At this year’s American Public Health Association conference, I presented our findings on Hegemonic Masculinity and the Psychological Well-being of Young Sexual Minority Men.
We know that primary caregivers play a foundational role in shaping a child’s gender identity. Caregivers rarely sit idly by if or when their children, especially sons, exhibit gender non-conforming behaviors. Often ‘policing’ their son’s behavior, parents and guardians actively react to diminish feminine behaviors and encourage traditionally masculine behaviors. In doing such, they enforce hegemonic masculinity, defined by Connell as a set of socially accepted masculine behaviors and beliefs designed to legitimate male power. This leaves gender non-conforming young gay and bisexual men vulnerable to considerable stigma from their primary caregivers resulting from a caregiver’s own disapproving attitudes toward gender nonconformity or same-sex attraction. Caregivers may respond in disciplinary ways that attempt to force hegemonic masculinity on their sons. They may do this as a means of influencing behaviors that are consistent with their own moral ideals or as a way of protecting their child, or themselves, from anticipated societal stigma and discrimination.
Research has shown that pressures to adhere to hegemonic masculinity have been negatively linked to the health and well-being of gay and bisexual youth and adult men, but there has been limited research on the relationship between parent- or primary caregiver-based hegemonic masculinity in childhood and mental health in young adulthood. The theoretical rationale of this analysis was based on Minority Stress Theory. According to the Minority Stress Model, messages designed to impose hegemonic masculinity are forms of discrimination and societal stigma, which may facilitate gay and bisexual men’s susceptibility to psychological stress.
Using data from a national cross-sectional web survey of young sexual minority men (N=1505; ages 18-24), we examined the prevalence of being told to “stop acting feminine by a parental figure”, as well as parental actions in response to perceived “feminine” behavior. Over a third of the sample (37.5%) reported their parent(s) or the person(s) who raised them told them to stop acting feminine. Participants reported the following parental disciplinary actions: told to change behavior (34.8%); punished/restricted activities (12.2%); sent to counseling (7.4%) or religious figure (5.3%); abused them (4.8%); and enrolled them in traditionally masculine activities, such as football (2.5%).
Using multivariate linear regression, we examined the relationship between being told to act less feminine and self-esteem, symptoms of depression, and symptoms of anxiety. We found that the young men who were told to act less feminine were more likely to have lower self-esteem and more symptoms of anxiety and depression than the young men who were not told by a parent or parent figure to act less feminine. Next, we looked at whether the number of parental disciplinary actions a young man experienced in an attempt to make him less feminine (described above) would affect self-esteem and symptoms of depression and anxiety. We found a dose-response relationship between the number of disciplinary actions enacted in response to feminine behavior and self-esteem and symptoms of depression and anxiety, where additional disciplinary actions increased the likelihood of lower self-esteem, symptoms of depression, and symptoms of anxiety.
These findings lend support to the importance of educating families on how their disciplinary actions affect same-sex attracted youth into emergent adulthood. Family-based interventions and counseling can capitalize upon parents’ desire to protect their sons. By teaching caregivers the long-lasting negative effects of their comments and disciplinary actions, it may be possible to redirect parents’ motivation away from enforcing hegemonic masculinity and toward accepting their son as he is, enhancing their own sensitivity around issues of gender and sexuality.
Contributing authors: Steven Meanley, MPH; Emily Yeagley, MPH; Emily S. Pingel, MPH; Gary W. Harper, PhD, MPH; José A. Bauermeister, PhD, MPH