An Interview by Jack Nichols
To all thinking people, gay or straight, I recommend this book as essential to any collection of truly dependable guideposts. It celebrates for readers a future awareness or consciousness that promotes both inward satisfaction and outward survival.
Jack Nichols: I'd suppose that your being Professor of Religious Studies at a major American university has made you acutely aware of what I call "the psychology of conversion," or what it is that captures emotional allegiances among the many. I'm convinced that society's imposed gender-roles leave a greater imprint on lives than does any other type of training, including even religious and educational training. Do you too feel this to be true?
Robert N. Minor: I do. And I think looking at gender roles helps us understand much of what goes on in our society in other realms. The conditioned masculinity which our culture and others admire determines how we respond to religion, politics, sex, even terrorist acts. And the dominance of this kind of "masculinity" taught to us by our institutions effects both men and women. Of course, I'm not the first to say this - many male and female feminist writers have been saying it for generations. I think what I am contributing to this discussion is the idea that this is what we are all supposed to be as "straight." And that is true no matter what our sexual orientation. That's why the book has become of interest to so many heterosexual people.
Jack Nichols: How did you first become so acutely aware of the wide-ranging effects of masculinity-as-taught and practiced?
Robert N. Minor: It began as a personal quest to find out what was going on in my own life. I was first led in this direction by a national, men's workshop leader named Charlie Kreiner. As I continued to look at myself and the culture around us, things began to fit. I payed more attention to small children to observe how they handled things and related to our world. (In our culture we're not used to thinking that children have insights.) I was given a course in our department called "Religious Perspectives on Selfhood and Sexuality" and used it to read and research. I also began to lead workshops on "Understanding Homophobia," which I have been doing now for about ten years.
Jack Nichols: One valuable factor in Scared Straight is how you are at ease in this book, though outside of status-quo goings on. You look at the culture as if from afar, as if you've escaped a very confining box. Effortlessly, you take your readers to soar around this confining box, helping them to imagine freeing themselves from it too. I'm wondering -following the onset of your first acute awareness-how long after that time did it take before you felt able to make your points as clearly as you do today?
Robert N. Minor: It's been a process of ten years or more. I began my own internal journey and found insights in many, scattered places, but they were not pulled together. Many of the people who attended my workshops on "Understanding Homophobia" and also "Beyond Coming Out" began to ask where they could read this stuff in one book. So, it was a slow process and I'm still having my eyes opened often as a result of responses to what I write, but it was time to write this all down in a book.
Jack Nichols: One scenario in the wake of September 11 evokes remembrance of the Crusades when the Christian West collided with the Muslim East. Does this kind of evocation seem creditable, even if as something to avoid? What did you think when Bush visited the Muslim mosque and quoted the Quran in Washington, D.C.?
Robert N. Minor: I am very disappointed in the national rhetoric but not surprised. This is the style of American politics. Our anger and habits arise first and are rewarded by the system. I am hoping that we will seek justice to find out who really did what and to judiciously promote justice. That's not passive at all. But "war" rhetoric comes with American conditioned masculinity. It's honored with medals, speeches, and poll results. This is a teachable moment, a time when national leadership could really lead us boldly into responses that would promote peace and justice. It would take real "guts" to do that, because it will be criticized as "naive, weak, effeminate, and queer." It would take real leadership instead of the "leadership" that says, "Look, there go the people, I'll jump out in front of them and look as if I'm leading." And it would mean we would have to face our fears - which is the toughest thing to do.
Jack Nichols: On the tube I just saw a Wall Street stock market mogul trying to rally investors, appealing to their patriotism to make the choking market appear more robust. Then, he said, "We've got to kick some economic butt!" What's your interpretation-in the light of male roles-- of his 'kicking butt' talk?
