Bias-related violence against homosexuals is believed to be widespread in the United States, with perpetrators typically described by victims as young men in groups who assault targets of convenience . Victim accounts suggest that assailants possess tremendous rage and hatred; indeed, documentation of horrific levels of brutality has led gay activists to characterize the violence as political terrorism aimed at all gay men and lesbians . Other motives for antigay violence suggested in the literature include male bonding, proving heterosexuality, and purging secret homosexual desires . Due to a dearth of empirical research with assailants, motives are largely inferred from victim accounts and a handful of publicized cases. Thus, the goal of the research discussed in this chapter was to investigate assailants' self-described motivations for their assaults. ...
Other than their assaults, Andrew, Brian, and Eric have little in common. They span the spectrum of opinion toward homosexuality and, indeed, contemporary lifestyles more generally. Brian is a young White man with a college education; a self-described liberal, he has gay friends and argues against homophobia with family members. Andrew is an African American man in his mid-30s with a postcollege education who also espouses progressive politics and is "down with gay rights"; he resigned from the military after witnessing a brutal gay bashing by fellow soldiers, but he also expressed personal revulsion for male-male sex acts, saying he would rather "lick my dog's butt" than kiss a man. Eric is an economically and politically marginalized biracial (Native American and White) man who professes hatred of "faggots" and a litany of other groups, including both Jews and "rednecks," but denies committing assaults based on sexuality per se:
Faggots are disgusting. It's sick.... That's why they destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, because all these guys were butt-fucking each other.... But what they do is their business. Some people beat the shit out of people instead of just accepting it. And that's wrong.... I don't like niggers, I don't like faggots, I don't even like too many White people. But I've never assaulted anyone just because they're a fag or a Jew or a Black. ...
Although their assaults fall within most legal definitions of hate crime, Brian, Andrew, and Eric--like the rest of the informants I interviewed-- all insisted that their assaults were not motivated by hatred of homosexuals. To reconcile the apparent contradiction between the socially normative attitudes often held by assailants and the viciousness and brutality of their behavior toward gay men and lesbians, during the course of my research I came to conceptualize the violence not in terms of individual hatred but as an extreme expression of American cultural stereotypes and expectations regarding male and female behavior.
From this perspective, assaults on homosexuals and other individuals who deviate from sex role norms are viewed as a learned form of social control of deviance rather than a defensive response to personal threat. Thus, heterosexism is not just a personal value system, it is a tool in the maintenance of gender dichotomy. In other words, through heterosexism, any male who refuses to accept the dominant culture's assignment of appropriate masculine behavior is labeled early on as a "sissy" or "fag" and then subjected to bullying. Similarly, any woman who opposes male dominance and control can be labeled a lesbian and attacked. The potential of being ostracized as homosexual, regardless of actual sexual attractions and behaviors, puts pressure on all people to conform to a narrow standard of appropriate gender behavior, thereby maintaining and reinforcing our society's hierarchical gender structure.
Eric exemplifies how heterosexual males, once they have incorporated a heterosexist ideology, appoint themselves as agents for the control of sexual deviance. In describing the three assaults on gay men that he committed while alone, Eric used shorthand explanations that assumed a shared cultural belief that his victims had violated unwritten codes of appropriate behavior and thus deserved punishment. In the first instance, Eric inflicted punishment for the gender-inappropriate act of cross-dressing; the fact that he offered no justification for this assault other than to repeatedly describe his transvestite victim's physical appearance (makeup, female clothing, and long braided hair) suggests that he believed the gender-norm beliefs upon which he acted are universally shared.
In the case of the man who had stolen his cousin's jacket, Eric inflicted punishment primarily for thievery; the man's identity as a "fag" merely provided additional justification for a beating that would have ensued anyway. In Eric's mind, "thief" and "fag" were equivalent concepts, as both entail violations of social norms shared by his peer group and society at large. Finally, in assaulting his relative's gay friend, Eric distinguished his victim's sexual inclinations, which were not problematic, from his refusal to be invisible. Thus, Eric was punishing the man not for homosexual acts but for so-called flaunting, that is, refusal to be shamed of deviance. In each case, Eric was enforcing gender norms that he understood to be mandatory in our culture.
The enforcement of gender norms also explains Brian's calculated assaults on men whom he labeled "weak," and explains why he exhibited only shallow and unconvincing remorse. Indeed, Brian seemed driven by a visceral contempt for men he perceived as lacking in physical strength. More than once during our discussion, he nodded toward certain men walking by--men with slim builds and studious demeanors-- as "pathetic" examples of prime candidates for assault. Brian's scorn was ironic in that he considered himself socially progressive and claimed to despise the fraternity ethos of "tribal," chest-thumping masculinity. Because Brian has a small build and has experienced male rape attempts, one explanation for his revulsion is defensive displacement of weakness. However, contempt for "weak," or insufficiently masculine, men is a central characteristic not just of Brian but of our entire culture. Thus, cultural norms of masculinity help explain Brian's self- righteousness and lack of remorse, despite his professed support for gay rights and social tolerance.
Eric's and Brian's commitment to the enforcement of masculine norms stems from the nature of masculinity as an achieved, rather than ascribed, status. Masculinity and its converse, femininity, are relatively recent constructs of Western culture. Connell (1995) has argued that there is not one but many masculinities within contemporary Western society, with the dominant ideal--or hegemonic masculinity--operating more as a cultural standard than as an achievable status for the majority of men. Although hegemonic masculinity is somewhat elastic--its features change depending upon the labor needs of the state in a particular era--it generally connotes dominance, competitiveness, occupational achievement, and heterosexuality. McCarthy (1994) has traced these role prescriptions to a medieval warrior ethos concerning physical courage, strength, and honor that was repopularized during the 19th century in the service of American and European colonial expansionism.
The internalization of masculine subjectivities begins as early as preschool, when parents and teachers react more negatively to sex role deviations among boys than among girls, and continues throughout adulthood. The peer group initiations of adolescence are particularly central in boys' incorporation of misogyny and heterosexism as essential components of masculine ide