“Students shouldn’t have to see cops cleaning up a crime scene,” Edwin Soto, 16, read from his cellphone in front of about 200 of his classmates at Bronx Academy of Letters last Wednesday. “I’m tired of people not making it to see 17.”
Soto was reading a poem he’d written for his school’s walkout, one of thousands of events organized on March 14 around the country to protest gun violence in the wake of the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
As Soto and other students read poems and speeches, many students gathered in a circle around them, listening closely. Some embraced. Others jostled, joked, and yelled at each other, teenagers released from class on a sunny morning.
As one boy spoke, other boys began wrestling. The contrast — some boys deeply engaged in the moment, others horsing around — was emblematic of a dynamic playing out around the country right now.
Some boys and young men have played key roles in the youth movement against gun violence, which has gained a new level of attention since the Parkland shooting. But some organizers say that as young people around the country rally to the cause, girls are stepping up at a higher rate than boys.
It’s good news that girls and women are taking leadership roles in the fight against gun violence, especially since they remain underrepresented in national politics. But boys and men can’t leave all the work to them.
Young people are getting ready for another demonstration on Saturday, the March for Our Lives, with protests planned in Washington, DC, and cities across the country. If it is to succeed, this ongoing youth movement against gun violence needs the voices of boys — to talk to other boys, to examine their own assumptions, and to work against expectations of male behavior that hurt everyone. And for the boys who join in, the movement could help them learn to cope with their own emotions in a healthier way than they’re often allowed.
Boys aren’t getting as involved as girls
Male survivors of the Parkland shooting, like Cameron Kasky and David Hogg, have become visible advocates against gun violence in recent weeks. But some organizers say that elsewhere, boys have less interest in getting involved in the movement.
Nashalie Robledo, 17, one of the organizers of the Bronx Letters walkout, said that she and two other girls planned the school’s event. No boys helped in the early stages. And during the walkout, she pointed out, a few boys went across the athletic field to play basketball.
“It’s kind of plain disrespect to those who not only lost their lives but to those who are committed to this,” she said.
At Bronx Letters, a public school serving about 600 sixth- to 12th-graders in New York City’s poorest school district, students had left class with school permission to attend a demonstration on the athletic field. The event, organized by Robledo, Aileen Villa, 18, and Isis Brache, 17 — lasted 17 minutes, to commemorate the 17 students killed in Parkland.
Quite a few boys participated in the walkout, but even some of them said they felt that speaking up about their feelings meant bucking expectations placed on them because of their gender.
Soto, who read the poem, said he feels pressure as a boy “to act a certain way.”
“We’ve always gotta act tough. We can’t show emotions. We’ve gotta be the alpha male,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
Activist boys and young men from other schools agreed.
“I do think that girls and women are more interested in activism, at least within my own school,” said Kaleab Jegol, 17, a male senior at a high school near Cincinnati who also works on community outreach for the Women’s March.
Seven of the nine organizers of Jegol’s school’s walkout on Wednesday were girls, he said. A lot of boys at his school shy away from activism, he said, “because it involves having to speak out and speak about the things that you believe in.”
“There’s definitely many, many, many more girls getting involved in many of these movements than boys,” said Ziad Ahmed, a 19-year-old freshman at Yale University and a youth adviser for the Women’s March who also started a social justice advocacy organization called Redefy.
The reason for the disparity, he said, “has to do with this caricature that we paint and construct from a very young age in terms of what a boy should be.”
“A boy should spend his summers playing sports rather than engaging in service or academic or activist work,” he said. “A boy should be doing things that are physical, or manly, or masculine, rather than deconstructing systems of privilege that they may benefit from.”
Gender stereotypes play a role in gun violence
Boys across America today learn that guns are part of male identity, in part because the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers have specifically targeted men with advertising and other messages in recent years.
One example: An ad campaign for Bushmaster, the company that made one of the guns used in the Sandy Hook shooting, featured an image of a rifle and the words, “Consider your man card reissued.” The campaign also included a website — which was apparently disabled soon after the shooting — on which visitors could “call into question or even revoke the Man Card of friends they feel have betrayed their manhood,” according to a company press release.
Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University who has studied gun violence, said this sales pitch has become ingrained in how some men see themselves.
“There is a particular form of masculinity that’s been very consciously cultivated and constructed by the corporate gun lobby over the past decades,” he explained.
Men are embracing the message. American men are more likely to own a gun than women — according to a 2017 Pew report, 39 percent of men said they personally owned a gun compared with 22 percent of women. According to a survey conducted in 2015 by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities, around 3 percent of American adults own half of the nation’s nonmilitary guns.
Male gun owners are also more likely than their female counterparts to own multiple guns — 74 percent of male gun owners have two or more guns compared with 53 percent of female gun owners. And male gun owners are more likely than female owners to say a gun is both loaded and easily accessible to them at all times when they’re at home.
Meanwhile, 86 percent of those killed by guns every year are male, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Men account for 87 percent of firearm suicides, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Given all this, it’s especially important for boys and men to be involved in work against gun violence. Since men are more likely to own guns and more likely to be victims of gun violence, “boys have the most to lose” if the status quo doesn’t change, Metzl said.
Boys can play a key role in challenging the gender stereotypes promulgated by gun groups, he added. The boys involved in the anti-violence movement now are “modeling new forms of masculinity,” he said. “Pushing back against this idea that to be a man, you need a gun is very, very powerful at this moment.”
Getting more boys involved can be a matter of strategy
Including boys’ voices in gun control advocacy doesn’t mean forcing girls to step back. “This work needs all of us,” Ahmed, the Yale freshman, said. “We all have something we can contribute.”
Convincing boys and men to contribute can be a matter of trying out new strategies. Redefy, the organization he founded, was getting many more applications from young women than young men, he said. So they decided to employ some new outreach tactics. Rather than focusing only on the organization’s social justice goals, “We started saying, you like to code, come code for us,” or “you like to write, come write for us.”
“We decided to find the intersection of your interests and our work,” Ahmed explained.
For the organization Men Can Stop Rape, which works with men to prevent domestic violence, including gun violence, as well as sexual assault, bringing men into the conversation means “trying to meet men where they are,” said Neil Irvin, the group’s executive director.
That can mean acknowledging that guns are legal in America and are part of cultures of hunting and target shooting. It can mean tailoring messages about responsible gun ownership specifically to members of the military. “For us, it’s always an honest conversation,” said Irvin: “How do guns exist in your community?”
For others, pushing back against stereotypes around masculinity is a matter of modeling new behaviors. Bronx Letters principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, who wore a T-shirt reading “This is what a feminist looks like” on the day of the walkout, said messages about masculinity in the media and elsewhere help create a culture “that stops our boys from being feeling-focused.”
Cardet-Hernandez tries to combat that with his daily behavior, frequently saying, “I love you” to students. “I lead with that kind of language, and it is often flowery and complimentary,” he said. “The intended outcome is that translates into the way we are all communicating with each other.”
To help boys at his school combat expectations around masculinity, Soto suggested a discussion group, a place “to just let them know that you could show love, not to be so closed in.”
The organizers of the walkout praised Soto and the other boys who participated and said they’d welcome more boys getting involved in their cause.
“I believe that the more people involved, the better,” Robledo said. But if not enough boys and men step up, “women are going to have to do what they have to do to keep it going.”