I spent my morning with five young men of middle school age. These young men were, as the saying goes, urban youth. The kids most people assume are criminals upon first sight. In my job, they are the kids I want to talk to most of all, even if I am always a little nervous about taking my butch ass into their school and teaching them about respect and consent.
Our subject this morning was gender respect. This came on the Friday of the week when a crisis of suicide became more apparent in the LGBTQ community. Six young men killed themselves this month because they couldn’t face one more day of torment from their classmates who called them names, told them to kill themselves, broadcast their intimate lives on the internet and generally shamed them about being gay.
I didn’t know I was going to talk about those young men with these young men when I started our discussion. Turns out, I really needed to.
We defined gender, we defined respect, and we defined disrespect. We talked about stereotypes about gender. Then I asked them to tell me what a man is supposed to be.
Aggressive. Physical. Strong. Athletic. A player. Interested in women. Silent.
I asked them what men aren’t supposed to be.
Soft. Nurturing. Dancers. Passive. Interested in men. Emotional.
I asked them what boys and men who are those things get called.
Faggot. Gay. Homo. Pussy.
We talked about the Man Box, and how when young men dare to step outside of the Man Box, they are punished with name calling, harassment and even physical violence.
Every single one of the boys I was talking to had been called names or bullied because they weren’t always inside the Man Box. I told them about Tyler, Seth, Asher, Billy, Raymond, and Justin. I told them I wasn’t trying to scare them, or shame them. What I wanted to do was talk about the very real consequences of not having respect for the people around us, even when they are different or we don’t agree with them.
“If I have two dimes and a nickel in my left hand, how much money do I have?” I asked them.
“Twenty-five cents,” they answered almost in unison.
“If I have a quarter in my right hand, how much money do I have?” I asked.
“Twenty-five cents,” again, almost in unison.
“So, those coins are different, right? But they have the same value. That’s what’s true for people too. We might look different, we might like different things, we may not agree with each other, we may be gay or straight, or a boy or a girl. But we all have the same value as human beings.”
I am one of the gays who lived. And this was my day today.