Our Society’s Brutal Economic Message to Straight Men About Expressing Gender Differently: You’d Better Not…

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Mark Greene asks why are liberated views of manhood and gender more acceptable…until a baby shows up.

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Recently, a friend whose opinions I highly respect made the following comment during a discussion on gender: “Men can legally express gender in any way they like”. As if that particular battle has been won and now its simply up to men to throw off the chains of our own fears and express gender in more diverse ways. The path is clear.

From a strictly legal standpoint this is probably true. Our society is saturated with enough examples of men going against gender stereotypes that we now, in terms of case law, civil statues and otherwise, fully expect that some small percentage of men will express their gender in clearly different and even outrageous ways. The most obvious examples are the ubiquitous images of gay men in drag, from RuPaul on down. Almost cartoon-like, drag queens are creating the most subversive kind of gender theater, poking fun at glamor, sexuality, power and our culture’s brutally restrictive self image. But they no doubt have paid a high price for their expressions of gender. They likely have been forced to put distance between themselves and members of their family, been cut off from the communities they grew up in and most likely, live in fear of being attacked economically, socially or physically for their choices, especially if they continue to blend their gender performances into their daily lives.

The drag show characture may well serve to enforce gender conformity as it so clearly defines the choice between “us” and “them” that men are confronted with when they think about their own secret desires for change, however humble.

But high camp drag is such an extreme outlying expression of gender theater that it leaves a massive space between itself and the daily expression of gender as performed by most men. As such, although it creates space for more diverse expressions of gender, it is not a threat to the gender conformity that society imposes on the vast majority of men. In fact, the drag show characture may well serve to enforce gender conformity as it so clearly defines the choice between “us” and “them” that men are confronted with when they think about their own secret desires for change, however humble. Because, legalities aside, if you want to remain a member of the “us” group, you had better think long and hard about what that membership requires of you.

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Expressing gender differently can quickly block men from a wide range of economic, social and relational spaces. Conversations around the water cooler at work can grow chilly. Promotions and raises can become more distant possibilities. And I’m not talking about glitter eye shadow and seven inch heels. Expressing gender differently can be as simple as the words that come out of your mouth.

When your male boss says a passing female co-worker is hot, it may adversely impact your child’s college fund to say anything other than “hell, yeah.” Sure your boss is an idiot, but everybody knows that right? So go ahead and earn extra points by tossing in a leer…

As many men are seeking to express their gender in more diverse ways, the most potent adversary to change can end up being their own wives and families.

It’s in economically driven spaces that the most lowbrow expressions of gender conformity are enforced and adopted to the detriment of all. Because people make the most blunt and general conceptual alliances when they perceive their economic interests to be at stake, often overcompensating in ways that damage their internal sense of personal integrity. But economic fear has a way of doing that. And for men and women alike, these fear-based economic spaces far outnumber the social spaces where wider ranges of gender expression are encouraged.

And sadly, the most oppressive gender conformity-enforcing economic spaces do not exist where money is earned. They exist where it is spent. As many men are seeking to express their gender in more diverse ways, the most potent adversary to change can end up being their own wives and families.

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The struggle for a more liberated view of gender runs the gamut from the sexual, to the social, to the economic. These struggles to create change take place in the small daily spaces of men’s lives. It’s a process of confusion and discovery, hit and miss. It requires a huge commitment of energy and an openness to uncertainty. The rewards can be deeply fulfilling, but it is not a simple process, and it can not take place unless both partners grant each other permission to explore and learn. How and what men are encouraged to explore by the women in their lives can quickly shift, especially when money and security become a central focus of the equation. Which is often the case when children arrive.

Men in western culture are living with the fallout of generations of female economic disempowerment.

Men in western culture are living with the fallout of generations of female economic disempowerment. Even as women are now culturally accepted as CEOs of major corporations, as attorneys, doctors, professors and more, the narrative of man as breadwinner remains firmly entrenched in our culture, due in part to payment disparities that still linger here. While the pace of economic progress for women in western culture is dramatic, the narratives of female economic disempowerment are slow to shift, taking perhaps a generation or more to ultimately change. This is in part because it remains a legitimate issue and in part because women are loath to give up the leverage this narrative creates in political, social, personal, and, of course, legal contexts.

