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Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Toxic Maculinity (Including Homophobia) Is Killing Our Sons

Kyle and Adriana, his camp girlfriend, both dressed in drag for their camp talent show.

Last week I attended a monthly meeting for the Hudson Valley chapter of the Bereaved Parents of the USA and was startled to find that all 15 of us grieving parents who had gathered by Zoom that night were mourning dead sons. Apparently, this gender disparity is typical. The group’s leader, Bereaved Parents USA board president Kathy Corrigan, recalled a getting-to-know-you exercise at a national gathering some years ago in which those who had lost sons were sent to stand on one side of the room, while those who lost daughters stood on the other.

“The difference was stark,” recalls Corrigan, who has lost two of her three sons. “Nearly all of us in attendance had lost boys.”

I began researching this issue a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to prepare a lay sermon for my former Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Poughkeepsie on the theme of “Playing with Fire.” Those words immediately made me think of my son, Kyle, who died at age 26 of a drug overdose after years of metaphorically playing with fire by engaging in death-defying behaviors. Although he died addicted to drugs, I used to say his real addiction was to taking chances with his life.

Kyle was not born a wild risk taker; in fact, he seemed somewhat shy and timid as a toddler. Yet  as he grew up, he began repeatedly risking his safety and health to prove how tough he was. The more I read on this subject, the more I see that the death of my own son fits a much larger pattern of toxic ideas about masculinity pushing ever-increasing numbers of our sons into early graves. Though this is tragic, it is also somewhat of a comfort to me, as I find that the wider the lens through which I examine my son’s tragic death, the more able I am to stop blaming myself. My son and I, no matter how special I like to imagine we are or were, are still just products of huge societal forces that shape all our lives.

As Kyle stepped into his role as a young man, he engaged in ever-more-envelope-pushing, dangerous behaviors, culminating in him “experimenting” with and then becoming addicted to the deadly drugs that ultimately killed him. Kyle told me he did LSD 45 different times in high school. After he turned 21, he pushed the envelope even farther and did the drugs we all know are life-destroying. He also engaged, even before he did any drugs, in death-defying feats of physical daring. He left behind videos of himself skateboarding off a roof, riding a bicycle off a slide, riding a bike down a staircase, doing trick jumps over the bodies of his little sister and other small children in a playground, and playing a “hit-the-other-guy’s nutsack” game in which two high school boys face one another with their legs wide apart and then roll a bowling ball as hard as possible at the other man’s genitals. Kyle’s little sister Jamie, now 28, told me the other day of a time his friend Scott thought Kyle was dead after he leaped from a great height off a local diving spot called Doobie Drop. Far below him, he saw Kyle lying facedown in the body of water, blood pooling around his head—and was stunned when Kyle sat up. Another time, when my ex-husband and I left Kyle home alone for the night at age 17, he performed some kind of stunt (maybe on a swing, but perhaps on a roof, we never did get the whole story) that broke his wrist; his friends have told me they all thought it was a miracle he’d survived.

I always think of Kyle as having been an especially brilliant, sensitive young man, but his reckless antics show he was a more typical male adolescent than I liked to believe he was.  Young men are known by actuarial tables everywhere to drive more recklessly and die more violently and suddenly by injury and accident --and by homicide, suicide, and drug overdose--than women. It turns out that my son was not as exceptional as I dreamed he was—and seemed, actually, to have been more concerned with impressing people with his macho courage (aka stupidity) than many of his peers.

When he was 16, Kyle drove his car at 100 miles an hour up and off a hilly road in Highland in order to “catch air.” D.J., his best friend since second grade, was in Kyle’s passenger seat as the car flew through the foggy night sky and slammed into a tree. Both boys miraculously walked away without a scratch,

D.J. and Kyle before Kyle
nearly killed him by "catching
but this only seemed to make them both more addicted to behaviors that left us mothers in a constant state of terror. Maybe surviving such stunts–without killing anyone else--added to their feelings of invincibility. I know that in D.J.’s case, he went on to become an explosives expert in our Middle East wars, completing three tours and becoming the most trusted resource for dealing with roadside bombs. DJ, unlike our son, is still alive, but he witnessed many of his male peers die young enacting toxic masculinity in wartime and still struggles with how to live a life free of near-death experiences.

