Why It’s Time to Redefine What Masculinity Means Today
In the fall of 1988, I was an 18-year-old man in my first year of college. I had escaped my small hometown and made it a whopping 80 miles away to Akron, Ohio. I felt trapped and insisted upon going to college come hell or high water, so I’d worked a job at Kmart and finagled every bit of financial aid I could. My mother didn’t understand why I wanted to go to college and asked me several times why I didn’t just go into the military. You know, like the other boys.
One night, I was walking on campus and saw a young man showing every sign of distress. He was unabashedly crying: red face, leaking tears and snot everywhere. The kind of crying that makes the chest convulse, and the words can only escape between sobs. His situation became clearer the closer I got. He was standing in front of the house of a young woman who must have been, until recently, his girlfriend. He was heartbroken. Begging. Shouting up at her window Stanley Kowalski–style for her to take him back. He was also clearly drunk.
As I walked closer still, the young man’s friends, equally drunk, found him in this pitiable state and stopped to help. The help they offered came in the form of calling him names. Pussy. Bitch. As in “Stop being a . . .” and “You’re acting like a little . . .” They chastised him for his tears and repeatedly asked him about the whereabouts of his balls.
Men often do this kind of thing to one another, it seems.
But the name-calling he endured was nothing compared with what they were doing to the young woman locked away in her house. Even in her absence, she too became a “bitch,” but in a more pointed and vicious way. Due to her decision to leave him, she became a “whore” and a “slut.” It didn’t take long for the crying man to join in on the name-calling. I walked by this spectacle vaguely amused. I never thought about the young woman inside who must have been hearing all this. And I never thought about that night again until more than 30 years later.
I have known from the time I was maybe eight that I was gay. As I turned into a gay teenager, I realized starkly that if I didn’t get out of my small rural town, I would perish. Either by my own hand or by someone else’s. College was the only escape plan I could think of. The night I saw the crying man, I didn’t compare his situation with mine, because he was apparently heterosexual. Back in my hometown, I had been called all the same names. But for different reasons.
The American history that we are living through now is spawning new and larger cultural conversations around masculinity. People are examining what it means—and what it even really is. And it feels to me as if gay men are largely being left out of these conversations. It’s as if, by virtue of being gay, we have forfeited any credibility on the subject. But it isn’t the case that gay men don’t have anything useful to add to the dialogue—maybe precisely because we are gay.
In Akron I went to my first gay club after coming out. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was loud and debaucherous. I saw “butch” lesbians, “lipstick” lesbians, drag queens, muscle dudes clad in leather, twink boys, and bears. All of them, in their own ways, disrupting the ideas our culture holds about what is masculine and feminine and who gets to inhabit those roles. Although I didn’t get it at the time, these people were showing up in the world to impress upon me that gender roles are little more than a human construct. And this idea is what perturbs homophobes the most—the idea that although men and women differ physically, the same feelings and emotions show up in the same way in every orientation of either sex.
But there are some who don’t want to cede the social power that comes with the masculine construct. Who conflate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. So they hold tight to these roles and to their contempt for those who flout them. Many political figures on the right seem to pine for the days when women knew their place and queer people didn’t overtly exist at all. When we risked being jailed for being who we are.
It’s queer people, regardless of how we present ourselves, who throw a big monkey wrench into the myth these people have invested in—based their entire existence upon, even. But nothing is immutably true simply because it’s all you’ve ever known. I wonder if we men are still so susceptible to other men assaulting our self-esteem that we promote these antiquated gender roles just so we don’t lose face around them. Or whether we’re still holding the shame we felt when rituals were enacted upon us as children to stomp out any feeling we had or action we took that was deemed feminine.
“Alpha males” preach that feelings like sadness and insecurity must be shoved way down deep inside until the only emotion that’s left is anger.
In other words: Are we still afraid of being called sissies?
Misogynists such as Andrew Tate preach male dominance and female submission. Some of these influencers boast billions of views on social media. They refer to themselves as “alpha males” and to those who don’t behave the way they do as “betas,” which is just a new way of calling other men sissies. What these men preach is dangerous to both women and the men they preach to, encouraging so-called incels whose core belief is that women owe them something simply because they are male. When the women don’t give it to them, it can end in violence.
What the followers of Tate and others are being taught is that real men aren’t supposed to feel anything at all. Of course we feel loneliness, rejection, insecurity, and sadness as acutely as women do, but “alpha males” preach that those feelings must be sutured—tied off and shoved down deep inside until the only thing that’s left is anger, the only emotion that men are permitted unfettered access to. Like the hero seeking revenge in an action movie.
Anger erupts in the most terrible ways. Some believe that the spate of mass shootings in America is solely due to mental illness. But because the vast majority are committed by men, I have to believe that something else is at play, which is that men are trained to bury our softer emotions. Sometimes they find a way out.
I thought about that crying young man in Akron again recently. I thought about him because a little more than ten years ago, I joined a support group and befriended a woman about my age. I liked her a great deal. Her husband didn’t like the fact that she had joined this group and was coming to grips with some things—one of which was that she didn’t want to be married to him anymore. She was beginning the process of leaving him, and they agreed on a time when he wouldn’t be home and she could pick up her things. When she did, he trapped her inside and shot her multiple times. Then himself.
This isn’t just mental illness, and it happens too often. He left a public message for her on Facebook a few days before he took her life:
“I love you! I miss you! Please talk to me…. Life isn’t worth living without you…. I fight for your love. I’ll never stop.”
I’m left wondering if he just eventually got angry, like the boy in Akron did. I wonder if his friends called him stupid names until he called her ugly names. I am angered by this—the fact that he didn’t know how to process his difficult emotions. He apparently thought what he was feeling was love, and he must have believed she owed him her life.
There is nothing wrong with masculinity. But we have to redefine it. Stop equating it with dominance and stoicism and force and begin to recognize that it also means fearlessly feeling all the emotions that come with being alive. Real life ain’t no action movie, and new and better things are required of us. More human things. Because it’s 2023 and there is no longer any such thing as a sissy.