The result of all this? Liberated views of manhood and gender are all fun and games until a baby shows up. Then roles can suddenly become far more draconian and rigid. It’s as if the twenty year economic and social timeline that a baby represents creates a panic in which cultural complexity, uncertainty and risk-taking are dismissed as dangerous indulgences that must be put aside for the good of the family.  Suddenly, people inside and outside the family want to know that the man is doing his man job. In the initial rush to manage the huge and complex impact of an infant’s arrival, the role of being a good dad and a good breadwinner dials down to a simple equation: conformity to what is deemed normative in the workplace, the child’s social community, and the home. In these moments, men sign up for a lifetime of gender conformity, setting in place patterns and agreements that are not easily undone.

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Men’s options in terms of how they are allowed to express gender are trained into them early. Recently, a seven year old boy I know, a friend of my son, disclosed his interest in the My Little Pony Show, a program clearly designed for and marketed to girls. When I asked him if his friends at school liked the show, he shook his head gravely. “I would never tell them I like the show. Never,” was his response. At seven, he is quite clear about which parts of himself should remain hidden.

And the lessons for men on how to be normative never stop coming. They inform our littlest daily decisions right through to the biggest decisions of our lives. As a man, I know for a fact that wearing bright colors is considered a bit “out there”. It’s a gutsy move. It might seem…odd. What if I roll up my khakis? Or wear pink socks? God forbid I don a sparkly hair beret before heading into a client meeting. I know for a fact how to walk in a way that will blend in. I know how to talk. How to carry my backpack. How to hold my son’s hand. Its all clearly prescribed. The man’s handbook, unwritten and known by all. And that’s just the little stuff.

Then there’s the big stuff.

Imagine a woman saying the following: “I want to stay home and care for my child while my husband works.” This is universally accepted as a valid expression of gender for women. Although it is challenging to maintain a single income household given the economic pressures of modern life, the idea of a stay at home mom is encouraged, even heartwarming.

Men’s cultural conditioning is such that much of our self worth comes from being able to earn and spend money. Why? Because little else in the pantheon of human expression is encouraged or valued publicly for men above creating financial security. It is a narrow constrictive box for men. And this box creates an opposite and equally constrictive box for women.

Now picture a man saying: “I want to stay home and care for my child while my wife works.” And let’s be clear. For the purposes of this example, the man is not saying this because of some external factor. He is not unemployed or laid off. He is not on a lower paying career path than his wife. He is simply saying that he wants to be a full time parent to his children, and he wants his wife to pay the bills so that he can stay in the home and raise them. This is what he wants.

This image generates a significant degree of cognitive dissonance, even for a fully engaged parent like myself. Men’s cultural conditioning is such that much of our self-worth comes from being able to earn and spend money and provide that money to those who depend on us. It starts with buying dinner on the first date and ends with putting money down on a mortgage for the family home. The more money we generate, the more access we get to status and social standing both inside and outside the home. And the implications of this for gender conformity are huge. Why? Because little else in the pantheon of human expression is encouraged or valued publicly for men above creating financial security. Not expressing emotion. Not being a full time parent. Not expressing a wide range of gender diversity. And certainly not having what has unreasonably come to be considered “feminine traits”. It is a narrow constrictive box for men. And this box creates an opposite and equally constrictive box for women.

There are a lot of ways in which couples explore the full range of gender in private that bend the typical man/woman narratives in our culture. But the high degree to which these explorations remain hidden, reinforces the illusion that conformity is the norm. Man mows the lawn. Woman cleans the kitchen. Son plays with GI Joe. Daughter plays with Barbie. Man does the bills. Woman cares for the baby. Man on top, woman on bottom, missionary position, thank you very much. We know from the work of a wide range of researchers that conformity in and out of the bedroom is absolutely not the rule. Far from it. But when a man tries to take some of his more private expressions of gender public, his own spouse can become the cop who bars the door. Why? Because the economic and social implications of not being viewed as normative, especially gender normative, can be terribly frightening. When men seek to make the private more public, the fears of being rejected socially or professionally causes a lot of unspoken agreements about priorities to kick in.

It is in this space between the private and the public where our courage to make change around gender often fails us. This is where irreversible damage gets done to men and women equally, as economic and social fears force gender conformity in soul-killing ways.

