Teen Boys and Homophobia: A Jewish Approach to Some Underlying Issues

How does Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood address the challenge of teen boys and homophobia? By applying Jewish texts and challenging commonly held assumptions....

maimonides-desiresPersistent Problems

Even though many boys in co-educational settings are now professing open and positive attitudes towards LGBTQI acceptance, when boys are in spaces where girls and adults are not present, their tune often changes. The term “that’s so gay” is still a common expression of negativity. If they get intimate in their horseplay, “no homo” is used to reinforce hetero-normativity and “fag” is still the ultimate put-down. While teen boys may not realize it, using these homophobic terms enforces narrow ideas of masculinity that restrict all men.

When boys are confronted by a teacher or coach about this language, they often insist that it “wasn’t about him being gay, it was just that what he did was stupid.” When supervised by adults who have expressed dislike of their language, boys will often edit their banter, but words are only one part of the problem; their nonverbal behavior can be just as powerful.

In most groups of teen boys, there are some who actively try to prove their manliness or coolness by being explicitly harsh toward other guys and towards any behavior that is deemed “gay” or “feminine.” The humor they use and the ways in which they prove their dominance in the group both verbally and non-verbally uphold a male code in which anything “sissy” or “faggy” is quickly labeled and ridiculed. At times, mockery of any “effeminate” behavior is done without language and with subtle visual or facial cues, quietly endorsing a certain type of masculinity and standard of what is “cool.” Boys who don’t measure up to the code of toughness or bravery may be told, nonverbally, that they are acting “gay.”

It is this dynamic – the constant checking to see who in a group of guys is tough and who is weak, who is able to be teased and who is fragile, who panics in moments of public attention and who is at ease – that guys need help navigating.

Teaching teen boys to be conscious of these dynamics is a daunting task. Boys, from the moment that they are toddlers, are taught non-verbal ways of being with other boys. Culture dictates not only how a boy should sit, stand, walk, and run, but also how to take a toy that he wants, how to give an intimidating look, and how to signal that  others shouldn’t mess with him. Given the strength of these cultural codes, we can’t expect boys to change their non-verbal expressions overnight, but we can help them become aware of all the ways that they have been taught, non-verbally, to react to one another. By drawing attention to their facial reactions, laughter, grunts,  and other non-verbal expressions, we can help them become conscious of the challenge they each face to “act like a man.”

Two Levels of Empathy

So what can be done, if anything, to challenge the underlying male culture that labels and mocks that which is seen as not conforming to male codes as “gay”?

One of the messages teen boys have received through media and school programs is that gay teen boys have and continue to be oppressed by bullies. As a result of these programs, many teen boys in the Jewish community are able to empathize with the challenges that some gay teens face and are able to advocate for a more tolerant society.

But while this type of message helps teen boys empathize with the victims of oppression and violence, it can also serve to re-affirm stereotypes. The bullies are most often portrayed as straight, athletic young men and the victims as weak, gay (or non-conforming) teen boys who are emotionally tortured. As Jews, we are painfully aware of the ways in which Jewish self-hatred has been one of the bi-products of the constant portrayal of the Jew as the victim of oppression. Just as Jews need models of Jews other than cowering victims who suffered through the horrors of the Shoah, gay teens deserve multiple models of what it is to be a gay teen – and to be a gay adult. For this reason, we want to step beyond the dynamic in which the only thing that “straight” guys are taught is to develop sympathy for victimized gay people through stories of oppression.

The best path to developing a second-level of empathy is to address head on the issues underneath male homophobia — issues regarding how men fear other men, how they understand the male sex drive, how they handle confusing sexual messages that they see on the Internet, and ultimately how they understand masculinity.

Our goal is for teen guys to empathize with one another not only when they are triggered to empathize as a result of a story with clear abusers and victims, but to develop a sense of empathy that is fostered through genuine relationships and honest, ongoing dialogue. All guys struggle with society’s definition of manhood. If we can help teen boys address the root questions that lead to homophobia, then they, on their own, will begin to reframe how they understand masculinity, re-define the way that they speak about sexuality, and help society to challenge the way that sexuality is labeled and demeaned.

Taking a Jewish Approach

Moving Traditions works to raise consciousness around codes of masculinity and helps boys to define, for themselves, with the help of Jewish ethical wisdom and mentorship, what it means to be a man.

We ground our approach in Jewish wisdom and ethics. Maimonidies, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, taught:

We all have physical needs and material desires. When these desires are addressed in a measured and realistic manner, we can achieve a state of internal peace that is essential to Torah study. When we neglect these desires, we encumber our efforts with frustration and depression.

What Maimonides outlined in terms of the “state of internal peace that is essential to Torah study” is similar to what we would now term emotional and spiritual maturity.

One of our goals in this program is to help teen boys understand that desires are different for different people, that it is not easy to figure out how to address those desires in a realistic manner, that we should all be aware of the problems that set in when we suppress these desires, and that it is possible to reach a sense of internal peace when you act on those desires in ways that do not hurt others.

A Curricular Model That Re-Defines Manhood

So how do we get guys to think differently about men and sexuality?

While there are great books and films that help us in this task, our sense is that unless conversations among teen boys change, underlying attitudes will not. So how can we, as educators and mentors in the Jewish community, kick-start those conversations?

First, we need to create a space where guys can explore questions regarding gender and sexuality with both humor and safety. In Moving Traditions’ research in developing the boys program, we found that the vast majority of Jewish boys were not finding such spaces in their school environments and that they valued such spaces within the Jewish community.

