too feminine" or when a woman is "too masculine?"

I personally feel that this traditional notion of what it means to be a man was far too limiting. It seemed easy, it seemed fun, it seemed pleasant. It certainly came with a big bucket of rewards that one got, but it didn't seem to be enough. It didn't seem to fill me up. It didn't make me feel like that was enough for me, as a man. Interestingly, I see a large number of men looking today for some kind of redefinition of masculinity, whether through religion, like the Promise Keepers, or the Million Man March through race, or the mytho-poetic men. There's a large amount of malaise among American men about what's next for us, what can we be like. I think that we're bumping up constantly against that discomfort. But there's also a sense that this is just not enough.

There's a marvelous line in Kate Millett's book, Sexual Politics, where she says, "I don't get it. I don't get how the powerful (meaning men) keep giving the powerless all the good emotions, like love, tenderness, mercy, compassion. How come the powerful give those to the powerless? Why don't they take them?" It baffles her. I think that's really interesting. I don't want to be deprived of those sorts of feelings, of those sorts of emotions. And I don't want them to be reflective of some vague idea that I'm expressing my feminine side or my femininity. I'm expressing my masculinity when I'm feeling that way. . . .



How would this redefined masculinity affect the old power differences between men and women? Would men be willing to give up some of their power if that was part of the bargain of being more fully realized human beings?

Men have power over women . . . you don't have to look much further than the House of Representatives, any state legislature, any corporate board, or any board of trustees, including all the women's colleges, to find a majority of men in positions of power. So to say that men have power is one thing. But that does not mean that men individually feel powerful. This is where feminism missed men's experience. It wasn't supposed to explore men's experience. Feminism was designed to explore women's experience, which was that, as a group, women don't have power, and women individually didn't feel powerful. So the movement was designed to change the balance of power publicly, and also to empower women to make the kind of changes in their lives they wanted to make.

When you applied that to men, men have power, so therefore individual men must feel powerful, right? Well, when you said that to men, they looked at you like you were crazy. They'd say, "What are you talking about? I don't have any power. My wife bosses me around. My kids boss me around. My boss bosses me around." What we've come to understand is that men's feeling of powerlessness is, in fact, also real. It's not a fiction. It's not wrong. One person who make the argument that men are victims uses the analogy that men feel like chauffeurs. They're sitting in the driver's seat, they got their hands on the steering wheel, they're in control of the car, and they know where they're going. Right? But from their perspective, somebody else is giving the orders. And I think that's exactly right. The question is, what's the gender of the person giving the orders? And of course if you look in the rearview mirror, it's always a man sitting in the back seat of that limousine. . . .

In your classes, does it make a difference to a student, if a straight student thinks you're gay? Do they think that they're better than you, or that they don't really have to take what you're saying that seriously because you're gay?

One year, this became an issue. I had a fairly large class on human sexuality. One of my TA's was running the class for half the class after I had left. One of the students asked, "Is Kimmel straight, or gay or what?" And he said, "I don't know. What do you think?" So he did a little survey, and asked . . . "How many of you think Kimmel's gay?" About a third of the class raised their hands. He said, "How many of you think he's straight?" Another third. Another third said, "He's bi." So now, one-third thought I was straight, one-third gay, and one-third thought I was bi. My TA then reports this to me. So I went back to the class the next time, and I said, "Well, here's what you said. One-third thought I was straight, one-third said I was gay, and one-third thought I was bi. I just want you to know that two-thirds of you are wrong." I didn't reveal anything, because I thought at the time that it was more important for them not to know. . . . What I was feeling at the time was that, to the extent to which they saw me as a positive model of a new, alternative masculinity, it would somehow discredit or erode it that if they had some idea about my sexuality. What I could show them was, "What keeps you from being more expressive, more loving, and more nurturing is the fact that people might think you're gay. See? Just like they do with me." . . .

If I were perceived as gay, my students would have an easy way to dismiss what I might say about homosexuality and heterosexuality. "Of course he'd say that, because he has an agenda." If they perceive me as straight, ironically, they perceive me as not having an agenda at all, of course, of not trying to promote anything there -- I might have more credibility saying more positive things about gay people than if they perceive me as gay. . . .

What do you think drew you to this topic?

I come to it through violence. My initial impulse was when I started thinking about men's violence against women--rape, battery, domestic assault. In that work, I became more and more aware that, masculinity, as it was traditionally defined, did not rest simply on the single leg of sexism, or domination of women. There was another component that held that up. I came to understand that as homophobia--the fear of other men, the fear of being perceived as weak, the . . . fear of being a sissy. This haunts us, from our earliest childhood to Jack Palance doing his one-armed push-ups.



Can we decrease homophobia if we can decrease sexism?

It's going to go the other way. One of the basic props of sexism is homophobia. We have to chip away at that. I've actually been really heartened by the national response to the murder of Matthew Shepard. There was a general sense in America that what happened to him was wrong, was horrifying, was way over the top, and that something has to be done. There was universal condemnation of that. I think we've come some distance from, "Gay, got AIDS yet?" We've come some distance from the kind of national permission for homophobic behavior and expression that we had maybe ten years ago. The national outrage over Matthew Shepard's murder really did galvanize quite a large number of heterosexuals to start thinking about this.

We have a long way to go, but I do believe that one of the basic props of sexism is homophobia. It's one of the pillars on which it rests. And women's equality depends on men transforming that sense of themselves as men, transforming that definition of masculinity so that we can embrace a wider range of emotions for ourselves. . . . Let me just say personally: I want my life to be as rich and full as it can possibly be. I don't want to be deprived of experience or feelings because of my race or my gender or my sexuality. Our culture, because of these very irrational fears, is unnecessarily limiting. I know that homophobia limits my ability to be close friends with other men. I know that sexism inhibits my abilities to relate with women. I want to challenge those, because I want a much richer and deeper and more fulfilling life--I think most of us do. Homophobia and sexism are the obstacles that keep me from it. I want to be able to walk in this world and not see people of different races and different sexualities and different genders from me. I want to recognize them and embrace them for who they are, in all of their difference, and not feel threatened by it.


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