It is in this space between the private and the public where our courage to make change around gender often fails us. This is where irreversible damage gets done to men and women equally, as economic and social fears force gender conformity in soul-killing ways. And although men may be legally allowed to express gender in any way they see fit, the circumstances in which they find themselves can often lead to a rush to frame themselves as normative, seeking the security of being marked as normal when legal or financial goals hang in the balance.

At which point, the tragedy of modern post industrial life so predictably unfolds. As men and women buy into the necessity of suppressing their non-normative sides, the very parts of them that make them vibrant and distinctive individuals, they willingly immerse themselves in a vacuous culture of interpersonal isolation; a twilight world of disconnection. In an effort to create security, they commit to living in self-imposed communities of homogeneous alienation and create isolating family structures that ultimately fail and collapse.

For men, the linkages between economic pressures and the fearful decision to conform to normative gender roles leads to the suppression of their most diverse emotional aspects. The resulting suppression of these vibrant internal dialogues contributes to the epidemic levels of  depression, drug abuse, violence and suicide among men. The result is men living lives of quiet isolated desperation, mirrored by wives who in turn are trapped in equally narrow and self defeating feminine roles. It is a devil’s bargain struck from fear and economic uncertainty. The by-product of a culture that teaches us to value materialism and security as paramount human priorities.

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Make no mistake. Worldwide, women are suffering under economic systems that make them nothing less than indentured slaves to their husbands and families; subject to rape, violence and murder on a scale that few men in our comparatively pampered western culture are even willing to acknowledge.

Make no mistake. Worldwide, women are suffering under economic systems that make them nothing less than indentured slaves to their husbands and families; subject to rape, violence and murder on a scale that few men in our comparatively pampered western culture are even willing to acknowledge. Just today, NPR aired a harrowing report on the more than 100 sexual assaults against women that took place in Tahrir Square during the recent pro-democracy protests in Egypt. Take a moment a listen to it. It will leave you shocked and outraged. It is much worse than my simple summary here suggests. Moreover, billions of men and women worldwide are subject to lives so difficult that the relative challenges of emotional isolation and martini materialism in Western culture are nothing less than laughable by comparison.

But if we are to move forward in creating a world devoid of oppression and systemic abuse, we can not dismiss the leading edges of change as being nothing more than bourgeois anxiety, unworthy of being addressed against the greater backdrop of global sexism and racism. We must acknowledge and nurture the evolution of western cultural thinking if we are to create systems that do not simply sustain oppression of the weakest by the strongest. Part of this change will come by tearing down the false, narrow and ultimately tedious standards of a normative masculinity. A task that only the luckiest and wealthiest of us on the leading edge of global prosperity are at liberty to even consider addressing.

It is a task that will require significant long term emotional courage from both men and women; a willingness to live with change and uncertainty as we relearn who we are in relationships to each other. It will require that women encourage their men and themselves to live more fully expressive lives, even if that opens the door to changes neither can predict. But whatever the costs we confront in challenging our deep seated fears of being deemed non-normative, the results will be a more fully realized and satisfying lives for ourselves, our families and our communities.

Here are a few questions worth pondering:

  1. Is there a correlation between the continuing role of men as primary breadwinners and their relatively uniform public expression of gender?
  2. Are women more fearful of being socially rejected then men? How does this impact the way they construct their family’s public persona?
  3. Are gay men freer to pursue a more liberated expression of gender because they are not in partnership with women?
  4. Why are feminine presenting straight men invisible in our culture while feminine presenting gay men are quite prominent?
  5. How do we view the intersection of gender diversity and parenting for men? How do men need to present in order to seem like good parents?
  6. What action can we take collectively to signal we are open to gender diversity among men, especially straight men? (I’m thinking national wear a sparkly hair beret to work day.)

hair beret2

 

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More by Mark Greene:

How America’s Culture of Shame is a Killer for Boys

The Culture of Shame: Men, Love, and Emotional Self-Amputation

The Man Box: Why Men Police and Punish Others
“Every time you do this, you become less free. A rat in a cage. A dog on a chain. A prisoner.”

