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The Trial of Masculinity: Sports, Rituals, and Homophobia
(L'Épreuve de la masculinité: Sport, rituels, et homophobie)

By Simon Louis Lajeunesse

2008. H&0 Editions. 234pp.

Reviewed by Edward J. Tejirian, Ph.D.

“The Trial of Masculinity” is based on a thesis for a
doctoratrate in Social Service at the University of Laval in Quebec. The author, Simon Louis Jeunesse, spent several months building rapport with his informants. These were all young men between the ages of 18 and 24 who were candidates for the Baccalaureat—the equivalent of our American Bachelor’s degree. In the book they are referred to as “sportifs”—corresponding , in current American English,  to something between athlete and “jock.”

Twenty-two respondents  participated in the study. Of these fourteen played team sports, while eight practiced an individual sport. None of those playing team sports identified themselves as gay, whereas four of the eight practicing an individual sport did.  All were or had been serious athletes at high school, university, or Olympic levels.  The research methodology was ethnographic. Lajeunesse gained the confidence of his informants who candidly shared their feelings and thoughts about the meaning that sport had in their lives, together with a rich store of observations drawn from their personal histories in playing sports. The result is a fascinating excursion into the labyrinth of male sexual psychology.

A hierarchy of masculinity

The introduction to the book includes of the author’s recollection of what it was like to grow up as a boy in the Quebecois culture of the sixties.  There were, he notes, three kinds of boys: the first group consisted of those who excelled in athletics and constituted a kind of “elect.” They were more aggressive, more rough and tumble and seen as the most masculine.  The second group was more disparate and consisted of those boys who strove to be like the first group. The third group were, in the author’s words, “the mistakes of nature,” who included boys seen as effeminate. They represented a perfect model of what a boy did NOT want to be. With the tacit or even overt encouragement of the teachers, they were the objects of derision. Excluded from the opportunity to salvage their reputations through participation in sports, their friendships tended to be with girls.  “The Trial of Masculinity” had its origins in those recollected events of forty years ago. Lajeunesse says that he swore to try to understand the rituals that, for certain boys, meant suffering and exclusion because—addressing the reader—he says, “You have no doubt guessed that I found myself in the bad group.” In contrast, the informants in this study were young men who would have fit neatly into the top group of his boyhood hierarchy.

Lajeunesse views the system of social reward and exclusion that he grew up with in the framework of “hegemonic masculinity.” The aspect of this framework that the author focuses on and that is most germane to this review is its tendency to view masculine and feminine in binary terms and to equate male homosexuality with femininity.  It is hegemonic in that it is imposed on boys in their formative years and is also influential among the power elites in the political, sports, and military establishments.

To what extent does this brand of “hegemonic masculinity” continue, in the present day, to exert influence on Quebecois culture in a country where gay men can openly serve in the military and where marriage between people of the same sex is legal? The author does not address this question directly. However, his narrative indicates that it is alive and well in the psychology of those of his informants who played team sports.

The sports experience: team versus individual sport.

A major fault line divided the two groups interviewed by the author. Those who played group—or team—sports  he called “les gregaires”—“the gregarious” and those who practiced individual sports were labeled “les solitaires”—“the solitaries.” On one side of this divide, the experience of being a team player involved a total immersion in the subculture  of the group.  Antoine, a football player said, “…it’s a gang that’s really close. I wouldn’t be able to train alone. It’s a bloc of 70 guys. They all know each other. Everyone helps everyone else. You become real chums. You’re together 40 hours a week.” (p.21). Throughout the book, it is clear that, for “les gregaires” the group experience is every bit as important as the athletic experience, so much so that it is questionable  which of the two is more meaningful.   One man put it this way: “I wanted to really become a man—a real one (“un vrai.”) A man who would have courage, a man who could change his life by developing his physical body.” (Manu, baseball, hockey, p. 43.) The fact that the route to the realization of his dream of manhood was through team sports is testimony to the potential importance of the team experience as a developmental stage in the life histories of the team players in this study. 

(Note: Throughout, “football” refers to American style football. Soccer in Quebec does not enjoy the same status as it does in most countries outside of North America.)

Those who practiced individual sports served as a kind of control or comparison group that allowed Lajeunesse to tease out the meaning and effects of group membership as opposed to the practice of sport per se. This comparison is facilitated by a series of useful tables that compare the two groups along a number of dimensions.  For the team players, the author suggests, sport and life were totally integrated, whereas for the individual athletes sport was an adjunct to life. There was an “all for one, one for all” psychology among the team players, while the individual practitioners strove to excel for themselves.  To achieve a sense of masculinity was important to both groups, but the means were different. For the team players it was through association with the group, whereas the individual athletes  worked toward internalizing a sense of masculinity on their own. The feminine was dangerous to both. However, whereas anyone with noticeable traces of femininity would be ejected from the group, the individual athletes—whether gay or heterosexual—rejected it in themselves.