Robert N. Minor: You've really said it. One way not to feel pain, hurt, confusion, and fear, is to act, to do something. We aren't ready to take the time it takes to mourn and feel. Men aren't supposed to feel these things, but anger and aggression are legitimate. So, "kicking butt" in any realm is a way not to face, feel, and heal the feelings of loss, vulnerability, confusion, failure, and fear of lack of control. And you can guarantee that those men who say this assume it will be the "butt" of other men they will kick, because conditioned masculinity includes the idea that a group of men should get together to beat, defeat, and kill other men. It's labeled teamwork, but it's saying that that is what men are for. It's a "privilege" of conditioned manhood to kill and be killed by other men in the name of masculinity.
Jack Nichols: You explain in Scared Straight that people cling to the status quo mainly because they are conditioned to fear. What are a few ways this fear is installed in young boys?
Robert N. Minor: We let them know early what will happen to them if they do anything "like a girl." So we scare them. This puts girls down and let's boys know what the worst thing to be is. And it's usually boys enforcing it on each other through violence, threats, ridicule, humiliation, isolation, and rejection. This sets boys up in mutual oppressor roles which makes it hard for men to relate comfortably throughout life - gay or straight. It teaches that if I make myself vulnerable with another man, he'll take advantage of me. That really haunts same-sex male partnerships. It starts at birth with "cry-baby" putdowns and is installed by first grade. And that's the time where the "gay" slur becomes effective. Boys who don't buy into and enforce this masculinity on others are suspected of not being "real men," and accused of being "fags."
Jack Nichols: How are young girls conditioned to be fearful?
Robert N. Minor: They're learning that girls are second best while they are being conditioned into what I call a "victim role." That is, they eventually get the message that they need a man and must stifle much of themselves to get one and/or male attention. In spite of what some have said, if we listen carefully to the current generation of college women, they are still saying that this is the dominant message they got while growing up. In other words, they can purse a career for a while, but real girls are still supposed to walk around as half a person looking for the man that will make them whole. And it takes a lot of energy to only be half a person.
Jack Nichols: Every encouragement is given young boys to avoid their being thought in any way similar to girls. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult for many little aspiring heterosexual males to truly like or admire girls. Why is this so difficult for U.S. educators to perceive? Unable to admire one's prospective mate guarantees some gruesome unhappiness for both partners. Or, so it would seem to me. In any case,what are some of the other drawbacks of these attitudes when they're inculcated in the young?
Robert N. Minor: That's a great point. Remember that educators are limited by people who don't want them to talk about these things. They're scared to deal with this, if they even have had this pointed out to them. Schools of Education don't discuss this much, if at all. Parents are afraid, too, that this will make it difficult for their children to get along in a system that rewards these straight gender roles. Our high school students sense something is wrong but don't know what it is. They still internally remember childhood before all this conditioning and feel something is being taken from them. Since no one is talking to them about this, they become angry, sullen, addicted, or try to become the best gender conditioned boys and girls they can be. No one is offering them alternatives. It's amazing that any progress is made, but sometimes these ideas break through and those kids tend to be the oddballs, the "queers."
Jack Nichols: It has always seemed to me that gay men and lesbians have been better able to become individuals as opposed to followers of the status quo. Do you feel that way? In your travels, how would you gauge the strengths of gay and lesbian communities when you evaluate their hosting of freedom from conventional gender-role demands?
Robert N. Minor: I think gay men and lesbians are better able to break the roles. They've already broken the biggest taboo by loving their same sex. Yet, they too have gotten mainstream conditioning and need to explore how this effects their relationships -- which it does. Some want to look as "straight" as possible in order to get along. But the "victim role" in any oppression always admires the dominant role. And much of national gay politics seems to be centered around proving "we're just like everybody else." Ultimately this just means lgbt people will have all the sicknesses of our larger "straight" society instead of being pioneers who challenge things. My mom use to say, "If everybody jumped off the cliff, would you follow them?" She just didn't think I'd apply that in this way.
