Making School Safe for Sissies

By Eric E. Rofes

I knew I was queer when I was a small child. My voice was gentle and sweet. I avoided sports and all roughness. I played with the girls.

I did not fit into the world around me. I knew the meaning of “heresy” before I entered kindergarten. Heresy was a boy who cried a lot when he got hurt. Heresy was a boy who couldn’t throw a baseball. Heresy was a boy putting on girl-clothing. Heresy was me.

As I got older and fully entered the society of children, I met the key enforcer of social roles among children: the bully. The bully was the boy who defined me as queer to my peers. If they hadn’t already noticed, he pointed out my nonconformity. He was ever-present throughout my childhood, like an evil spirit entering different bodies on different occasions. He haunted me at school, throughout my neighborhood, during synagogue, even at birthday parties. In any group of three or more boys, the bully was present.

I know a lot about bullies. I know they have a specific social function: they define the limits of acceptable conduct, appearance, and activities for children. They enforce rigid expectations. They are masters of the art of humiliation and technicians of the science of terrorism. They wreaked havoc on my entire childhood. To this day, their handprints, like a slap on the face, remain stark and defined on my soul.

When I was a young boy, the bully called me names, stole my bicycle, forced me off the playground. I was victim of the ridicule he heaped on me. He made fun of me in front of other children, forced me to turn over my lunch money each day, threatened to give me a black eye if I told adult authority figures. At different times I was subject to a wide range of degradation and abuse — “de-pantsing,” spit in my face, forced to eat the playground dirt.

Today psychologists and educators are aware of the deep scars which are borne by children and youth who are victimized by violent physical abuse, sexual assault and incest, and the addiction-based behavior of parents. We see the results in our classrooms on a daily basis. Little analysis has focused on the impact of boy-to-boy abuse as lived out among social peers. The abuse I suffered in American public schools from kindergarten to my senior year of high school created deep psychic scars with which I have struggled throughout my lifetime. These same scars are shared by many others. We will never forget that we were tortured and publicly humiliated because we refused to be real boys, acted “girlish” or were simply different. This was the price we paid for being queer.

As I entered adolescence, I noticed that the bully could replicate himself. As part of male rites of passage, all boys were presented with a simple choice: suffer daily humiliation or join the ranks of the bully. We all had to answer the question, “Which side are you on?” I watched sweet childhood friends become hard and mean. I saw other sissy boys become neighborhood toughs. They formed gangs of bullies that tormented us. I witnessed the cycle of abuse which ensures the constant creation of new bullies and I vowed that this would never happen to me. Watching the powerless take on the trappings of power, I’d shake my head and withdraw into deeper isolation.

The world of children was a cruel place for me.

Sissies and Gay Youth

Despite 25 years of gay liberation work in the United States, there has been an overwhelming silence about gay men’s youthful experiences as sissies. In fact, despite increasingly active work focused on gay youth by educators, social workers and activists, very little discussion has occurred which has explicitly focused on the plight of sissy boys in our schools. Few of us want to touch this topic.


Two key barriers exist which cause professionals and gay activists alike to avoid discussing the horrors which are visited on sissies and creating a plan of action to confront the epidemic of bullying. People of all sexual orientations who work on lesbian and gay youth issues want to avoid stereotyping gay male youth. To say sissies= gay male youth is considered offensive by many in the gay community. Instead we insist gay youth are fully integrated throughout our schools; they are on the football team as well as the drama club, student council as well as art class, the computer club and the swim team. We tell the world that childhood sissies grow up to be men of all sexual orientations.

Another reason that little attention has focused on the plight of the sissy is that gay male activists and educators alike carry unresolved feelings about their own sissy pasts. When we left home and fled to a safer location, we did our best to leave our sissy identities behind. We’ve never dealt with the deep scarring of our souls which occurred at the hand of other boys. Instead, we threw ourselves into adult lives and tried never to look back. It is too painful to reopen these wounds.

These barriers must be examined, challenged, and overcome because — regardless of future sexual orientation — sissy boys have become contemporary youth’s primary exposure to gay identity. Throughout my primary and secondary school years, the words hurled at nontraditional boys were “sissy,” “pansy,” and “nancy-boy.” Today the words are “gay,” “faggot,” and “queer.” In fact, many students, when challenged by teachers on using the word “gay” as an epithet, insist that it has nothing to do with homosexuality. Instead, they are using the word to brand an individual as odd, nontraditional, or “girlish.” The links to youthful misogyny are evident. Whether or not sissy boys grow up to be adult gay men, no attempt to prevent violence in our schools will succeed without addressing the attacks on sissies.