The experience of the locker room was markedly different for the two groups. For the team players it was a special place, the place of the “tribe” and the house of men, the place where one underwent the transformation into the warrior, and a place to party with one’s mates. For the individual athletes, while it was a place that was exclusively male, it had none of the positive  meanings that it had for the team players.

The body

Their bodies were the focus of concern for all the athletes in this study—whether team or individual.  Most worked out with the aim of becoming more muscular. They wanted to be attractive and even if they were heterosexual, to elicit the admiration of men as well as women. One might have thought that their athletic accomplishments would have provided these young men with a sense of a security in their masculine selves. But it appears that, especially for those playing team sports, working to maintain a masculine self was never far from their concerns. Even simple physical actions could come under scrutiny. Thus, in sitting, the legs should be spread, while crossing the legs had to be done by resting the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other. Above all, it was important to avoid doing anything that could be construed as “fif,” that is, effeminate.

Sexual gestures and rituals

While  athletes practicing individual sports have sometimes come out as gay—for example Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis—it is extremely rare for athletes in team sports to do so. The team members that Lajeunesse interviewed displayed various degrees of uncertainty about or opposition to the concept of a gay team member. One man flatly said that, by definition , there were no gay athletes. On the other hand, another said that an “urban legend” had it that one-sixth of all football players were gay. In the locker room, where the tacit assumption was that everyone was heterosexual, intimate gestures that might elsewhere be interpreted as sexual advances were allowed—and not only allowed, but seen as positive expressions of bonding,  friendship  and mutual encouragement. Contacts such as slapping  buttocks or slipping  fingers in between them, stroking the hair, sniffing armpits, touching and commenting on the penis and testicles of teammates were not seen as  homosexual or tending toward homosexuality.  One hockey player described the actions of a teammate that under other circumstances would be seen as unequivocally gay. “He is really fixated on his ‘engine.’  He talks about it, he shows it off, he look at other people’s. Sometimes he says, ‘Marc, I’d like to kiss it.’ Richard is always kissing someone’s penis.  I don’t think there is anything homosexual in it. He’s so much into girls. It doesn’t enter your head that he could be gay. But—if someone else came up to me and asked to kiss my dick, I’d certainly be asking myself a few questions.”

Another man described the game in which a group of young men masturbated to orgasm over a piece of toast. The last man to come had to eat the toast. Interestingly, this game corresponded exactly to what one of my undergraduate students, some years ago, told my small evening class about a game played in his fraternity, except in the American version, the object on which everyone ejaculated was a cookie.  He added, emphatically  (to the skeptical amusement of the class) that there was nothing “homosexual” about it.  Yet, it does seem rather extraordinary that young Canadians in Quebec and young Americans in New York more than a decade apart should have devised the same game. The fact that they did so endows it with the significance of ritual, where a ritual consists of  a set of actions that have symbolic meaning as well as the power to effect change.

My student’s denial that there was anything homosexual in the game and the skepticism of the class reveals a gap in our cultural framework for the understanding of male sexuality.  What the young men did in this game was certainly sexual—and indeed homosexual—but it  occurred outside the framework of sexual orientation.  Their participation in the game tells us nothing about the enduring sexual preferences of the participants. But it does tell us something about male psychology.  It tells us that men have a need to bond with each other and that—contrary to the cultural tendency to see sexual transactions between men as signs of unacknowledged gay orientation—they can and do function as powerful expressions of male to male bonding  independently of orientation.  Two men who were lovers might engage in semen exchange in order to express or cement the bond between them. That is exactly what the young men in Quebec and New York were also doing, except that it applied to the all the men in the group.

Lajeunesse points out the similarity between the practices of the young Quebecois men and the rituals of a culture far removed from Quebec—the Melanesian culture area of Papua-New Guinea. Gilbert Herdt, in The Guardians of the Flutes (1981) tells that in the belief system of the “Sambia” (a pseudonym for the tribal group that he studied) boys could only become  sexually mature by ingesting semen provided by the adolescent cohort on a regular basis over a period of time. For some other tribal groups in the same culture area anal intercourse was the preferred method of insemination as the means of promoting growth to manhood. In the creation myth of the Keraki people the prime originator first utilized anal intercourse on his son to promote his growth (Williams, 1936,  pp.308-309.) Among the Marind-Anim (the “Marind people” as they called themselves) the ceremony marking the initiation of boys at puberty included anal intercourse (Van Baal, 1966, p.479.)  Symbolically, these elements were also seen in the rites of passage marking the initiation of the Quebecois rookies into the status of veteran.

