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The Sandy Hook Tragedy, Anti-Trans Violence and Codes of Masculinity

12/19/2012 09:37 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • Dana Beyer Executive Director, Gender Rights Maryland

Words fail. And yet words are preferable to bullets. After the intense emotional response passed, I was left with two particular thoughts. First, on the political/policy front, when will we prioritize our children over the Second Amendment? Nate Silver recently wrote that language matters; over the years, the debate has shifted from "gun control" to "gun rights" to "Second Amendment." Such an evolution in political language mirrors the descent of gun-control advocates into a pit of despair and a sense of futility.

The second thought relates to the fact that the perpetrators of mass murder are almost always male. What is it about our codes of masculinity in this society that valorize violence to such a degree that shooting sprees are becoming commonplace?

I want to mention that our failure to fund the treatment of mental illness is critical, but I hope people distinguish between what we commonly think of as mental illnesses -- schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression disorders, which are very uncommonly associated with violence and often treatable with talk and/or medication -- and what seems to be at play in these instances of mass murder. The disorders associated with these killers -- borderline personality disorder (emotional dysregulation), sociopathy/psychopathy and similar conditions -- are more poorly understood. We see them on CSI and Criminal Minds, but we rarely talk about them in decent company, hiding in fear and shame from recognizing that there are human beings who have no empathy or conscience and, when unable or unwilling to adequately regulate their emotions, can and will perform evil acts. A major piece in The New York Times Magazine earlier this year discussed this conundrum in detail, focusing on nascent sociopaths.

As a member of the trans and gay communities, I am not naïve about violence. In particular, trans women of color are significantly more likely to suffer a violent attack than the average citizen. Class, race and ethnicity all play a role in the increased prevalence of such violence, and the fear thereof, which in some communities is a daily fact of life. Those women, however, are not at risk from the uncommon sociopath but are caught up in subcultures of young men whose code of masculinity allows no room at all for gender variance, and the more prevalent cross-cultural code of masculinity then channels that rejection of others into violence.

I am supporting a project run by famed trans activist Riki Wilchins in D.C. that is an attempt to reach out to those subcultures and engage with them to discover the source of their intolerance of trans women and the routine use of violence as a response. A common response was, "Transgender -- that's just a longer word for 'gay.'" These young men have cut down to the bone of transphobia and homophobia: a violation of the code of how men are supposed to behave. Men do not flirt with other men, nor do they dress up like their mothers. Being associated with such a person -- walking down the same block, let alone actually speaking to one another -- is a sin punishable by ostracism from the band of brothers. And to prove that there was no sexual interest involved at all, the man whose identity is on trial can redeem it often only by acting out violently against the trans woman. Violence is the only acceptable response to a challenge of masculinity.

This may be a small subculture off in the corner of one major American city, but it plays out across the spectrum, from routine bullying of gender-variant youth to the still-too-common acts of police brutality to the spasms of violence of the emotionally disturbed male. I don't have the answers, feeling as frustrated as the next person, but it seems a simple thing upon which we can all agree that we reinstate the ban on assault weapons. What is a mother doing with a house full of assault weapons? The greater challenge requires reaching out to young men before they come of age, to create alternatives to the usual modes of conflict resolution in schools and churches, and to cease glorifying the violence that permeates our media. We cannot abrogate free expression, but we can use education and shame to direct our children down more peaceful paths.

The day after the spasm of violence, when an old friend of mine told me he had cried for five minutes when the news broke, I attended a baby naming in a local synagogue. The juxtaposition of the two events was stark, bringing back memories of 9/11 for many, the stark contrast of massive violence and heroic acts of love. This baby was the product of the love of two women, carefully planned and nurtured. This child deserves many more life cycle celebrations, the types of celebrations those first graders will never have. We must do better.