Standards for masculinity are slowly changing. Who will be the new models for modern manhood?
Masculine-feminine intelligence bestows upon gay men an innate flexibility to access the masculine and feminine. Most gay men do not need instruction to access their emotions, to demonstrate empathy, and to act cooperatively. Sensitivity and intuitiveness often come naturally. At the same time, because we are men, and because we are socialized with all the expectations of manhood, we have broad access to the masculine.
Male gender norms restrict men’s repertoire of expression. The emergence of an emboldened gay male community around the globe counteracts that rigidity. By our very nature, gay men challenge patriarchal structure. When we become aware of our impact and our potential, we can use this gift to advance change where it is needed most: expanding male consciousness.
Prisons of Their Own Making
By coming out, gay men and lesbians have made enormous contributions to global consciousness. As Chapter 16 explores, we serve as models of authenticity and courage, and we cleanse shame for humanity. Additionally, and very consequentially, coming out created a new rite of passage. It says, “I now choose to live according to who I am instead of what society wants me to be.” This public declaration emboldens us to choose authenticity in all areas of our lives, well beyond our sexuality. We have bequeathed this rite to future generations, creating a lasting ripple effect.
Coming out, of course, represents just the first step in our journey to authenticity. Gay men spend considerable energy questioning and rewriting society’s rules about what it means to be a man—and recovering from the emotional violence these rules and their messengers inflicted. But gay men are not the only ones whose spirit becomes crushed by society’s wholesale prohibition on the feminine for men. All boys and men suffer from it.
To explore this prohibition further, let’s revisit the Three-Dimensional Masculine-Feminine Model from Chapter 4. On two of the measures most amenable to fluidity—personality traits and external traits— society’s expectations enforce considerable rigidity to qualify as a “real man.” Nearly every feminine trait on both scales is off limits. To scientifically test my theory, I asked a group of men in one of my weekend programs to complete a masculine/feminine trait assessment based on what society expects of men. The men in the group looked at me with puzzled expressions, then one man blurted out, “Duh! It’s the list of masculine traits.” We all agreed.
Of course, differences exist between society’s expectations of men and their actual behaviors. Many men choose to express feminine traits and consider it a sign of strength. For instance, the last few decades in the United States have witnessed an expansion of men’s permitted behaviors and traits, a rise in stay-at-home dads, and increasing gender parity. The women’s movement largely influenced these expansions in gender norms. Among the Millennial generation, men embrace a much wider set of permissible expressions than do their parents. For this generation, which came of age at a time when gay men had already been living openly for years, gay men’s model of manhood has no doubt had an influence.
Even the most macho men give themselves permission to express at least some feminine traits under certain circumstances, such as with female partners or their children. It is also important to note that different societies define masculinity and femininity differently than in the United States. But the generalization about gender-norm restrictions carries weight—and not just in this country. Patriarchy exerts tremendous pressure on men to conform to a given society’s definitions of manhood. In most parts of the world, the worst thing a man can be is like a woman.
This restriction places half of the human experience off limits for men. In terms of personality traits, society pressures men not to express: affection, caring, compassion, communicativeness, collaboration, cooperation, eagerness to soothe feelings, emotions, empathy, a family or inward orientation, flexibility, gentleness, helpfulness, intuitiveness, kindness, nurturing, passivity, patience, reasonableness, responsiveness, sensitivity, sexual submission, shyness, soft-spokenness, sympathy, tenderness, understanding, yielding, and warmth—among others. In terms of external traits, societal expectations keep men confined to rigid body posture and movements, narrow permissions for dress, and vocal inflections in the lower octaves. One misplaced hand gesture or the wrong crossing of legs leaves a man open to receiving the worst insult: being labeled a fag or a sissy.
When considered in this light, the restrictions on men ring with insanity. And yet this insanity rules and drives much of men’s behavior. Because men control the levers of power, denial and repression of the feminine within themselves translates into denial and repression of the feminine and feminine principles globally. Considered slightly differently, men devaluing swaths of themselves translates into men devaluing swaths of humanity. We see this imbalance in stratification, hierarchy, and racism. It shows up in the way governments repress; armies slaughter; corporations subjugate, exploit, and pollute; and politicians steal power. Religions perpetuate this imbalance in teachings that assign women lower status. It manifests as emotional and physical violence toward women; cut-throat business practices; and the perpetuation of income inequality. It results in the careless destruction of Earth’s environment, which could in the not-too-distant future extinguish us all. When the dominant force in the world denies half of the human experience, it becomes all too easy for this group to deny the humanity in others.
