We know that gender norms (an expectation that people will act a certain way based on their gender) can be incredibly damaging. As we have discussed in previous posts, even seemingly innocuous statements like “boys don’t cry” can have a lasting impact on men. These gender norms can push boys and men into what is known as the “man box,” where the only acceptable emotion is anger, and men and boys are often encouraged to display power and dominance over women.
While gender norms hurt everyone, they can be particularly damaging for LGBTQ+ youth. This Pride Month, we sat down with three members of the LGBTQ+ community to discuss how gender norms shaped their lives, as children and young adults and as successful adults.
This conversation took place between Dixie Lynn Cartwright, Jake Emmerling, and Alex Wolking in June 2018. Each had a unique upbringing in different parts of the country, with varying levels of support and understanding. Yet one thing that they each had in common was that type of statements that they routinely heard from family and friends made them want to hide who they were.
For Dixie, the statements about gender norms were heard frequently, and often came from his family, particularly his mother. His mom hated when he crossed his arms, saying that everyone would think that Dixie was a girl. According to Dixie, “It made me fearful of being perceived as girly. Nothing seemed to disgust my family more than an effeminate man.” Dixie relayed that he feels like he has “…heard it all. Don’t be a sissy. Don’t cross your arms. You look like a girl. Don’t talk with your hands so much. It makes you look like a sissy.”
Jake also heard many toxic gender norms growing up, primarily from friends and classmates. He heard things like “don’t cry,” “you sound like a girl” and “the girls will be all over you.” Although he had strong family support, some family members placed the notion of girls swooning all over him as the desirable and acceptable thing. It made him feel like he had to prove himself more, to hide any signs of “weakness,” or signs of feminine traits. He also internalized the need to win over girls as the right and acceptable thing to do.
Alex heard a lot of the common saying, “boys don’t cry” when he was growing up, particularly if he cried after getting hurt. That often came from his parents, grandparents or any adult figure who was nearby, other than teachers. These statements made him feel ashamed, like he had to hide his emotions and be someone else, because who he was wasn’t acceptable.
The areas where Dixie, Jake and Alex each grew up seemed to play a role in how these gender norms shaped their lives. Jake and Alex each grew up in the midwest. In his small, rural town on the first ridge of the Allegheny Mountains, Jake stated that anything having to do with being LGBTQ+ simply wasn’t discussed. For Alex, growing up in the blue collar town of Rock Island, Illinois, anything outside of traditional gender norms was frowned upon because boys were expected to fulfill a certain role: becoming the primary breadwinners for their families. That meant that activities and interests that fell outside of this limited role, like arts or theater, were not a priority. In contrast, Dixie grew up in a conservative suburb of Memphis, Tennessee in a Southern Baptist household. Everyone that he knew growing up went to church 3 times a week, and considered being gay the moral equivalent of being a murderer. In his community, being effeminate was disgusting and worthy of mocking.
The harm that toxic gender norms can often cause devastation, particularly when it comes to mental health. Jake and Alex each had strong family support. According to Jake, bullying from peers did keep him in the closet longer, as other boys always made him feel like he was weak or too sensitive if he hung out with girls too much. However, his family and close friends were a great support once he did come out. Alex said that he was always made to feel like he was “less than” because of his sexuality. Once he got into high school, he decided to come out — but he did not come out to his grandfather, who told him “don’t EVER be gay. If you do, I’ll disown you.” While he is grateful that he was able to maintain his relationship with his grandfather, he knows that their relationship was strained — and that he never knew the real “Alex.”
Dixie had a much different journey, due to the nature of his family’s beliefs about homosexuality. He hated himself, and spent much of his younger life fighting against who he was — as he was told from an early age that gay people and effeminate men are disgusting. This self-hatred led to addiction and self-harm, as well as sexual relationships with people who he now understands are pedophiles. He also did not come out of the closet until he was out of college, had a job, and could support himself independently. When he first started working as a drag queen, he would scour Facebook in terror to make sure that no pictures of him in drag could make their way back to his family. Dixie continues to struggle with depression, anxiety and addiction as a result of the self-hatred taught to him by his family and his community.
Today, Alex works in real estate, which is a traditionally female-dominated industry. This makes it a more comfortable fit for him, as it was the more hyper masculine types who bullied him as a teenager. Jake is a cast member of The Book of Mormon. He started taking dance classes in high school, and endured some bullying as a result — but decided that he did not care because he knew that he wanted to pursue theater as a career. Dixie is a working drag queen. He initially went to college to be a vocal performance major, singing in an overdeveloped falsetto, leaning towards a countertenor. His voice teacher at his Southern Baptist college told him that he couldn’t sing like that because it would “freak people out.” He quit singing as a result, and changed his major to teaching.
Dixie, Jake and Alex all emphasized just how impressionable kids are. Their firsthand experience as LGBTQ+ individuals demonstrates how simple comments can make a person feel like they are “less than” — or start a lifetime of self-hatred. A careless comment about how a boy throws like a girl or how a boy shouldn’t cry can lead to shame and self-loathing. Instead, we should be building up our kids, and focusing on being their support.
In closing, we want to end with the powerful words from our interview subjects about how they believe toxic gender norms impact kids — and what you can do to help.