Jack Nichols: I found it interesting that you used the Buddha's example, finding enlightenment within as he meditated, but having had, beforehand, an awakening. When he "awoke" you say, and I quote you:
"a previous set of events first provoked him to question his accepted view of reality and wonder if there were an alternative. It convinced him to leave the comfortable position he had inherited in order to strike out in search of answers to new questions which were making him uncomfortable in the middle of his comfort. Without that initial awakening and the questions it raised, he would have remained stuck in the view of reality he had inherited, dreaming and hardly ever knowing he was asleep."
Jack Nichols: Fundamentalists obviously thrive on the inner edges of almost all the world's great religions. Its starting to become obvious that fundamentalism is humanity's foe. Do you have any suggestions for effective strategies for dealing with aggressive religious fanatics?
Robert N. Minor: Chapter one recommends we don't try to argue with them, that we recognize that religion is a smokescreen for justifying culturally-taught prejudices. I never argue about religion or the Bible. I recommend we just state our position. When they say, "But the Bible says," we repeat: "I know people interpret it that way, but I don't" or "No, I don't believe that." It's like jumping up and down in the same place; but do that long enough and eventually these people will get down to what is really making them hold onto their prejudice. Remember we are not dealing with rationality but their fear of not knowing who they would be if they were to give up their prejudices. This takes patience, and it means we have to do our own healing work around the religious and spiritual abuse we have received. Otherwise we'll be reacting out of our own pain. We have to give up our need for them like us, and we have to be clear enough in our thinking and feeling to persistently counter what they do that is really threatening us. That's where our human rights organizations need support and our leaders encouragement.
Jack Nichols: You ask a major question in your book about humanity's absorption of a value system that rests on poppycock-namely, how did this poppycock get so deep inside? Do you want to say a few words about this?
Robert N. Minor: In brief, fear and terror. From birth we were told, and we experienced, what would happen to us if we didn't buy this version of reality -- which is really a pseudo reality. We can still get ridicule and isolation, even from our own. We have to face these fears, not deny them, and do our fear work.
Jack Nichols: Being at ground zero during the 1960s counterculture revolution, I recall how the meaning of the word "straight" jumped beyond gay communities for the first time and was adopted nationally by the hip people of that era. It had a much-expanded meaning to everybody, not just heterosexual. Tell us how you similarly use the word "straight" in your new book.
Robert N. Minor: "Straight," as I use it, does not mean heterosexual. The system has to make heterosexual people scared enough so they take on this role too. And non-heterosexual people are supposed to admire the role. The straight role involves so much that colludes with other oppressions in our society and stifles men and women, keeping them from living their full human potential in fear that they might be thought of as non-straight, that is, as queer.
Jack Nichols: When you say that its hard to be human, you make a foremost point. But you don't say that its impossible to be human. You must be something of an optimist. But knowing how deeply ingrained is the murderous macho manly code, leading to the robotization of males and an increasingly violent WWF-type society, what do you really think are humanity's chances?
Robert N. Minor: I'm not an optimist, but I refuse to be hopeless. Hopelessness is a feeling that is debilitating. And, even more important, it keeps us from feeling the real feelings we need to feel - pain, hurt, confusion, fear. Facing these feelings in safe settings, helps us move on to hope and action. We can take back our world by making decisions to do this. And hope is a decision, a choice.
Jack Nichols: First, I'd like to thank you for your great work. You're surely adding to the sum of human happiness. And now I'd like you to share any particular thoughts you may have that we haven't discussed. Thoughts that you feel need airing.
Robert N. Minor: You are welcome. I want people to think radically in the basic sense of that word, "getting down to the root of things." In all I write and say, I really believe that lgbt people who separate from the oppressor and victim roles of straight conditioning and get in touch with their full humanity can be models of health that will change the world in ways that we cannot now imagine because we are stuck in our fear that there is no other way. One way the dominant system wins is by convincing us that what we have is the best that can be. That's historically untrue, however. History is full of hope and radical changes. There is another way. I hope we can be bold pioneers on that frontier which most are too scared to explore.
Robert N. Minor, Ph.D. is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He is author of the book Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human, and may be reached at www.fairnessproject.org