The sad irony of men’s entrapment within a rigid, narrow range of expression is that this prison is entirely of men’s making. Men maintain control of and perpetuate these restrictions on male norms. Women have little say in it; they may exert pressure on their men to integrate their masculine and feminine, as we explored in Chapter 10, but this goes only so far. (Of course, some women actually support and reinforce gender rigidity.) In some ways, heterosexual men become more permanently wounded than gay men, because they have no rite of passage that can help them “come out” and throw off these limiting conventions. Herein lies the paradox for straight men: If you belong to the dominant culture, who do you rebel against? What do you reject? What is your foe? Women could throw off men’s values and reclaim their personal power. Gay men and lesbians could reject society’s messages that tell them being gay is inherently wrong. But if you live aid and benefit from the power of the dominant group—like the proverbial fish that can’t recognize water, how would you even grasp the prison you live in?
For those of us outside of this prison, the view inside seems awfully bleak. Consider a life where pressure to conform to the narrowest range of human expression keeps one constantly on guard. A colleague of mine shared insight into the straight male experience as he and I talked about the unfortunate prevalence of gay men’s preference for “straight acting” sexual partners. “‘Straight acting,’” he said, “is an act. Straight men are scared shitless to be seen as anything other than manly, so they adopt an act.”
Sociologist Michael S. Kimmel supports this assertion. In his article, Masculinity as Homophobia, he describes the interior state of the typical U.S. male:
The great secret of American manhood is: we are afraid of other men…. Our efforts to maintain a manly front cover everything we do. What we wear. How we talk. How we walk. What we eat. Every mannerism, every movement contains a coded gender language. As adolescents, we learn that our peers are a kind of gender police, constantly threatening to unmask us as feminine, as sissies…. As young men we are constantly riding those gender boundaries, checking the fences we have constructed on the perimeter, making sure that nothing even remotely feminine might show through. The possibilities of being unmasked are everywhere…. Even the most seemingly insignificant thing can pose a threat or activate that haunting terror.
Nathan Palmer, a sociologist at Georgia Southern University, engages his students in class discussions around Kimmel’s work, where they discover the inevitable implications of a narrow definition of manhood. He describes this process in his blog Sociology Source.org:
After we have clearly discussed how gender is socially constructed and defined what masculinity as homophobia means, I ask my students to brainstorm the consequences men and women experience because of this narrowly defined masculinity. My students are quick to point out that many men do “stupid” risk taking behaviors to show they are tough. Students draw the obvious connection to the shamefully high levels of male violence toward women. Many men, they typically say, are hostile or even violent to gays and lesbians because a narrowly defined masculinity sees any non-compliance as an affront to their own masculinity. After this students usually go quiet.
Palmer’s students make the obvious connection between toxic male shame and violence. According to a 2013 World Health Organization report, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate-partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. This violence turns inward as well. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that suicide rates among men are nearly four times higher than among women, and have been for many years.
On a more subtle yet pervasive level, fear of other men keeps men disconnected from each other. Homophobia creates intense fear of even platonic displays of affection among men, unless they fall under strict contexts—such as celebratory hugs and pats on the butt during sporting events. The male hug—with hands clasped and arms crossing the chest to prevent full-on body contact—delineates the line that cannot be crossed. Whereas friendships among men were once celebrated even in the United States, homophobia created a distance among men, keeping them starved of authentic male friendship and platonic affection.
A life lived in fear, shame, and inner violence creates external manifestations of these conditions. Fear, shame, and violence become projected onto others—and sometimes onto oneself. The metaphor is inescapable: the interior of the average American man—and men around the globe—is as toxic an environment as the one into which we are rapidly transforming the Earth. Men’s rejection of the feminine has created a human and ecological disaster.
This post is a excerpted from Gay Men and the New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso. You can find more information and excerpts on his website, GayMenOfWisdom.com.