How some men are trying to reform male culture: by emphasizing compassion over aggression
Boys aren't supposed to do a lot of things: show fear or pain, compassion or tenderness; but of course men feel a full range of emotions, whether we're "supposed to" or not.
"That was like the central struggle of my life, making sure I got angry in time so that nobody got to see me cry in public," said Carlos Andres Gomez, author of this year's Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Masculinity. Gomez is part of a growing movement of men discussing the alienating emphasis of aggression and dominance in male culture. This movement blames the disconnect at the heart of male culture for a variety of social ills, from homophobia to bullying to violence against women. And it's trying to encourage men to reform masculinity from the inside-out.
"People are saying, 'Why don't we scrap the concept of masculinity all together and let people be whoever they want to be, just leave it totally open'," Gomez says. "I think that's great, but a 14-year-old who grows up in a hyper-machismo household surrounded by highly homophobic peers, and his only two models of masculinity are like his worship of Lil Wayne and his abusive uncle, it's not very useful to tell that kid, 'Yo, just forget about the box, man. Be whoever you are.' If you don't give him any counter-narratives, that's actually not giving him any options."
Counter-narratives are where Men Can Stop Rape, the 15-year-old organization that led October's national Healthy Masculinity Summit in Washington, D.C., starts. The national nonprofit focuses on creating a culture of "positive masculinity" through public awareness campaigns and programs targeted primarily at high school- and college-age men that emphasize taking a stand against violence and harassment—especially of women. The agenda of the summit expanded the discussion to include the multiple generations and topics, including the role of masculinity in sports, faith, violence, gender expression, and the media. It's arrival felt like the codifying of a movement, men changing what it means to be a man. That's half the story.
The other is more personal. I know that if you are a man, you're reading this with awareness or resistance, that how you interpret these men says a lot about the type of man you are. It's easy to pretend to be objective, to describe a movement as if I'm not invested in its outcome, but as I researched this story I realized that I couldn't tell the truth without exposing all of it: healthy masculinity as a sea-change, and why I want my own counter-narrative to be part of the turning tide.
"If you look at survey data you would find that most men in America today still subscribe largely to the ideology of masculinity that was the dominant ideology when I was younger, when my dad was younger," Michael Kimmel tells me. The professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, contends that though while most men might not realize it, there's a gap forming. "I think you're witnessing a disjunction between what we grew up thinking it means to be a man and the lives we're actually living and want to live," he says.
He points to data: Generation Y men do more housework and are more involved fathers than any generation in American history. They also have more cross-sex friendships, which Kimmel suggests means that young men see women increasingly as true peers—equals—in life and work.
Men Can Stop Rape works to remove the shame from diverse masculinities, and celebrate men bucking masculinity that's toxic to others. "One of the things that we talk about in the work that we do are the dominant stories of masculinity, and some of the qualities that come up when we talk about counter-stories," says Pat McGann, director of strategy and planning. "What kind of message do we get about what it is to be a man? How do we understand ourselves? What kind of men do we want to be?"
He lists some of the words the men at the summit used to describe healthy masculinity: nurturing, kind, positive, good, caring, courage, confident, inclusive, courageous, honest, accountability, and respect. Not your father's Marlboro man—but maybe closer to the reality of your father. Which is the point. "We have an exercise we do where we ask men and boys to name the strongest man in their life and then talk about what it is that makes him strong," McGann says. "Most of the time, it's their father or a counselor or a minister, and the ways in which they care for them. Or it might be about integrity, or it might be about their willingness to stand up for what they believe in, their compassion, all those kind of qualities—which are much more qualities of character. Those are always the things that we've associated with healthy masculinity."
Kimmel, who gave a keynote address at the summit, doesn't see anything oxymoronic about healthy masculinity. "I think the ideology of masculinity is Whitman-esque: it's complex, it embrace multitudes. And of the multitudes that it embraces, some of them contradict others. Once you create a dialogue between those parts that are really unhealthy and those parts that are in fact a lot healthier, you have a very different kind of conversation."
The toxic narratives of unhealthy masculinity are often unquestioned, and they start very young. "There are no four more depressing words in educational policy circles then 'boys will be boys,' " Kimmel says. "Because when do we say that? We say that when we throw up our hands in resignation that we can't do anything. Why don't we say 'boys will be boys' when a man wins the Noble Peace Prize?"
But violence against women, and violence in general, disproportionately happens at the hands of men. So how to balance the countering of negative narratives (men are inevitably violent) with the reality that men need to take responsibility for male violence, and work to end it?
