On Christmas Day, 2017, world-famous Formula 1 race car driver, Lewis Hamilton, posted a video on Instagram shaming his nephew for wearing a princess dress. “Boys don’t wear princess dresses!” he said. He soon was attacked by many critics on social media, and eventually apologized both to his public and his nephew.
This stirred up a particularly painful memory in me of a nearly identical experience with an uncle—which I’ll share below—but for which I never got an apology. That, together with the current tsunami of revelations about powerful men behaving badly toward women, girls, and boys who are less powerful, as well as the #MeToo movement, causes me to reflect on how in our Western culture we have come to view our stereotypes of masculinity as “normal” and “correct.”
Being raised male in our culture means avoiding and distancing yourself from being associated with anything feminine: overt expression of emotions; wearing clothes that may be considered by others as too colorful or effeminate; touching or hugging another male, even as a sign of camaraderie or sympathy; or not being interested in participating in sports such as football. This is inherent sexism as if being associated with anything female, or tenderness would denigrate you. In our culture, being male—especially a straight male—is a privileged status, and anything else is mostly viewed as inferior.
This is especially true for boys who are in the process of discovering they are gay.
Gay is synonymous with effeminate, despite the fact that many gay men are anything but effeminate. Straight, bisexual, trans and gay men alike feel pressured to behave in “masculine” ways. But our society’s concept of “masculinity,” handed down from archaic patriarchal times, is actually an immature one in that it relieves men from being accountable and responsible from the very actions that harm others and themselves. It anesthetizes feelings, leaving men numb and stunted psychologically and emotionally.
It is sometimes called toxic masculinity, which Wikipedia describes as “…traditional norms of behavior among men in contemporary American and European society that are associated with detrimental social and psychological effects.” Among its characteristics are “dominance, devaluation of women, extreme self-reliance, and suppression of emotions.”
Before I turned eight, I played dress-up with my sister and female cousin, donning dresses and high heels, pretending I was a woman. In our culture, many girls are allowed to be tomboys, but boys have no permission to be “sissies.” Yet so many boys are—and I was one of them. It was fun, but I clearly remember the disapproving glances from my male cousins and the adults around me.
Sometime in my fifth year, my grandmother sternly told me that I had to stop dressing up as Cher, with my sister’s tights on my head, swinging their legs as if they were my hair, and singing into a hairbrush. “Boys do not do this,” she scolded. I felt incredible shame and, of course, stopped playing publicly with the girls. Privately, however, I continued, having learned that this was something to be ashamed of and hide.
Making a Man out of Joey
Here’s my story of that uncle, and how it has affected me. When I was three, my father left us to start another family and focused his attention there. Meanwhile, my mother put me together with my uncles, who all tried to intervene and include me in sports—which I was not at all good at. In fact, I hated sports, but to please the adults in my family, I valiantly soldiered on in their campaign to help me become a man. Their disapproval of my athletic inadequacy remained, however. I was always the last to be picked for teams; the other boys basically ignored me. To this day, I can’t throw a baseball well or even pass a game in progress without feeling shame and inadequacy in the pit of my stomach.
My male cousins disapproved of my “sissy” behavior. One, who was two years younger, was very athletic. Our mothers had been close as children, so we were often together. He played baseball, hockey, and football. He and his brothers had scores of trophies lining the shelves in their bedrooms, and I was impressed with his athletic abilities and craved his acceptance, which only reminded me of how inept I felt to not be the “right kind of boy.” I even recall feeling ashamed that I could never spit in a straight line the way men can!
My cousin tried to teach me how to throw a ball and welcomed me onto his baseball team, but one day he challenged me to stop playing house with his sister and told me he didn’t think I could stop. I promised him I would, but within a week I was back to playing house with his sister. He was right: I could not stop; I didn’t want to stop—I enjoyed it!
What’s wrong with that? What is wrong is not the behavior, but how some boys’ play is negatively judged. We expect boys to grow up to be good fathers and husbands, yet shame them out of playing house, which in actuality is all about preparing for that time in their lives. No wonder so many men have trouble when they try to raise a family.
The Canoe Trip from Hell
Among the worst things that happened to me as a young boy was a canoe trip I suffered with my mother’s brother. When I was ten, my mother told me that I would be going with my uncle Alvin and his two sons on a sort of Boy Scout trip with boys and their fathers. I dreaded it since I knew this uncle didn’t like me and, along with my mother and most other adults, disapproved of my “sissy” behavior. My own family referred to me as a “mama’s boy.” So, to please my mother and those trying to “make a man out of me,” I went on this trip, from which it took me years to recover.
For the canoeing part of the trip, everyone was paired up except me, and I got partnered with Uncle Alvin himself. Being that I was a skinny 10-year-old, and he weighed at least 300 pounds, my uncle’s weight shook the boat, shifting it one way or the other as he paddled. I became hypervigilant to our surroundings—the deep water and no other canoes in sight. I was terrified I would drown.
