Saying ‘Pause’ Isn’t a Joke, It’s Gay-Bashing
In high school, the talk around the lunchroom table was peppered with some now-questionable phrases.
It was almost impossible to get through a conversation without a chorus of interruptions — “Ayo!” and “Whoa” the usual two — indicating that you’d fucked up. And when that happened, the only appropriate response back then was to “pause” yourself:
“I could never be vegetarian; I like meat too much. Pause.”
“Yo, can I get another sausage? Pause.”
Any unintentional double entendre, any sentence that could be viewed as vaguely homoerotic, required us to pause the conversation and reclaim our manhood that was now suspect. It was the rule of the lunch table and reigned supreme. Any deviation from the norm, social misstep, or behavior that could come off as anything less than hypermasculine could subject you to ridicule for days.
While it might be tempting to look back on these antics as products of immature minds and insecurities, I’ve come to realize that they speak to toxicity and deep-seated homophobia that can plague Black and Brown men well into adulthood.
In music, a pause, or “rest,” is a black square marked down to denote silence. It can be given just as much weight as the symphony that precedes it. But if a pause in music is used to reinforce the notes that come before it, the pause in “pause culture” is one that supports the rigid constructs of gender and masculinity.
We were telling our ‘friends’ that who they were was undesirable, that their perceived identity was a transgression that needed to be corrected, and that it was offensive that we could be confused for being ‘like them.’
The idea of toxic masculinity is not new. Coined in the ’80s, the term has become a sort of shorthand to condemn sexual aggression or domineering behavior. But at its root, toxic masculinity is much more insidious. It is not just violence against women or a sense of superiority, but any combination of assumptions and cultural frameworks that reinforce the thinking that there is only one way to be a man.
For Black and Brown men, this concept is intrinsically tied to vulnerability and rooted in a history of oppression. Not only do we come from some of the most vulnerable communities in the country, but we often carry with us our ancestors’ legacies of emasculation at the hands of slave owners and colonizers.
In this light, embracing pause culture may have seemed like an act of survival. It was a way to assert our manliness while distancing ourselves from the stigma of vulnerability, a trait so often ascribed to femininity. But in embracing this flawed idea of masculinity, we were cheating ourselves.
Pause culture is damaging to the young boys who partake in it; they unknowingly perpetuate a system that constrains them emotionally. It is also detrimental in how it “others” those who do not conform to a narrowly defined version of manhood.
The latter part of my high school years played out at a theatre arts school where I was one of only a handful of cisgender heterosexual boys in my grade. Unsurprisingly, my best friends were all also straight. We were cool with our gay and bisexual classmates and considered them friends. We never felt threatened or uncomfortable. When they’d compliment us, we took it as just that: a compliment.
And yet, by saying “pause” every five minutes, we were actively engaging in passive homophobia and fully embracing hegemonic masculinity around them. We were telling our “friends” that they were undesirable, that their perceived identity was a transgression that needed to be corrected, and that it was offensive that we could be confused for being “like them.”
A close friend recently spoke to me about his experience with pause culture in high school. On top of it being an annoyance, it caused him to remain in the closet. He didn’t want to deal with being teased about his sexuality. “The fear of coming out was augmented by the thought that I could be harassed or assaulted if I did,” he told me. It was likely exacerbated by the fact that he went to a much more conservative Staten Island school.
After I left high school behind, I became more exposed to different interpretations of manhood. Slowly, I began to construct my own mythology.
I learned that men from what I’d considered to be warrior cultures, such as the ancient Greeks and Trojans, often engaged in weeping — and that it was seen as a sign of emotional maturity rather than weakness. Years later, I understand that men can be just as capable of experimentation without identifying as gay. And the term “gay” does not define actions. Clothes can’t be gay. Neither can hobbies or personal preferences.
Today, my dinner table looks a lot different than those lunchroom benches that served as the pulpit for “snap sessions.” While I’m lucky enough to count many familiar faces among the new ones, none of us feel the need to pause ourselves. As we sip our glasses of prosecco, beer, or scotch, we understand that manhood is a far richer legacy than we once thought.
It is a legacy we equally share.