You play football?
About once or twice a week I would get this question while pushing carts at my high school job as a grocery store clerk. They saw my 5-foot-5-inch stocky frame pushing those carts and assumed I was a man’s man, a real-life John Wayne, albeit a little shorter.
And while I did lift weights and could have played football, they failed to notice I held so much more inside; I wrote poetry, acted in plays and musicals and was headed to college next year to study psychology and music, specifically vocal performance.
On top of this, I was a quiet person, a real wallflower who preferred to sit quietly in the corner, maybe come into the frame to say a few wise words here and there before retreating.
But when people came to my corner and talked one-on-one they were often surprised at what they found; a young man with a quiet intensity and understanding of the world around him gained from calmly watching the world around him. A young man who people often found themselves telling secrets to, knowing this wallflower wouldn’t tell a soul.
People saw a young man who liked music, had tried on makeup in the past and, most shocking of all was in touch with his feelings and was an active listener. While they could have accepted the possibility that men could come in all shapes and sizes regardless of their sexual orientation, a question often came up instead:
“Are you gay?”They couldn’t look past these stereotypes, these lazy labels we use to categorize each other. They failed to see the story of a boy who grew up with two sisters. A boy taught by strong female siblings that there was much more to life than being a tough man and to be whatever you wanted to be. A boy who learned to love his introspective and effeminate self all while knowing it did not make him less of a man.
I ignored this question and the negative implications people unintentionally made between sexual orientation and what being a man looks like, knowing I had already answered this question for myself in the past on my own terms.
I continued to date women, traversing a world of uncomfortable expectations; first dates were always an internal conflict fighting between the man I am and the man I thought the world wanted me to be. While I saw that men were typically depicted as being aggressive and emotionless in books and TV, I found those depictions to be creepy and inaccurate.
I chose to be more submissive, sweet and intuitive instead as that was the real me. Even though women had appreciated my laid back approach, growing up watching TV and books always left me with that always-lingering question:
Was I less of a man for being submissive and in touch with myself?
Struggling with this, I unexpectedly found the answer to this question while studying music at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in its vocal performance tract.
More than a neat party trick, music school taught me to be comfortable in my skin and that yes, I need my emotions. Emotions are part of what makes you a good artist. That means that it is OK to cry. It does not matter whether your dad, grandpa or whoever told you to man up and lock up the tears. Those droplets need to be freed from your eyes in a wave of vulnerability if you want to be anything more than just an OK musician.
Music school taught me that being vulnerable is the manliest thing you can do. Hiding and pushing your feelings away is a coward’s game that ends the same way every time; you bottle up emotions, letting the heat of it all fill up your body until it all overflows, coming out as a harmful steam that’s a mixture of angered yells and poisoned words that you never meant to say. Almost always someone gets hurt, so it’s better to let those emotions out instead, using vulnerability as that relief valve.
On top of giving me this relief valve, music school also taught me to more deeply respect and admire the women I worked with. It taught me that women were just as, if not more than capable, of their male counterparts (If you don’t believe me, try singing in high heels. It is not easy by any feat). Music school taught me to look at my place in this world the same way I look at my role as a choir member; no matter how I can sing alone, it means nothing without the rest of the men and women on my team.
After four years of learning, I graduated from UW-Milwaukee holding on to the life lessons music gave me. In the past three years since then, I have been continuing to reshape what it means to be a man, using tools such as therapy, poetry and photography to better understand myself.
Along the way, I met my current girlfriend who has helped me further tear down the walls of stereotypes. Through talking we learn more about the expectations we have both carried since birth; that she is to remain quiet as a woman, even in a field such as journalism where the truth demands to be spoken. That I, as a man, am always dominant and unfeeling, even when other people in the room have better answers or ideas than me.
Instead, we have chosen to toss those expectations out the window, recognizing and acknowledging them for the harm they have caused both of us and our respective genders for far too long. When we forget about those stereotypes and recognize the skills we have instead of the skills expected of us, we work together on tasks with seamless ease.
While I once was unsure, I know now that I am more than what is expected of my male gender. That John Wayne stereotype no longer holds its shackles on me like it once did. I only hope now that other men can free themselves from those same chains.
The new male expectations are that there are none except to treat men and women equally with the kindness and respect we all deserve, regardless of race, sexual orientation, age, gender or any other identities.
If we can all do this is as men and fight against these stereotypes, we can help contribute toward a better, more equal society that lets us all be who we want to be, regardless of whatever fate our genders once chose for us.