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Sissy as a term for an effeminate male developed from its use as an affectionate variant of "sister"; it then came to be used as a disparaging term for boys who behaved like girls. The American Heritage Dictionary defines sissy as "a boy or man regarded as effeminate."

The term is pejorative, and its use as such has powerful effects on male behavior generally. It serves as a kind of social control to enforce "gender appropriate" behavior.

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Indeed, so strong is its power that, in order to avoid being labeled a sissy, many boys--both those who grow up to be homosexual and those who grow up to be heterosexual--consciously attempt to redirect their interests and inclinations from suspect areas such as, for example, hair styling or the arts toward stereotypically masculine interests such as sports or engineering. In addition, they frequently repress--sometimes at great cost--aspects of their personalities that might be associated with the feminine.

At the root of the stigma attached to sissies is the fear and hatred of homosexuality and, to a lesser extent, of women. Certainly, much of the anxiety aroused by boys who are perceived as sissies is the fear (and expectation) that they will grow up to be homosexuals.

The stigmatizing power of the term has had particularly strong repercussions on gay male behavior, as well as on the way that gay men are perceived, both by heterosexuals and by each other. Some gay men respond to this stigma by self-consciously adopting stereotypically masculine attributes; others, however, defiantly identify as sissies (or their adult cousins, "queens") and exaggerate their feminine traits, at least while they are in the company of other gay men.

Sissies and Gay Male Childhood

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. In 1980, however, when the APA published a new Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM III), in place of homosexuality was a new diagnosis, "Gender Identity Disorder in Childhood," also known as "Sissy Boy Syndrome." To be diagnosed with the disorder a child must strongly identify with the opposite sex, and he or she must also behave in ways associated with the opposite gender. Many researchers and activists have taken issue with "Sissy Boy Syndrome" as merely a replacement for homosexuality in the APA's manual and as yet another attempt to pathologize gender variant behavior.

Many gay male autobiographies recount childhood incidents in which the author is singled out as a sissy by other children or adults because of perceived effeminate behavior or characteristics. In his memoir, Young Man from the Provinces (1995), Alan Helms writes, "I began to realize that I was the worst thing any American boy can be--I was (I can hardly bring myself to write the word) a sissy."

Although effeminate behavior in childhood is by no means exclusive to men who grow up to become homosexual, and not all gay men were regarded as sissies as children, being perceived as a sissy is nevertheless a common experience among gay males. This suggests some connection between what is typically regarded as "inappropriate" gender expression in childhood and a later expression of homosexuality. Recognizing oneself as a sissy is sometimes the first step in recognizing oneself as a potential or actual homosexual.

Being regarded as a sissy by peers or by family members is most often a painful experience. The insistence on gender-specific behavior is pervasive and overwhelming in most societies, and young men and boys who are effeminate are often severely stigmatized and, sometimes, physically and mentally abused.

Sissies and Identity

The negative attitudes toward sissies in mainstream culture is also carried over to some extent into gay male culture. In a widely broadcast 1996 episode of Public Radio International's This American Life, syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage noted the prevalence in gay male personal ads of self-descriptions and descriptions of desired sexual partners that reject effeminacy in favor of "straight-acting/straight-appearing" or "masculine" men.

These terms that explicitly deny the effeminate not only suggest that in the gay male world masculine or butch men are considered more sexually desirable than sissies (at least by gay men who place personal ads), but they also indicate a distaste for effeminacy itself. This distaste may reflect mainstream attitudes, but it is often rooted in internalized .

Indeed, in the gay male world, behavior and identity based on gender is nearly as polarized as in heterosexual culture. Gay men classify themselves using terms such as "butch" or "flamer," "top" or "bottom," "macho" or "queen." These designations of personal identity are sometimes not only expressions of personal style and preferences, but also a kind of political statement, indicating an individual's place on a spectrum of gender nonconformity.

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