Kyle, meanwhile, in the years after that car “accident,” worked his way through consuming every drug he could get his hands on, including drugs he could not even identify. During one harrowing week, Kyle showed up in Southern California to join me on a business trip and was half out of his mind on what he thought was Xanax. A kid who worked at a local pharmaceutical factory had given him a bag of powder, of which Kyle had consumed unmeasured spoonfuls throughout the previous week. By the time he stepped off the plane for that visit with me, he was suicidal and seeing things. A few days of good sleep brought him back to himself, but I probably never slept well again after that trip, having seen up close the complete disregard with which my son treated his life.

Kyle strung out on a mystery drug.

Eventually, his recklessness led him to the most deadly, addictive drugs, the ones I had always made him swear he would never do–crack, meth and heroin. He could never adequately explain why he did them: “I thought I could just try it once… I was curious… Once the other guys in rehab described the high to me I knew I’d have to try it.”   

Kali Holloway, in an Alternet article, “Toxic Masculinity is Killing Men” written a year before my son died in 2016, notes that we begin socially reinforcing stereotypical masculine behavior, including the suppression of emotions, on our boy children when they are still babies. She writes:

“Parents often unconsciously project a kind of ‘manliness,’ and thus
a diminished need for comfort, protection and affection, onto their boy
children as early as infancy.”

As a result, baby boys are picked up, held and comforted less often than baby girls. This despite the fact that boy babies are at least as in need of affection and comfort as girl babies, if not more so. (Boy babies actually cry more, though whether this is because they are held less makes this a chicken-and-egg equation.) One mom in the grief-support group I just attended recalled her mother telling her to

We didn't think we cuddled our
boy baby less than our 
but research says 
most parents do
to help "toughen 
them up." 
stop spoiling her son by picking him up so much. She took her mother’s advice to toughen him up and stopped cuddling him as much, something she is still berating herself about today, 12 years after his death.

A group of more than 200 adults shown identical videos of a crying baby but divided into groups told the baby was a boy or a girl judged the baby as “angry” if they thought it was a boy, while the girl baby was perceived as “scared.” Their responses to the angry baby vs. the scared baby were divided along gender stereotypical lines, as well.

Little boys internalize adult expectations that they “man up” early: they first show signs they are hiding and suppressing their emotions between the ages of 3 and 5. A University of Michigan study found men are more likely to engage in death-defying activities to attract women than women are to attract men (Ha! For this they needed a study?);.

In a 2010 NIH funded study published in the American Journal of Science, “Gender Disparities in Injury Mortality: Consistent, Persistent, and Larger Than You'd Think,” Dr. Susan Sorenson explains,

“[M]ales are born with a numerical advantage, which decreases over time. At birth there are 105 boys for every 100 girls.1 There would be even more, but fetal death is 7% higher for boys than girls.2 The mortality gap widens immediately; by their first birthday, 21% more boy babies than girl babies die.3 Excess male demise continues throughout life, such that by age 65 years or older, there are 75 men for every 100 women.4
From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222499/

Men are more likely than women to die of almost every disease and illness and to die earlier. Injury, a leading cause of premature death, also strikes men down at a much higher rate. Men are more likely to  have accidents, to unintentionally injure themselves, to commit suicide, and to die by homicide in all age groups in low-, middle-, and high-income countries.

In his book Why Men Can’t Feel Marvin Allen asserts that boys are trained to suppress their vulnerability not only by their parents but also by other children, who may shame, tease, or ridicule boys for showing human emotions. As a result, boys hide their feelings and often find the only way to access them is by using drugs, alcohol, or death-defying feats in order to feel anything at all. According to the Centers for Disease Control, men are more likely to drink to excess than women, leading to higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations. Boys are more likely to have used drugs by the age of 12 than girls, which leads to a higher likelihood of drug abuse in men than in women later in life. American men are more likely to kill (committing 90 percent of all murders) and to be killed (comprising 77 percent of murder victims). This extends to themselves: “[M]ales take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and comprise approximately 80 percent of all completed suicides, despite girls and women attempting suicide at three to four times the rate of boys. And according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, men make up more than 93 percent of prisoners.