Why Men’s Friendships Can Feel Empty

Cruelty, Perversion and the Boy Scouts: A Personal Recollection

Touch Isolation: Insisting Boys Learn Independence Creates an Isolating Trap for Men

The Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence

The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer

 

 

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About Mark Greene

GMP Senior Editor Mark Greene writes and speaks on Men's Issues at the intersection of society, politics, relationships and parenting for the Good Men Project, the New York Times, The Shriver Report, Salon, HLN, The Huffington Post, and Mamamia. You can follow him on Twitter @megaSAHD and Google.
Click here to read more GMP articles by Mark Greene. Get Mark's fully illustrated children's book FLATMUNDER for iPad from iTunes about kid's fears and the power of play. For kids ages 4-8.

Comments

  1. A kid in my apartment’s pool reminded me of my younger self today. He was boisterously loud, playing with a Barbie and another doll, just making up crazy stuff and splashing around. He didn’t care. I thought that was great. I try to pinpoint when I started giving a crap about that kind of thing as a kid.
    As a married adult I don’t care who thinks I’m gay. I wear pink if I want, pastel blue, yellow. I carry my wife’s bag if she needs me to. I drive a Mini Cooper and have considered a Miata. I meet gay friends in gay bars. Then again, I am a musclebound ape who trains in MMA, so I’ve never had anyone “say anything,” and sometimes I wish an idiot would.
    There are still penalties for both sexes for stepping over the wrong gender line. It’s rather ridiculous, what argument is there, nature? We’ve stepped so far away from nature in human civilization that applying it to gender roles is rather quaint.

    • First, AMAZING ARTICLE. Truly nails the point. WOW.. this is one of THE BEST articles i have read with regard to feminism and masculinity. It is amazing. I have to say, being a female i am for men expressing themselves and getting out of the “man box”. However, this is interesting, i met a guy who was very sensitive, emotional and open. At first it scared me, i was shocked. I wanted to run away and hit the door, but i paused and stopped. I told myself, this is the kind of man i, a feminist, have been fighting for. A man who is sensitive, emotionally open and not afraid to show his tears. It hit me, that us as women need to open ourselves up. As much as we say we want emotionally open and stable men, we tend to run for the door when one shows up because 1) we are programmed to know the no emotion showing man who is “strong”. 2) the emotion showing man is considered as weak and not good enough. but most importantly 3) women are the ones who are allowed to show emotions. It takes a lot to unlearn this and to relearn the kind of world you want and accept everyone for who they are. I turned around and decided to see the guy for who is, not what i think he should be, or what society says he should be, but who he is, and he is amazing.

      Thomas, awesome you played with barbie dolls . Keep up the good fight :) nice to hear guys who are open and not afraid to speak up. All the good men on the site, LOVE YOU..!!! You make life that much lighter and brighter ;)

  2. Not saying these are actual answers, just thoughts on the questions.

    1. I’ve had two long term jobs (various roles within the same organisations) fitting in was an issue in both. I saw a change of management where the outgoing almost exclusively ex-army team moved on (once one was headhunted the rest followed, or dispersed to other companies) that team was replaced by a younger team made up of young men, very work hard/play hard who would go on holiday together. The manager of the later team was very frustrated by employment law that forced him to consider candidates that didn’t fit “his team”, he just wanted more of the same. Existing staff who didn’t fit got sidelined, (I wasn’t one of them BTW, different department). Goodness knows how he would have reacted to a man wearing nail polish, heels or having what he saw as “feminine” interests. However, he was fine with me getting on with my job when it intersected with his, he just wanted to control his own territory.
    2. I’m not sure, I do annoy myself by wondering if my daughter’s life would be easier if she “conformed” (I worry about her being socially rejected, she never has been) and I know someone who is hugely concerned about keeping up with the Jones, she barely dare express an opinion in case it makes her stand out, but I don’t think it’s exclusively a female thing.
    3. Of the gay people I know there is the full spectrum from terrified of standing out to wanting nothing more, their level of liberation in their gender identity seems to tally accordingly but that’s one hell of a generalisation on my part.
    4. In public life Eddie Izzard? In everyday life I’m struggling to think of any feminine presenting men, my husband mentioned feeling emotional about an historic occasion that had relevance to his family history, his facebook post garnered a sprinkling of “poof” comments, he didn’t care and has posted similar things since.
    5. I don’t know. I’d need to think more about this.
    6. There was that situation in the US where a young student wore a pink shirt to school and got hit by a barrage of anti gay bullying, a few kids decided they’d had enough of this sort of thing and organised loads of pink shirts for people to wear the next day. It worked http://www.iccrevalcore.net/Sito_Polo/Agio%20e%20Benessere/story_of_pink_shirt_day.pdf I’d start with children and work my way up.

