That's what sociologist C.J. Pascoe found when she spent a year and a half at a California high school doing research for her 2007 book, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Homophobic slurs were tossed around constantly, but the students insisted they weren't really about sexual orientation. "When I talked to these boys about what they were teasing about, they would go out of their way to say, 'Oh no, we would never actually call a gay boy a fag. That's just mean,'" she told me. Instead, boys labeled their peers "fags" for things like dancing, being too emotional, caring about clothing, being incompetent, or not have success with girls. While actually being gay wasn't exactly accepted, Pascoe discovered that it wasn't nearly as bad as being considered an unmasculine guy. As one student told her, "Well, being gay is just a lifestyle. You can still throw a football around and be gay." Indeed, of the three out gay boys at the school, the two who were traditionally masculine weren't really bullied by their peers much at all. But the third boy, who broke both the norms of sexuality and gender, faced such severe tormenting that he eventually dropped out of school.
Some scholars see cause for optimism, though. For example, Eric Anderson, an American professor of sociology at the University of Winchester, England, argues that declining homophobia is already starting to create "inclusive masculinities." According to Anderson, homophobia only serves a weapon for enforcing gender norms in an environment of "homohysteria"—in which there is both widespread social disapproval of homosexuality and being gay is associated with femininity. As anti-gay attitudes decline and "the stigma of being called gay doesn't sting" anymore, Anderson explained to me, the boundaries of acceptable masculinity expand. "It's not to say that there are no hyper-macho men," he says. "But it is to say that those who are more feminine are perfectly acceptable, because they're not regulated by homophobia anymore." And a similar transformation would be expected to happen if the link between femininity and gayness were broken. If being feminine is no longer considered incontrovertible "evidence" that you're gay, who cares if you bend gender norms? Anderson's research backs up his theory. He's found that the male college athletes and fraternity members he studied in the U.K. and the U.S. are increasingly more accepting of their gay peers—as well as less aggressive and sexist, and more emotionally intimate and physically affectionate with their male friends.
Gender non-conforming LGBT students are more likely to be bullied than their fellow gender-conforming LGBT peers
But others aren't convinced of such a large-scale transformation. Anderson argues that since sports have historically been highly homophobic spaces, other male groups are likely to be moreinclusive than the primarily white, straight, middle-upper class college athletes he has researched. But studies suggest that, paradoxically, those are the guys who may actually have the most freedom to bend the rules of masculinity. Pascoe describes it as "jock insurance." In effect, men who have the most status have the masculine capital to be able to get away with flouting some gender norms. "Gender is at the heart of all this stuff," Pascoe explains. "It can really make up for your deviance in other ways." Bridges agrees: "I think it might be the case that gender flexibility is becoming more ok for young men today than it was in previous generations. But I would say that that is the case for a very select group of men."
Research on LGBT students' experiences in K-12 schools also suggests that anti-gay harassment may be driven as much by gender anxiety as by homophobia. For starters, the growing acceptance of homosexuality has been slow to translate into a change for LGBT youth, according to GLSEN's national school climate survey, which has been conducted every two years since 1999. There has been some improvement: The frequency of anti-gay comments has slowly but steadily decreased over the last decade. The most recent report from 2011 found the percentage of students who reported hearing slurs like "faggot" or "dyke" was about 70 percent, a drop from over 80 percent in 2001. Even the pervasive use of the expression "that's so gay" seems to have slightly declined in recent years (though "no homo" may have risen to take its place). Yet LGBT students' reports of being harassed or assaulted held steady from 2001 to 2009, before finally dropping somewhat in 2011. And there has been no change at all in incidence of negative comments about gender expression.
Furthermore, gender non-conforming LGBT students are more likely to be bullied than their fellow gender-conforming LGBT peers. Of course, some of that may be because bending gender norms is conflated with being gay in a culture that still hasn't let go of the idea that gender and sexuality are linked. But the high rates of harassment and violence faced by transgender people—who most radically reject the gender binary—suggest that gender policing is playing a role over and above the role of homophobia. A whopping 80 percent of transgender students reported that they felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression. And it doesn't get much better for adults: Ninety percent of the trans and gender non-conforming people surveyed by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job, or hid their identities to avoid it. A 2012 report on anti-LGBT violence from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that trans people were 28 percent more likely to be physically assaulted, and trans women specifically made up 40 percent of hate murder victims.