Furthermore, interviews with gay men of all classes, races, and educational backgrounds reveal a strikingly large percentage who acknowledge a sissy past when asked. This is true of gay men who exemplify American ideals of masculinity, as well as hypermasculine men in the gay ghetto.

Some sissy boys grow up to be non-traditional adult men — androgynous, “effeminate,” transgendered, or simply gentle — while others transform themselves into traditional versions of masculinity. I believe the modern gay male community’s obsession with images and artifacts of masculinity and femininity is rooted in childhood sissy experiences.

Some gay men have talked and written candidly about their struggles as sissy boys. Early gay liberationists wrote about their sissy boyhoods out of a political framework of ending rigid gender roles.1 Seymour Kleinberg, author of Alienated Affections: Being Gay in America, in a chapter entitled “Where Have All the Sissies Gone?” discusses the response of urban gay male communities to the sissy stereotype.2 More recent accounts of sissy pasts appear in John Preston’s anthology Hometowns: Gay Men Write About Where They Belong, 3 as well as Paul Monette’s Becoming A Man, 4 and Michelangelo Signorelle’s Queer in America.5 Yet the literature of books and academic journals focused on gay youth issues frequently appears to bend over backwards to avoid any equating of gay youth with sissies.

Schools must incorporate strategic responses to the bully/sissy paradigm in their work to make educational institutions responsive to the needs of gay youth and they also must eschew any fears that a linkage between sissies and gay youth panders to stereotypes. In the eyes of youth culture, sissy boys function as gay youth even before the dawn of conscious erotic desire appears.

Persecution of Sissies

When I was in high school, the bully operated with a great deal of autonomy because he knew that teachers would look the other way rather than confront his terrorism. The bully/sissy paradigm was the key element of male youth culture which occupied space separate from academic culture. Even when the bullying occurred in the classroom, it was when the teacher’s back was turned, or during team sports, or when we broke up into small groups for project work. On the rare occasions when teachers would witness bullying, they uniformly failed to respond, implicitly granting sanction to the persecution of nontraditional boys.

If schools intend to address the pain of sissy boys and its impact on mental health distress, low self-esteem, and poor academic performance, significant teacher training must occur to root out prejudices and sexist assumptions which are wide-spread among American educators. In the long run, an examination of the roots of power abuses between children (boy to boy, boy to girl, and girl to girl) must take place if we are going to end violence and harassment in our schools. In the short run, schools can make a commitment to the following:

  1. Teachers and administrators must play active roles in interrupting bullying. No longer should teachers pretend that this kind of persecution isn’t taking place and that boys who are named sissies are themselves at fault for their predicament. Boys have the right to choose their relationship to socially constructed gender roles and, for boys who do not consciously choose to be a particular way, there is the right to be different and still be free from school-sanctioned victimization. Interrupting, confronting, and disciplining are within the responsibility of all school staff. Abrogating this task is nothing short of complicity in the dynamic.
  2. Boys who don’t enjoy or wish to participate in activities focused solely on boys should be given a range of alternative options. No place is more frightening to the sissy than gym class. Being the last child chosen for a team or standing in right field are common experiences for sissy boys. Traditional team sports and other activities where one can demonstrate individual athletic prowess are fraught with opportunities for humiliation and public degradation for sissy boys. The situation is exacerbated when gym teachers themselves participate in the harassment by using sexist taunts to encourage better participation or higher achievement. A rethinking of gym class must occur with an aim to promote physical activity and health among all students without the gender-specific options still offered by most schools and without the rampant sissy-baiting which is integrated into sports in America.
  3. Schools must examine the overt and covert ways in which they honor certain kinds of achievement for boys and ignore other kinds of achievement which are not seen as traditionally male-focused. Traditional pep-rallies promote very specific expectations and roles for both young men and young women. The men are expected to exhibit athletic prowess and aggressive competitive urges and the women are expected to be their boosters. Setting aside the question of whether sports in schools can be reformed in a meaningful way, until it is as honorable for a boy to be a cheerleader and a girl to be a football player, sissy boys and strong girls will be relegated to secondary status as misfits. A wide range of academic and extracurricular activities should be offered to both boys and girls, and public honoring of achievement must mesh traditional and nontraditional pursuits with commensurate attention.

Finally, it must be noted that a wide range of nontraditional behavior among boys creates several different persecuted identities. Schools must consider the following categories of boys and the special issues they face in finding safety in our schools and fulfilling their educational potential: sissies, sensitive boys, nerds, and wonks. Meaningful remedies which foster self-esteem and promote security are a bottom-line responsibility of all of our schools.