Raymond Rigoglioso believes that gay men have a special relationship with manhood and masculinity, and that all men could benefit from paying attention to this.
In my book, Gay Men and The New Way Forward, I spend considerable time exploring how gay men are reinventing manhood: Our close friendships with straight women prove that men and women can get along, and they influence straight women’s expectations of their mates. By embracing camp and drag, gay men challenge and expand rigid male gender norms. And we model sustainable manhood, bringing balance to a world that is profoundly out of balance.
Yet, despite the influence gay men wield on manhood and masculinity, we have no concept of “gay manhood.” The two words strung together, in fact, sound dissonant. Gay male identity, which proclaims pride in same-sex attraction, contains within it no clear relationship to manhood. If anything, gay men tend to feel excluded from, and suspicious of it.
On some level, gay pride says to the men who have bullied and victimized us, “We want no part of your manhood. It’s your own invention. We’ll create our own culture.” And while there is great value in creating our own culture—for we gift our innovations to the larger world—this unspoken and sometimes explicit rejection of manhood and masculinity means that we deny a very important part of ourselves. After all, we are very much men. Claiming our manhood remains a piece of unfinished work for gay men.
To achieve this, we must first honor and respect how we embody manhood. We do it differently—and I argue that our version holds wisdom for and can lead all men. First, gay manhood is balanced, or sustainable manhood. We possess masculine-feminine intelligence—an innate balance of masculine and feminine energies, and the seamless ability to move in and out of each as the need arises.
This has tremendous social utility. It enables us to create consensus, solve problems, defuse tensions, and peaceably resolve conflicts. By straddling the masculine and feminine, gay men occupy a place in between. We understand men and women without the need for a translator. We can see both sides.
Gay manhood is strong and liberated manhood. We have the courage to do what terrifies most heterosexual men: to embrace and express the feminine, and to risk being associated with it. This opens us up to the entire range of human experience, something traditional manhood precludes. In our culture, men are still expected to hew toward the masculine. We express masculine and feminine effortlessly. We benefit, and society benefits as a result.
I smile when I hear gay men referred to as sissies. We are anything but. The fact is, gay men embody the kind of courage that heterosexual men will never have to summon. Being who we are—whether nelly or butch—is one of the most masculine acts possible. We have the courage to dispense with society’s taboos. And when we do, we experience a freedom that most men only vaguely know is possible.
Some heterosexual men already recognize the freedoms gay men have, and understand their potential to free all men. An October 9, 2015 article in the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/photographer-bruce-dean-showcases-gay-male-homoerotica-with-ken-dolls_56154a14e4b0cf9984d7ebb3) features Canadian photographer Bruce Dean, a heterosexual man who uses Ken dolls to create “gay art.” In the article, Dean explains, “After studying the use of homoerotica in art and film, I eventually came to the conclusion that gay rights not only benefit the homosexual community, they also liberate the straight male who is so often oppressed into being a strong, unfeeling, machismo machine.”
Yet, gay men pay a heavy price for this freedom. We face societal rejection and violence—perceived and real, physical and emotional—usually at the hands other men. Gay men have distinct lifelong wounds as a result. Many of us grew up with fear of straight men, and often that fear remains as adults. As a result, we identify manhood with aggression and violence—what I would call the shadow masculine—which informs gay men’s implicit rejection of traditional manhood. Unwittingly, when we do so, we also reject the authentic masculine—those socially essential traits that characterize good men—and a critical piece of ourselves.
When gay men celebrate how we embody manhood—and value it—we will heal our relationship to manhood and masculinity. This will benefit gay men, and all men.
The fact is, all men are wounded by patriarchy. Gay men are not the only ones who have experienced violence at the hands of other men, and we’re not the only ones who have received messages forbidding the wholesale expression of the feminine. Our innate differences from other men, and our experience of rejection and marginalization because of who we are, however, force us to question ourselves. We don’t have the luxury of embracing society’s definition of manhood unthinkingly.
Whether we recognize it or not, gay men already play a critical leadership role in men’s consciousness. The men’s movement is not about just embracing the masculine, it is about integrating the masculine and feminine and experiencing wholeness. Gay men already embody this integration. It’s in our consciousness, and it’s reflected in our choices to live authentically. We model a fearless wholeness.
And yet we, as all men, still have work to do. When we as gay men heal ourselves and redefine what manhood means to us, we can help all men heal. In fact, it may take leadership from gay men to rescue manhood itself.
This exploration forms the heart of my upcoming retreat at Easton Mountain in November. We’ll be defining manhood on our own terms. And we’ll work to release some of the wounds we’ve accumulated at the hands of men and boys over our lives. I look forward to seeing what the men uncover about themselves, and the insights into gay manhood that emerge. And I look forward to sharing them with you, not at the voices of individuals, but as the voices of men.
Raymond Rigoglioso is the founder of Gay Men of Wisdom (www.gaymenofwisdom.com) and author of Gay Men and The New Way Forward. His retreat, Celebrating Gay Manhood, runs at Easton Mountain (www.eastonmountain.org) retreat center from November 13-15.