    • Thanks for your very thoughtful ideas, W.M. I enjoyed reading them. They conjure the kind of nuanced space we all seek to exist successfully in…seeking flow in spaces that are sometimes full of blocks. Again, thanks.

  3. “Make no mistake. Worldwide, women are suffering under economic systems that make them nothing less than indentured slaves to their husbands”

    Mark, at what point in writing this wonderful piece did your conscience or subconcience require you to write this. What in you required that you put a sentence or two in to say “Women have it worse” in order to validate what you are saying about men.

    Perhaps that is a piece you should write for GMP, what in men requires them to give women their ‘props’ in term of subjugation in order for you to talk about men. It would almost seem to me that perhaps that is what society expects of men, even men who want to talk about a mans problems that we are simply not allowed to forget that women have problems too. That quote was even HIGHLIGHTED in big bold letters. Is this the ‘price of admission’ for talking about men and their problem that we as a society must talk about women and their problems.

    This is a serious question MARK, I really want to know.

    • Saltek,
      I see the issues of men and women as fundamentally interlinked. There is no way to speak about one without addressing the other. Making the case for gender change is, well… about gender.

      • I agree, they are interlinked, but for some reason when people (especially men) write about mens problems, they have a need to write that “women have it worse’, yet when people write about women’s problem they don’t appear to need to highlight mens problems.

        • Yes, I suppose people are always going to try and bolster their argument by excluding relevant but sometimes opposing facts. I seek to be holistic in how I construct my case, seeking to achieve majority consensus, not win some singular binary argument which will only lead less cooperation.

          • Mr Supertypo says:

            Then just out of pure curiosity, Mark Greene, why did you feel the need to point that out?

            • I don’t understand what you’re attempting to get at. Can you be clearer?

            • Mr Supertypo says:

              Its just a question, since you claim you are against the societal binary view of the gender-sphere, I couldn stop wondering then why did you need to point out the ‘ women suffer more’. Thats what made me curious….

            • Because I believe it is true. And as such, it is the elephant in the room during any discussion of men’s issues alone.

            • Mr Supertypo says:

              so mens issues are secondary to women issues?

            • Here comes the real binary. You’re forcing it right now. We don’t have to deny what women suffer in order to address what men suffer.

            • Supertype I think what Mark is trying to say is that it is entirely possible to separate “which group has it worse” from “which issues are more important and should be addressed first”.

              If someone has thoughts on which side has it worse that’s cool by me. It becomes uncool when they cross that line into trying to dictate when issues should be addressed in what order or which which issues are really issues or trying to structure the various issues so that one group’s issues are “really” a subset of some other group’s issues.

              For example notice that while Mark thinks that women have it worse he doesn’t try to minize them or say that the issues that affect men are “really” issues that affect women and men are just taking collateral damage from them (or at least from what I’ve read from Mark in the past he doesn’t seem to do this).

              But considering that so many other people do cross that line (hell it even seems to be a defining point of some feminist circles that everything that affects men is just collateral damage of efforts designed to subjugate women) I can understand how you may take his words that way.

            • Mr Supertypo says:

              “Here comes the real binary. You’re forcing it right now. We don’t have to deny what women suffer in order to address what men suffer.”

              well you are the one claiming that is the real elephant in the room. Not me. So the assumption that ‘ mens issues ‘ are secondary (since you consider womens issues the famous elephant) is a legittimate one, not a ‘ forzatura ‘.

              Not trying to attack you, just trying to understand.

            • Mr Supertypo says:

              Danny, im not trying to make trouble, im just trying to understand.

              I just find it strange that womens issues are the elephant in the room [cit] while talking on men issues. The real elephant (poor pachyderm always thrown around in debates) should be the issues concerning men lives, not women, even if our lifes are entangled.
              IMO its cultural, people are raised to believe that women have it worse always and anywhere. So this meme goes in at autopilot. But this is a irrilevant point. Just babbling.

              ciao

  4. Just as a side note to my last question

    Even though this article is about men and their gender problems.

    4 of the 5 highlighted parts mentions women and their problems. Is this the GMP editors or does this site use a program to generate these highlights.

