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The Code: A boy's anchor, burden SOCIETY:The unwritten code's pressure to be tough and unemotional can be too much for many boys. BY RICK MONTGOMERYKNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Big boys don't cry. It's written in the Boy Code. Be a man -- strong, independent. It isn't cool to excel in school. And dude, don't get all emotional. The Boy Code keeps a lid on emotions. Just ask girls. "There are a lot of things you need to express but you don't," says Kiera Cline, 16, to boyfriend Jonathan Smith, who grins and rubs her arm. "Why do guys do that?" Pressed to explain, Jonathan just shrugs: "If you run off your mouth, it's immature." William Pollack coined the code in his book "Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood." The Harvard psychologist says the Boy Code creates a pressure cooker for many who don't really feel that tough and don't really wish to disconnect from mothers, as culture expects of boys -- but not girls -- by age 13. "Anyone who's been around boys knows the code," says Pollack, who is among academics and activist groups calling for its deconstruction. "It's shorthand for all the messages they're getting from home, from school, the media, the marketplace." " 'Be a little man,' we say. 'Cut your mama's apron strings.... Pull yourself up.' It's got a lot of boys silently suffering with a pain they don't even have words for." POWERFUL IMAGES The extent of that suffering is debatable. But the power of the code is obvious, beyond our escaping. It's there in the bulging arms and ripped abdomens of action figures. It's there in the sexual objectification of women in video games and popular music. The Boy Code is not one fashion line worn by all boys or even most. Rather, it is a list of accessories that -- when piled on -- make a full suit of armor. Show no fear. Avoid the honor roll. Stick to sports (boys' involvement in other school clubs is falling nationwide, surveys show). Oh yeah, whisper to other boy-coders about sexual exploits you've never had. So what's the harm? Nobody can knock strength, stoicism and masculinity, done right. As Pollack notes, however: "The code becomes so restrictive, it can put boys in a gender straitjacket and lead to an ungenuine life. Girls used to have their masks, too, but we've moved in a positive direction to take the mask away and let girls be themselves." Some in the boys movement resist lumping all male hang-ups into one code that must be corrected. "Boys are losing on almost every front because the system is stacked against them!" writes family values stalwart James Dobson in "Bringing Up Boys." "Is it any wonder why they are in such disarray?' But worrying Dobson, and most everyone, are the outcomes of mutated male toughness: bullying, bad grades, delinquency, sexual violence and low self-worth in those boys suffocating in the armor. (section removed) 'GAY' PUT-DOWN As Pollack says about one of the uglier, more divisive features of the Boy Code: "The largest put-down today for boys ages 5 to 15 is, 'You're gay.' " "So gay" has evolved into the all-purpose tease. Whatever is silly, stupid or irrelevant is "so gay." For people called gay, it can be deadly serious. Witness the carnage at Columbine High School, where such taunts helped drive two troubled seniors into gunning down a teacher and 12 classmates. At Winnetonka High School in Kansas City, Mo., teachers have been trained by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to address sexually oriented bullying. "Boys have a harder time, in different ways, than (lesbian) girls at school," said school counselor Alan Schuerman. "With boys, the bullying is more overt. It's in your face." For those who really are gay -- or who feel guilty thinking they might be -- he said many parents never find out about the teasing, or they offer this advice: "If you just act like a man, this wouldn't happen." Experts estimate that gay boys are three to six times more likely than straight boys to commit suicide. Dylan Theno was luckier than other boys: his parents knew how much he needed them. Dylan was labeled gay in his Kansas town of Tonganoxie, population 3,600, where the code made every school day agony since seventh grade. His parents remortgaged their two-bedroom home to pursue legal options. And this year, at 18, Dylan went to federal court, a plaintiff stating for the record he is not gay and alleging that school officials did little to stop the harassment. Two years earlier his mother found Dylan curled up in a ball on the couch, sobbing, shaking, begging to quit school. Cheryl Theno held him and resolved never to send him back. "Dylan was slowly falling apart in front of us," said his father, Alan. A wood craftsman, Alan spent more time than ever with his son. It was mostly Dad who pressed the fight with school officials to demand they enforce suspension policies for sexual harassment. He and Dylan's mother would enforce their own rule, that Dylan never strike back in anger. This was about justice, they told him, not vengeance. They turned the Boy Code on its head, comforting Dylan through his tears and supporting his taking Tae Kwan Do, its principles steeped in self-restraint. Once, he got into a fistfight at school. His parents made him paint an aunt's house as punishment. A judge recently upheld a harassment verdict against the school district, awarding Dylan $250,000 in damages. As appeals continue, he has his GED and is learning to weld. He still lives with his parents. "They were incredible," he says. It may sound gushy, but Dylan just nailed what experts say is the first line of defense against the code -- loving parents. Want masculinity? Teach your son empathy. Assure him it's OK to feel bad. Back off when he asks; hug when he needs it. Show him how to fight -- for justice. "Stay in touch," write Susan S. Shaffer and Linda P. Gordon in "Why Boys Don't Talk -- And Why it Matters." "As they get older, it may appear that they need their parents less often. "Appearances are deceiving: They still need you."Technorati Tags: gay youth, gay, lgbt, gay boys, boy code