In such spaces, guys learn how to break down the ways in which they are taught to label things as “gay” and “straight,” and hold conversations that help guys to understand the underlying psychological and social dynamics which have encouraged the labeling process.

How does the curriculum help guys untangle ideas about men, sex and homophobia? We have identified three major themes within the curriculum that help teen boys develop this area of their thinking.

The first is redefining masculinity – helping teens to understand that the definitions we have regarding what is “manly” and what makes a “real man” are unhealthy constructs for men. Teen boys learn to see that we are culturally conditioned to enforce a “man box” that restricts men from expressing emotion, from acting in a way that is seen as too caring or sensitive, and from “performing masculinity” in any way that counters the cultural stereotype. Guys are cultured to ridicule any guy who is acting “feminine,” a dynamic that not only harasses the accused with names like “faggot,” but also affirms an underlying misogyny.

In our work, we undermine this idea by pointing to alternative ways of being a man and by showing the limits of the man box. We also discuss what it means to be a mensch, which means, in part, to be able to break down the narrow ways in which guys are enforcing demeaning codes on one another. By taking what we have termed an additive approach, we do not take away any of the positive traits associated with traditional masculinity, but we expand the definition of masculinity, helping teen boys to see the unnecessary social pressures that they enforce on one another.

The second area of focus of our curricula is on thinking critically about pleasure. In this session, we teach teen boys that different people have different tastes, and that those tastes are something that is experienced as innate. We start this lesson by exploring tastes of different types of food, and then extend this idea to sexual attraction.

We also discuss the idea of social conformity that pushes a particular type of beauty ideal and the particular kind of sexual relationships portrayed in pornography and elsewhere. The idea that is conveyed is that in a world where we are told what we are supposed to like, we each need to listen to innate feelings and let them guide us to understand what it is that we are comfortable with and what will make us happy. One of the insights that we hope they will develop is a sense that the idea that men are “horny dogs who will screw anything that moves” is a harmful stereotype for men. Knowing that straight men are not attracted to all women and gay men are not attracted to all men is another important step in addressing homophobia.

The third section of our curricula that addresses the issues underneath homophobia is our section on consent. We address how we are taught to think about our bodies and how power plays out in intimate physical relationships. In this session, teen boys think specifically about what happens when someone “hits on” someone else. Even in the phrase “hitting on” we see the idea that there is aggression and power encoded in the way we approach one another sexually. We address the factors that go into pursuing a sexual encounter and the factors in preventing an unwanted advance by someone else. This dynamic we see as critical in addressing homophobia because most guys begin to see that what they are uncomfortable about – what they are afraid of – is not necessarily homosexuality, but the idea that someone who they are not excited by is going to pursue some sort of sexual contact with them. They also, in turn, begin to think about what it means when they “come on” to someone who doesn’t reciprocate.

Addressing these underlying issues, we aim to take much of the phobia out of the ambient homophobia of boy culture. It is our hope that teen boys will learn not only how to change the words that they use, but how to promote both verbal and non-verbal expressions of manliness that are cool and confident without being demeaning. Ultimately, our goal is to create a more expansive view of what it means to be a man, and to inspire teen boys to bring that vision to the Jewish community and the wider world.

Author’s Note

During my high school years, one of the many rites of passage imposed by upperclassmen on freshman boys was forcing them to hold hands, skip and yell: “I’m a faggot, couldn’t be prouder, if you can’t hear me, I’ll scream a little louder.” It was such a popular chant that it had a melody affixed to it.

Looking back, it’s hard to feel anything but shame about my participation in this. I yelled those words when I was hazed as a freshman and subjected freshman to these words as a junior and senior. It never occurred to me to think that there was a problem.

While many teen boys in America are still antagonistic towards homosexuality and gay marriage, most Jewish teen boys today, especially on the two coasts, have grown up with neighbors or teachers or friends who are openly gay. Ask them about gay marriage or gay characters on TV and they respond, in their words, “I have no problem with it.” Most of them have had a dose of sensitivity education around homophobic language in both synagogues and schools. Teen boys in co-educational settings learn to carefully censor their words and they often defend gay rights with phrases like “I’m not gay but there’s nothing wrong with being gay” and some of them are aware of more nuanced lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) language and gender theory and why it matters. Between the days of All in the Family and Modern Family we have come a long way.

That said, as I have worked in the last year and a half with groups of teen boys and with men who guide teen boys in over forty institutions, I have learned more about what is under the surface of the social experience of today’s male teenagers in the Jewish community. My conclusion is that while we should celebrate the many strides that have been made towards inclusion of LGBTQI folks in our communities, we shouldn’t be blinded to the persistent ways in which things that are associated with homosexuality or gay culture are denigrated in male culture and in the specific culture of Jewish boys. These boys spend hours in what can only be described as macho and misogynistic digital environments, they watch comedy clips that ridicule all things labeled as “feminine,” and they continue a process of social exclusion towards boys who deviate from the unwritten male codes.

For this reason, new questions need to be asked:

  • Why does such blatant homophobia persist, even in communities that sanctify LGBTI unions?
  • How do teen boys understand sexuality and label each other based on these perceptions?
  • What is the best way to teach teen boys to have empathy for one another?

Those are a few of the questions that we attempted to answer in this work about teen boys and homophobia.

– Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Chief of Education and Program, Moving Traditions


Many thanks are due to those who volunteered their time to help develop this piece, including Dr. Richard Stern, Wayne Hoffman, David Lieberman, Madeline Till, Dr. Billy Yalowitz, Mason Voit, and Carey Schwartz, as well as to Deborah Meyer and my other wonderful colleagues at Moving Traditions.