Rites of Passage

A frequent aspect of initiation practices was the requirement that those undergoing them be nude except for an athletic supporter. The implication, Lajeunesse notes, is to leave the young men feeling vulnerable and—by implication—penetrable.  One man said, “I’ve been initiated on all the teams. It’s like a pack of dogs who egg each other on. There are initiations where the rookie has to use the words ‘sodomy’ and ‘fellatio’ in a speech he is giving in front of everybody. Sometimes, it goes further. There are little gangs where, after you got out of there, you’d walk with your legs apart for a couple of days because they’d given it to you up the ass.” (Paul, football, p.116.)  Another man alluded to the anxiety about such an occurrence without putting it into so many words: “It’s so that you know your place. When you’re in a jock-strap, you’re less at ease than when you’re in jogging pants or something else. It puts you under tension, stress, you don’t know what they’re going to do.” (Didier, rugby, p.116.)

Another man recounted: “They made us wear a jock-strap to do all sorts of tests. There was a large ice cube with an olive on it, and a glass farther away. They put  [two of] you a bit apart from each other and you each had to pick up an olive with your butt, and then carry it over and drop it into the glass. The person who got his olive into the glass first made the other one eat it.” (Marc, football, p.117.) These initiations were not resented but seen as a process of inclusiveness. “It makes everyone equal. That’s how you become part of the group. All of a sudden, there are no rookies, everyone is a veteran, everyone has the same status. Once you’ve gotten through it, you’ve finished training camp. You’re accepted by the team. It’s for team spirit. When the initiation is over, you come back as a veteran.” (Antoine, football, p. 118.)

However, occasionally the process misfires. The following incident  did not happen to any of the informants in this study, but to a rookie on the Redmen football team of McGill University. (The incident appears in an article by Lajeunesse entitled,  DoctorBroom.) As the young man recounted it, “They made me get down. They didn’t push me, but they made sure that I was on all fours. One veteran said ‘I was forgetting,’ and stuck a rattle in my mouth. Then they did a count-down, while touching each of my buttocks alternately (with the stick.) At the end (of the count-down) they sodomized me.” This ritual was called, “Dr. Broom.” However, the young man in question was upset, left the initiation room, and called his father who came to fetch him. He not only quit the team, he quit the university as well.  In his discussion of this incident, Lajeunesse notes that a condom had been put on the broom handle that was used as the instrument in this episode. His interpretation (with which I agree)was that the condom indicated that the broom handle was a symbol for the collective penis of the group. He adds, however, that to have one of the senior team members actually do it would have made it into an overt homosexual act instead of a symbolic one.

I would only add that the symbolic intent of this and other similar practices is not primarily to humiliate, although the various rites can have a humiliating aspect—and indeed that was how the young man on the McGill team experienced what was done to him. They are, rather, the expression of a theme deeply embedded in male psychology, which is that of sexual transactions between males as (1) the means of  transmission of masculinity from older to younger and from senior to junior; and (2) the emotional expression of solidarity and bonding between men. That the very same actions can serve to express affection and emotional bonding between two men who are gay makes them no less capable of serving similar functions between men who are not. Yet, and this is the paradox that Lajeunesse points out, the homosexual behavior that he has documented—whether expressed in the locker room in an informal way or during initiation rituals more systematically—co-exists alongside of an emphatic homophobic attitude. 

The paradox of homophobia

Questioning his informants about  possible same-sex feelings on their part was not part of Lajeunesse’s  research agenda. But we can ask if, in spite of their professed homophobia, some of the team players interviewed might have recognized feelings of attraction toward another man. I think there is reason to think that they did. In my own sample of graduate students in education, something over 40% of men were aware of some degree of same-sex attraction—most commonly toward a good or best friend (Tejirian, 2000.)  Anecdotally, two interesting instances also come to mind. Teaching an educational psychology class in the early seventies, I asked the class for their thoughts on the reasons behind homophobia. One young man, a physical education major, said, “I think because everyone in the back of their minds has felt something like that.” Much later, in my graduate class, the subject of same-sex feeling came up and one man who had taught in Australia for a while said that, at the school where he taught, there were senior and junior  soccer teams composed of native Australians. He said that if a member of the junior team really excelled in a game, he got to sleep with the captain of the senior team and that if a player were promoted from the junior to the senior team he was accorded the same privilege.

The team players interviewed by Lajeunesse were caught between two imperatives: on the one hand, the deep and primal tendency that exists outside of any given culture to bond emotionally with other men through sexuality and, through this bonding, to construct a sense of masculine identity;  and on the other hand the “hegemonic” cultural  definition of  masculinity that equated homosexuality with an intrusion of femininity  into the masculine self.  The locker room and the initiation rituals, Lajeunesse suggests, provided his young informants with a cover and an “alibi” that allowed for the expression of male bonding and male to male sexual feeling while, all the time, permitting them to maintain a heterosexual identity and a paradoxical homophobia.

Edward J. Tejirian, Ph.D.
New York 

References

 

Herdt, Gilbert (1981) The Guardians of the Flutes. New York: McGraw-Hill

 

Tejirian, Edward J. (2000) Male to Male: Sexual Feeling Across the Boundaries of Identity. New York: Routledge. www.maletomalefeeling.com

 

Van Baal, J. Dema. (1966) Description and Analysis of Marind-Anim Culture. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.