The damaging effects of the aforementioned emotional disconnection even plays a role in the lifespan gender gap. As masculinity expert Terry Real explains: “Men’s willingness to downplay weakness and pain is so great that it has been named as a factor in their shorter lifespan. The 10 years of difference in longevity between men and women turns out to have little to do with genes. Men die early because they do not take care of themselves. Men wait longer to acknowledge that they are sick, take longer to get help, and once they get treatment do not comply with it as well as women do.”

Thirty years ago when my feminist husband and I began raising our son did we ever think that society’s notions about masculinity could contribute to our own son’s early demise? No way. I believed my husband and I were committed to raising our children equally and letting both of them know we accepted and supported them no matter what they wanted to do with their lives.

And yet. despite all of his outrageous, attention-seeking behavior, there’s a secret my son guarded more than any other, which I’m going to share publicly here for the first time: Kyle was bisexual and had multiple sexual encounters with men. As a teenager he met men for anonymous encounters in public parks after they found one another on the gay men’s “dating” app Grindr. He did this when he was 16, using the family computer we kept in the middle of our living room. Neither his father nor I had any

This was the image my son used to attract
men on Grindr when he was in high school.
idea this was happening. His older foster sister, living with us at the time, found his dating page left open on the family computer and shamed him for it but agreed to keep his secret to the grave, which she sadly had opportunity to do. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder how things might have gone differently if his secret had been brought out into the open right then, 10 years before he died.

My mother asked me recently if any of the poems in my forthcoming collection, What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing a Child to Addiction, mention that Kyle had sex with men, and when I told her yes, she said, “Oh God, that makes me feel a little sick.” How can we explain why it still bothers us for people to know this secret?

Kyle presented himself to the world as straight; he told almost no one that he ever had sex with men. He took pride in doing gender-defying things, such as being the only boy cheerleader in middle school, or

Kyle, the only boy cheerleader (up til then)
in his middle-school's history.
dressing as a woman (while his then-girlfriend dressed up as a man) for a camp dance, precisely because he presented as straight. He liked to shatter stereotypes about straight men, which he wouldn’t have been able to do if people didn’t perceive him as straight. Sharing now, after his death, what he kept as his deepest, lifelong secret feels like a betrayal of how he wanted to be perceived. But the more I examine the pressure put on boys to be strong, unemotional and driven wild by women, the more I feel Kyle’s sexuality (and the shame he felt around it) at least deserves mention as a factor in his early death. He felt ashamed of himself and who he was.

Kyle’s secrecy about his sexuality is even more puzzling because I am queer, his sister is queer and our whole family is fairly accepting of a range of sexualities. This made it all the more shocking when Kyle “came out” to me when he was 22. He was living on the West Coast, had recently broken up with his longtime girlfriend, gotten his own apartment, and was signed up to go to the University of Washington, Seattle, to major in neurobiology that spring. He phoned me in the middle of his night/my early morning and said, “Mom, I think I’m gay.”

The expression “you could have knocked me over with a feather” fits here. When my son announced into my half-asleep ear that he was gay, I could not have been more stunned–or so I thought. It turned out he was really calling to tell me he was on crack, which turned out to be the more stunning news from that conversation—and the news on which we focused as a family afterward.

During this coming-out call he reminded me that I had stated as fact throughout his childhood that men could not be bisexual, that if a man had attractions to men, he was just gay and would figure that out eventually. I apparently repeated this misguided belief to both my children repeatedly, which left Kyle feeling he couldn’t ever tell me about his experiences with men, as then I would be sure he was gay, which he didn’t think he was – or at least not until the night he made that call.

A broad study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year suggests that my disbelief in male bisexuality is common – and wrong.  https://www.pnas.org/content/117/31/18369

The article begins, “There has long been skepticism among both scientists and laypersons that male bisexual orientation exists. Skeptics have claimed that men who self-identify as bisexual are actually homosexual or heterosexual. (The existence of female bisexuality has been less controversial.)” This was true in our family, too. Kyle said he was afraid of ever acting gay or effeminate, indicating he believed that to be a real man he had to not only be straight but act straight. Another study, this one by the Human Rights Campaign, published the year after my son’s death, found that bisexuals are more likely to have mental-health issues, attempt and commit suicide, suffer from major depression, and have problems with binge-drinking than either gay or straight people. It turns out Kyle needed mental-health help when he “came out” as both bisexual and as a hard-drug addict. Instead, I only focused on getting him into rehab, where he got no therapy most of the time. 