Sure enough, he leaned too far to one side, and we tipped over. When I surfaced again, thanks to my life jacket, I saw my uncle trying to right the overturned canoe. He looked afraid and not in control, which scared me even more. When we somehow managed to get both of us back in the canoe, my uncle yelled at me for crying. For what seemed like hours, he said cutting things like, “You will never amount to anything. You are a sissy! All you like to do is play house and play with dolls! You are a crybaby, a mama’s boy!” Over and over he shouted these patronizing, contemptuous epithets at me.
Back on land, I was too humiliated to tell a soul about his verbal and emotional abuse. It was as if he’d said aloud what I knew others thought about me—in fact, everything I felt and believed about myself. All I wanted was to get away from him and everyone else. The incident was the topic of much of my own personal therapy for years afterward. Initially, therapists thought that Alvin’s verbal abuse contributed to and cemented the homosexual identity forming during my early years.
In our culture, gay men are traumatized in the worst way by being called faggots, perverts, pansies, sissies, mother-dominated mama’s boys, or being referred to as “more like women,” “immature,” “underdeveloped in our masculinity, “less than a man,” “stuck in your adolescent stage,” “weak,” “innately vulnerable,” “cowardly,” “unable to control yourselves,” and “deserving what you get.” In gay culture, the drive to escape this self-image manifests as desire for the “straight-acting” male, something you’ll see with a quick sampling of gay personal ads on the Internet. When referring to straight-acting men they really mean masculine men, as if gay men cannot be masculine in our own right. Anything less (“no fats, no fems”) is undesirable as a partner or friend.
I see gay men cringe at the idea of inviting gay friends to mingle with their straight friends and family for fear of being judged negatively or appearing “too gay.” This is internalized homophobia, as I point out in all my lectures, workshops, and writings. Being treated this way—and perpetuating such treatment amongst ourselves and each other—will cripple us emotionally, leaving us numb and stunted both psychologically and emotionally, killing possibilities for relationships requiring true intimacy. This is how we are taught as children. The scripts are already in place.
How to Be a Man
One of the best—and funniest—portrayals of the brutality of what a man “should be” and “should not be” can be found in the comedy movie, In and Out. Kevin Kline plays Howard, a theater teacher who does not realize he is gay and is engaged to be heterosexually married. A former student of his has won an Academy Award for playing a gay man and, to Howard’s horror, on national television cites Howard as a positive role model of an “out gay man.” Deciding to prove his fiancée, family, and friends he is not gay, he buys an audiotape series titled, “Be a Man: Exploring your Masculinity.”
On the first tape, “Getting a Grip,” the narrator tells him how to dress, stand a certain way, and how to speak. Howard fails miserably at getting a grip on “real men’s” language and posture. Finally, the narrator tackles the “most critical area of masculine behavior—dancing!”
“Truly, manly men do not dance; under any circumstances! This will be your ultimate test. At all cost, avoid rhythm, grace and pleasure,” the narrator gravely warns. Then he begins to play “I Will Survive,” a cover of the very gay anthem sung by Diana Ross, the Diva so many gay men love.
The song plays louder and louder, while the narrator shouts, “Men do not dance! They work, they drink, they have bad backs—they do not dance!” Ultimately, Howard can’t contain himself and begins dancing uncontrollably. The narrator begs him to stop, calling him a panty-waist and a “big ballerina.” He tells him, “Bite someone. Kick someone. Bite someone’s ear!” When the song ends, he asks, “So how did you do, pussyboy?”
The scene made me laugh so hard I cried. After it was over, I wanted to stand and cheer it as the most excellent comment I’ve ever seen on how we, as boys and men, are taught to act.
Gay boys, in particular, suffer wounds that vandalize our sense of belonging and exclude us from the male fraternity. We are told we are not real men or aren’t the right kind of man. If we come to believe that, how can we ever feel good about ourselves and other gay men, or be able to date and maintain healthy relationships?
In 1999, I finally was able to put to rest the episode with my uncle when I attended a men’s retreat called the New Warrior Adventure by the Mankind Project. Here was a group of men, mostly straight, whose mission in life is to help men become better and more mature. I knew workshops were an excellent way to supplement my own therapy, as I had gained much from other workshops. I went not knowing what to expect—and I’m glad I did! That is exactly what made it so powerful for me. Here I was, able to have straight men love me, hold me, and help me feel part of the male culture. It is what I’d wanted and waited for all my life. It was a true healing for me, changed my life, liberated me as a man among men, and made my writing possible.
I never received an apology for what my uncle said to me, nor did I forgive him even after he died. I don’t believe in forced forgiveness, or that you need to forgive to move on, but I am no longer angry or hurt about it. Now I help men of all sexual orientations heal from the negative attacks from others who have projected onto them how men should behave and act.
Today, with the outing of so many men who have acted badly, it may help to realize the
omnipresence of harmful stereotypes about masculinity we have bought into as a culture, and begin to consider alternatives.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project, please join like-minded individuals in The Good Men Project Premium Community.
We have pioneered the largest worldwide conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Your support of our work is inspiring and invaluable.
The Good Men Project is an Amazon.com affiliate. If you shop via THIS LINK, we will get a small commission and you will be supporting our Mission while still getting the quality products you would have purchased, anyway! Thank you for your continued support!
Photo credit: Getty Images