I’m currently dating a remarkable woman who was initially unimpressed with me due to one aspect of my Hinge profile—where I asserted that I wasn’t a “stereotypical man.”
I thought it was a bold and accurate statement, but she took it as trite and meaningless. She thought it was the kind of thing a guy would write to get a woman’s attention, which was certainly among my motives, and it certainly had that effect (or I wouldn’t be writing about it now).
However, my primary motive was to deter any woman looking for a “bro,” an “alpha,” or a “f—boy.” While she knew from our first conversation I was none of the above, it was only after we spent quality time together that she learned the extent to which I defy tradition and expectation. I’ve written much on male stereotypes and have gotten personal at times about what manhood means to me, but I have yet to tackle the subject head-on, opting instead to tackle it by example. This is a challenge because my manhood is evolving each day as I contemplate where I am with my career, family, relationships, and self-image. This is what makes gender far more interesting to me than other significant aspects of identity: Gender is almost impossible to define in absolute terms. Try to explain to a child what a man is without explaining what a woman is or what a boy is—it can’t be done. This is why it would not be a stretch to say that I am not one man but many men. I am a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, and (now) a partner. Perhaps someday I will be a husband and a father, or even a grandfather, but I will not bring the same attitudes and values to each of those relationships.
While it would seem logical to add that I’m still the same man at my core, I hesitate to do so. I can picture myself in relation to others, but I can’t picture “my core.” I can only say that whatever core I have likely began with, or in spite of, my father, whom I addressed in the first post of this series. I will repeat that it’s hard to define yourself as a man when your first glimpse of manhood is a fleeting image. Yet, my father was not my only example growing up, and I found my own male role models wherever I could—both inside and outside the family.
This freedom meant that I was under no obligation to follow in anyone’s footsteps, and I was never punished for not living up to a certain standard of masculinity. I have heard so many stories of boys being scolded for crying, pressured to have a girlfriend before they were ready, or pushed into sports or other activities associated with manhood. None of this applied to me—although I did like sports and girls. And it was a good thing that I liked girls because, given the social context of the early 1990s and the religious views of some in my family, I was expected to like girls. I could be my own man, but I had to like girls—and, later, women.
This is, perhaps, the most stereotypical part of my masculinity. The rest continues to evolve. I have even begun to like women for the right reasons and am capable of liking them in ways that do not undermine my own needs and aspirations. This sounds simple enough, but I struggle with it throughout most of my life. I worshiped women and was ignorant of my proper place in their lives and just as ignorant of their (often stereotypical) expectations of me. I did not know how to assert myself, and sex was a mystery in more ways than one. This all-but guaranteed platonic friendships over romantic connections in my earlier years of sexual maturity, which were less than satisfying.
Nowadays, however, I retain the stereotypical masculine qualities that work for me and for those close to me while discarding those that do not. The qualities I discard—such as stoicism, egotism, and chauvinism—I do so proudly. But I do not define my manhood in opposition to what is expected: It is unique, evolving, and nonnegotiable. It is the product of acceptance and resistance in equal measure.
For me, the shame is not in being a man but in not being the man you want to be.
Each week on Friday at noon EST, I will be shining a light onto a unique aspect of my identity hidden below the surface. I ask other writers to join me on this quest. Too often we think of “identity” in terms of physical traits, such as gender or race, and neglect the person within. Both sides of the political spectrum cultivate and manipulate identity to gain votes, but a more authentic identity politics entails more than succumbing to labels thrust on us by academics, politicians, and the media in other to further factitious or provincial causes. This series is a call for us as concerned citizens to determine our own labels and, consequently, our own causes.
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