And while we (Jamie, my wife and I, at least), tried to get Kyle to talk further about his sexuality in the remaining years of his life, he resisted, insisting he was fine, “mostly straight,” and didn’t want to talk about it.  No matter how many terrible drug stories he was willing to share with us, that part of himself, the part that was attracted to men, remained a part he felt unable or unwilling to explore with us.

Kyle went through the UU’s OWL, Our Whole Lives, sexual education training. So in theory he was taught that there was no wrong way to be human, that he should celebrate himself and his sexuality whether he loved men or women. But one class can’t counter the pressure of an entire culture.

I have no neat conclusion for this essay, no easy lesson to tie up with a bow for everyone, except to say that we all must work harder to let our children know that we can and would love and accept them no matter who they love, and to fight the cultural messages that teach our boys to suppress their emotions unless the outlets of drugs, alcohol or risk-taking are allowing them to let some feelings out.  I do want to conclude by sharing one of  Kyle’s poems with you—and one of my own, both of which are in our book, which features Kyle’s poems and my own and is being published in late July by Finishing Line Press.

First, here is a poem by Kyle in which he demonstrates his need to be a tough guy even in the throes of his despair around being an addict: 


by Kyle Fisher-Hertz, age 25

Liquor bottle might as well be a pistol;
I take shots like a cop with his clip full.
Fuck popping a pill–I need a fistful,
cuz the beast in my belly never gets full.

I try to stand my ground but I get pulled
like a midget with a leashed-up pit bull.
Cuz my addiction grips and then it yanks my chain.
Makes my thoughts so naughty I should spank my brain

Coming up with grand plans so damn insane
I'll break my arm like a retard, then go to the ER,
and tell the nurse “10”  when I rank the pain.
Cuz I'll do anything it takes just to get my fix.
But when I start to sober up. I regret the shit.
Gotta figure out a plan to forget the shit.

So while I think, I pour a drink, just to wet my lips.
Next thing I know, I'm shooting dope, and I'm stressed as shit
cuz I'm digging in a vein I can't get to hit;
I'm fucked–and not just the tip,
fucked like an old lady with a busted hip.
I'm alone and I've fallen and I can't get up,
laid out on the couch feeling jammed as fuck,
exhausted by the thought of just standing up–

let alone trying to hustle up my next score.
Getting high's the only thing I get dressed for
or take breaths for.
I just press forward
with the piece of life
I traded all the rest for.

And then here’s one of mine, in which I mourn Kyle’s inability to accept himself for who he was:


I lay out the photos chronologically,
birth to death, looking for the one
that will leap up shouting, “Here! This
is the day you might have saved him!”

Instead they just tell their happy story:
loved baby, loved boy, ever joyful.
When his face shut down at 12, only
hindsight lets me see my disruptive
need to leave his father shatter him,
corrupting his fierce faith in love.
In uprooting him, I showed him
he could be switched with a flip
from popular golden child
to nervous nerd who couldn’t
tell a joke nor make a single friend.

I rushed him back, replanted him
in familiar soil where he seemed
to thrive again, but by then he had seen
how powerless he was, knew his good life
could collapse anytime. The worm biding its time
squirmed out of its hole as my son learned
his good life was towers waiting to fall.

Pictures after adolescence barely
show a glitch; he still hams it up, skates
past his drug arrests. He rock climbs,
goes to college, falls in love, teaches, hikes.

He leaves no photos of himself on crack,
nothing in his journals about the men he met
through Grindr, no evidence of how he gradually
ground himself down every time he felt good.
In his last pictures, he holds his daughter,
wraps his arms around me, dances with his sister,
gazes into his girlfriend’s eyes, pushes his grandmother’s
wheelchair, worm rolling under his tongue.

My compulsive need to find an explanation
keeps me poring over pictures, videos, poems
for years. Now I’ve excavated all my mistakes--
and found only this: nothing brings him back.


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