Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has scored points in disparate places with his man's man campaign against woman-beating, from New York Magazine to the metro page of today's Dallas Morning News -- all of it much deserved, if you ask me. A guy like Rawlings, Class of '76 at Boston College where he played defensive end on the football team, has the right voice and body language for telling woman-beaters they are not real men.
So what else? Look, maybe not today or right now while we're still working on the woman-beater problem, but soon, we might even take a few more steps down what I think is the same path and ask what a real man is, anyway. When we do get there, I have two guys in mind for the next chapter -- the Portman lads.
Last week Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman announced he was abandoning his opposition to same-gender marriage after acknowledging that his son Will is homosexual. The immediate response was predictable praise and brickbats from all over the map -- people who called him a hypocrite for maintaining unwavering homophobic aim until his own flesh and blood came into his gun-sights, people who were angry with him for abandoning the good ship Homophobe, people who called him courageous for facing down homophobia in his own political party and damn the torpedoes. And so on.
But what deeper lesson might we see in Rob Portman's conversion on the road to gender-equality Damascus? Isn't there a nexus with Rawlings' macho-man attempt to redefine masculinity for those wretches who still think it involves beating up girls? What about the wretches who think it involves beating up homosexuals or still think other people's sexuality is any of their damn business?
Let's start with men just because we're on the topic, but we all realize these questions go equally to women. Does a real man, in order to be a real man, need to feel fear and loathing for men who are unlike him sexually? What would your typical defensive end have to say on this topic?
An important if not defining element in sexual phobia has always been the remarkably predictable penchant of very showy homophobes to show up in cell-phone photos later getting on the airplane with rent-boys. It's too simplistic and frankly insulting to homosexuals to conclude that all homophobes are really homosexuals battling to conceal their inner natures from others or themselves. But it's not unreasonable to wonder to what degree homophobia is an expression of a very weakly defended, sexually insecure or otherwise wobbly sense of one's own identity.
In other words, does a real man worry about what other men do in bed? Does a heterosexual man really need to sit around with his dander up every time he thinks about men screwing other men? Then should homosexuals get theirs up, too, every time they picture men screwing women? Isn't this whole dander business just a bit too tangled?
When does some real man's man -- I think of the elder Portman looking very buff, indeed, on his bicycle with the helmet -- take to center stage and speak out against men who define their masculinity by denigrating the masculinity of others? Does a real man see someone else as any less a man than he because that person was born with a sexual nature unlike his own? Doesn't he need to look at the brave tough soldiers who are gay, the professional athletes, civic leaders, great dads and good neighbors, writers and artists, CEOs, and see that being a real man has nothing to do with sexual orientation? Just as a real man doesn't beat up women, a real man shouldn't have to denigrate other men in order to defend his own sexual identity.
A 2002 study by three University of Arkansas psychologists, much touted in conservative homophobic circles, concluded that the word, homophobia, is a misnomer, because homophobes aren't afraid of anybody. Instead, according to the Razorback research team, homophobia is born of disgust, which is born of fear of contamination. I guess this was an attempt to define homophobia as a healthy and natural quality. I don't get it on strictly semantic terms, because the word, fear, does still seem to be an important part of the formula.
But what is at the bottom of disgust itself? Especially when it is a visceral reaction to entire populations of other human beings, isn't that disgust always an attempt to define one's self as unlike the feared and loathed other? Isn't hatred of the other always the same thing, whether expressed as sexism, racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, jingoistic nationalism? It's an attempt to bolster one's own sense of self by dehumanizing the other.
Isn't that close to the heart of the issue with men who think it's OK to beat up women? The universal bottom line is that people who feel this disgust for the other are weak, not strong. They are less, not more. Rather than fortify, their desire to dehumanize others cheapens and erodes their own dignity as human beings. Real men -- and real women -- do not gay-bash. When do we rally on the steps of City Hall for that one?