  5. Really good article! It really hits dead on the age old conundrum for men. It’s all well and good to be that ‘Free Spirit’ when you have minimal responsibilities , it’s all different however, when junior needs braces, the cars in the shop needing a new transmission oh, and little misses summer band camp tuition is due! Now, do you do your ‘manly’ duty and ‘go along to get along’? Sure, if you wear the ‘sparkly beret’ some will call you a ‘Brave Individiualist’ , others will say “What a self absorbed schmuck”. I guess depending on your point of view, either one would be right.

  6. Daniel Mirante says:

    This is a great article, however its not just about gender… all manner of behaviour, creative, expressive, spiritual, emotional, are shut down. Female preference, related to assessment of a man’s economic stability etc, has a great deal of influence in shaping the parameters of male expression even before a child comes along. And even before a male is in the dating game or finding work, the same parameters are culturally imposed through media and schooling and parenting. This is the terrain shaping masculine identity. It is why I see so fewer men these days in the arts or attending yoga or meditation retreats, and otherwise availing themselves of therapeutic, embodied, right-brain pursuits.

  7. Mark; are you moderating this thread.

  8. wellokaythen says:

    No doubt these issues are still common in the workplace. I can say from my own experience that the reverse is also true in some organizations. Where I work, the hiring committees are much more on the lookout for someone OTHER than a mainstream masculine hetero male, insofar as they are willing to hire a man at all. I was on at least one search committee in which the chair said, off the record of course, that the department needs to hire a gay man, preferably a Hispanic gay man, to round out the diversity.

  9. Really good article, Mark. In valor of ways you’ve hit it spot on, but it is even so much more convoluted than even the relative depths you’ve gone into here. I posit that part of the reason for all of this is that in the rise of feminism it became an issue of equality that was one sided, and the result pushed expression for men even further into a narrow corner. For women it was I want that job, that baseball team, those clothes,ie the freedom to be both traditional and non traditional female, yet MY man MUST be a manly man, for those times when I want to be a traditionally expressing female, and as much so when I don’t.

    Now what the heck does that mean? It means what media and advertising, and culture and family says it should mean. Even in traditional family in modern times, a man as partner in household chores, kid care etc is suspect, by both the family and their spouse.

    I’m a good husband in my heterosexual marriage, I think. I encourage my wife to more freely express herself in both feminine and traditionally masculine interests. I do a lot of the cooking, and don’t complain about housework. I fix the cars, now the grass, share the laundry. I converse, and am an interested party, present, when she wants to talk.

    I also have pedicures because they’re good for me, and feel good for me. Like it does for her. And I also like the look of nail polish when done. Like she does. Yet she is most concerned because what will others think, about her and me, will we get socially rejected, so in other words, she appreciates that I cross roles when it suits her, yet is that barrier when it doesn’t. She’s not unlike most of this culture. I don’t criticize her one bit, because that is so deeply ingrained in our culture, that part that has not one good reason for it. I do not cross dress, I’d look silly in a dress, but a skirt would be way more comfortable at times, and would serve the purpose as a coverup.

    It is obvious to me that more men would like to be freer in expression, witness Halloween, the one day a man is given to play act, yet on that even one day, why do so many straight fellows play act in semi drag? Because they have a free pass for 1/365th of a year, actually like maybe 5 hours out of that that they can. Then, back in the box you go. So the interest is there, so what’s holding them back? Much of it is the status of women in this culture, second class.

    Most gay fellows I know are very masculine, consciously hiding it, or being real, I don’t know. A few are theatrically feminine, the expected behavior by the masses. Perhaps they want to be clear about their romantic inclinations to others, I don’t know that either. But I do know that most gay men want to emulate other men, because that’s the image they’re attracted to, while I have no problem emulating the gender I’m attracted to, yet that does seem to be a problem for others. Hmmm.

    So to sum up, I think we may be at a turning point, not there yet, but we are starting too see questioning of the hetd mentality, yet still not ready to actively challenge it because it means so much to our position, socially, economically, status and whatever. Our women are of two minds, I want you to be a nurturing partner but you better be the manly man we all have come to know and love. Problem is, honey, ALL of my training by culture and interaction has not been supportive for the sensitive new age kind of manly-man you want me, and others, too be.

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