The recent suicide death of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover raises troubling questions about the incidence of bullying in our schools and other places where children interact. Earlier this month Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old African-American boy from Springfield, MA, took his own life, in response to the bullying he endured everyday at school. According to reports, Walker-Hoover was repeatedly taunted for “being gay.” That Walker-Hoover, who was not queer identified, was the target of homophobic vitriol speaks volumes about the challenges faced in society that has yet to fully interrogate how we raise and socialize our boys.
Thanks to best-selling books Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (the inspiration for the film Mean Girls) and the emergence of YouTube, parents and schools are hypersensitive to the incidence of bullying in the lives children and the sophisticated ways that children deploy technology in such activities. But bullying, now as always, is symptomatic of our inability as a society to deal adequately with difference-sexual, racial, religious, ethnic, gendered, etc.-in meaningful ways.
While children usually understand about the consequences of bullying their peers-the ways they will be punished, for example-there’s still a continued skittishness within schools to actually deal with the reality of difference. This is particularly the case with discussions of sexual orientation, where some feel that focusing on sexual preference encourages behavior that far too many still view as “deviant” behavior. That the term “gay” has become an umbrella term for all things “uncool” in the lives of American children and teenagers, speaks to how dismissive we are of homophobia in our society.
Bullying of course takes many forms, but anyone who has spent any amount of time in the company of boys is well aware of how terms like “punk,” “faggot,” “bitch-ass” and “pussy” are part of the normative discourse of American boyhood. Even those boys, who are not necessarily invested in bullying, find themselves employing such terms as a form of protection, lest they also be targeted (as was the case when I was a boy). Unfortunately such behavior has long been relegated to the status of “boys being boys,” even as it articulates a troubling misogyny among other things. When such bullying escalates to the level of violence, as a society we are happy to enact punitive responses to the offenders without ever interrogating the root cause of the behavior.
Often lost in these responses is that this particular form of bullying is evidence of a general crisis of masculinity in our society, where boys and men, are all too often uncomfortable in the skins that they inhabit. While there is evidence that the behavior of some childhood bullies portends adult behavior tethered to more complex emotional and mental issues, there also little denying that many boys engage in bullying behavior against other boys, because they have been socialized to believe that’s what “real” boys and “real” men do. Bullying, particularly that which targets other male peers as “less than masculine,” helps masks anxieties about what real boyhood/manhood is supposed to be. Indeed such anxiety and apprehension about masculinity was so palpable in the life of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover that he chose to take his life rather than deal with the daily reminders that somehow he didn’t play to type.
While Walker-Hoover’s tragic death brings necessary attention to the consequences of bullying in our society, the bullying will continue unless we allow our boys and men to be comfortable with who they are, rather than performing some idea of what real maleness is supposed to be.