Compassion might be a place to start, for yourself and others. "Trying to hold men accountable connects to unhealthy masculinity," McGann says. "I've said for years that one of the things about unhealthy masculinity, or dominant stories of masculinity, is that men are socialized to push past pain, ignore pain, like it doesn't harm you in any kind of way, you're not vulnerable. If you can't really recognize and experience your own pain, then how can you do it with anybody else?"
Gomez has seen this divide on the book tour for Man Up, where men will often argue with him during the Q&A and then pull him aside after to say that they relate to his message. "The self that we project publically is at war with its private self, and you're asking them to align those two things, and that's a scary thing," he says.
"You're a man," he tells me. "You know."
Like a lot of guys, I had a shitty dad. He was uneasy in himself, abusive, shut down. Being a guy to me seemed located in his hamstrung emotions, his uncomfortable displays of drunken vulnerability. I remember him singing Frank Sinatra in this mournful voice, how I pitied and hated him, how I never wanted to become him.
I guess you could call me a late bloomer. I was 30 when I transitioned from female to male, when I began my weekly testosterone shots, when suddenly the men at barbeques turned to me with a steady stream of information to exchange, when violence became a hot reality at odd moments in dark bars, when everyone but my wife stopped touching me.
"I'm a hugger," I learned to warn people, gingerly giving a back pat, intimately aware of the violence assigned to my body, of the reason why the distance between us existed, the stories of what makes a man.
There was a lonely moment in my transition when I really believed that there wasn't a place for the kind of man I was becoming. I started looking for diverse masculinities, for counter-narratives, for stories of men who, like me, stood in defiance to stereotype. When I didn't find them, I began writing my own, publishing essays about what it meant to be a man. I began speaking about masculinity at colleges, and men came forth like I was calling them home.
Which is why I'm so excited to talk to Gomez, who seems equally thrilled to talk to me, even though, as far as I know, he knows nothing of my trans history and only a little about my work. He just likes my line of questions. For the first time since I've transitioned, I feel a sense of true fraternity.
"Guys like you, guys like me, all these people who go out there and very publicly share their ideas and call this stuff out of the dark, it's forcing people to have to grapple with it," he says.
Whether or not men know the phrase "healthy masculinity," signs of changes are blooming everywhere. I think about Kimmel, who says the roots of the shifting gender roles are a movement away from rigidity. Feminism allowed women to unlock the parts of themselves society kept from them, and now men are doing the same. He posits that a cure for what ails us that sounds familiar to me, the work I've done to become my own man embodied: "I don't see us as becoming a more masculine culture or a more feminine culture, I see us becoming a more balanced culture," he says. Look at the last election: men helped vote women into power all over the country, including a transgender woman in New Hampshire.
Men are embracing a more nurturing fatherhood with zeal, from Michael Chabon to the super-engaged, former stay-at-home dad Chris on Up All Night. And Modern Family's dinosaur patriarch, Jay, is as old-school as they come, especially next to his touchy-feely son-in-law, Phil. In a reversal of past tropes, however, Jay's blundering inability to connect to his feelings makes him the joke to be tolerated and Phil's the man of the moment. More techy than macho, he's thoroughly nonplussed when he realizes he's on a gay date just as he's being kissed.
Even advertisers are taking notice. the regressed jocks and party animals of beer commercials are out or satirized, as in the absurdist Old Spice ad campaign featuring a beefcake guy on a yacht, diamonds pouring magically from his hands, telling your girlfriend he's "the man your man could smell like" in a silly, deep voice. He's nice to look at, but ridiculous; and that's the point.
Maybe it's also about who's creating culture. If the dot-com boom has proven anything, it's that the geeks have inherited the earth, from bloggers to developers to CEOs—the top dogs of both sexes and all genders just don't look like the guys and gals of Mad Men, and no amount of fedoras will change that.
For now, the turning of the tide is happening man-by-man. Which given the emphasis on rugged individualism in masculine culture, isn't so surprising. But Gomez thinks this just the start. "I believe in a majority of one," he says. "My whole life, I just wanted one guy to be that foil," Gomez says.
To illustrate, he tells me a story about some young guys he met at a prison reading. "These are men who've been told that they're worthless and they're monsters and they're demons; and I get really emotional in front of them, and then some guy gets emotional and reads me some letter that he wrote to his mom, who he'll never see again. Why is he doing that with a stranger?"
Because we are hungry, I want to say. Because we know we are more than what we've been told.
"If that's possible in that space with a guy who I've met for 20 minutes," Gomez says. "You can't tell me that all of us don't have that kind of magic inside of us."
He doesn't have to say it: If you're a man, you know.