Both as a man and as a Social Worker, Kevin Molinelli has found little understanding or resources for men.
I have always been strongly attuned to my experience as a male in society and also what others think my experience is or should be. At a fairly young age I learned there was a prescribed role men “should” assume: fathers, sports figures, business men, and always strong and able. Any deviation from these so-called norms could mark me as an outlier, or so it seemed to my younger self, so I put tremendous pressure on myself to fit in and hoped that one day I would be able to meet at least one of those expectations.
There were also countless moments as a kid when it felt like all the focus was on girls and women and guys were just kind of left to fend to themselves. I remember all the times I was made to apologize to my female classmates for wrongdoings on the playground. I remember being taught to hold the door for women. I cannot recall a single instance when I was taught to be sensitive to other boys or to even care what they felt. While there is nothing wrong with holding the door for anyone, it always felt strange to me that girls always came first and were always protected.
I will argue now and always that the same approach should be taken not only with females but with everyone regardless of their born gender or gender expression. While it is true that there are instances when it is necessary to deal with a given situation in a gender-appropriate way, it is also important to be cognizant of the experience males, both boys and adult men, have. It is harmful to assume that being a male somehow precludes him from experiencing emotional pain, physical limitations, or social exclusion.
I am a social worker and was influenced to become one because of my own life growing up — coming to terms with complex issues like body image, sexual orientation, and trying to figure out why so many young men were bringing guns to school when I had been taught that violence was never a way to deal with a problem. My experience was all about piecing together where I would eventually fit in or if I ever would at all.
Fast forwarding from childhood, my career has afforded me several wonderful opportunities to help other men struggling to find their own way as I had to do. As a social worker, I have spent time working in a group home for young men with mental illness, completed my graduate school internship providing counseling to HIV positive men, and even worked for a brief time as a paralegal working for a lawyer who sought to preserve and advocate for men’s rights in family law matters. All of these experiences have been tremendously rewarding and have provided me rich insights into what it means both to struggle and have to ask for help. I have had to watch men who thought they had it all under control, lose their composure, surrender their dignity, and sometimes even hide their true selves from friends and family. The desire to always be seen as strong men who can handle anything often comes at a cost.
What has been tough over the past few years is challenging the notion, within my own profession, that women are the only gender that can be vulnerable or victims. During a grad school course focused on group therapy, one of my classmates was shocked when she heard a peer talking about running a men’s group therapy support group. She asked why men would need a support group. Some members of the class tried to help answer her question while others were equally perplexed at the possibility that men might need a safe, nonjudgemental place to seek support.
After grad school, in a work setting, I was training alongside a female coworker, trying to find a client of ours an appropriate homeless shelter. He was a single father of a young child with no place to go and in need of a roof over his head. I ran into an issue finding him a place to go because a number of the shelters did not accept men. When I asked my coworker why this was, she turned to me and told me that men are often “perpetrators of naughtiness” and therefore should not be allowed to access the same services as women. This lack of understanding and compassion has stuck with me and helped guide my purpose.
These weren’t isolated incidents. Throughout my education and my life, there has been a salient pattern of women (and even some men) completely dismissing the experiences of boys and men. There is a gulf between what is expected of the male experience and the reality. It doesn’t help that society already has difficulties talking about gender and the lived experiences of people who have crumbled under the expectations of their gender. Automatically assuming that a homeless man is a criminal, or that men cannot possibly need or benefit from group therapy is not only absurd, but harmful to people of all gender identities.
There are a lot of men who are struggling and in need of a little (sometimes a lot of) support. Behind the hardest of exteriors are thoughts and feelings about love, loss, childhood, and very personal reflections about what it means to be masculine in a world that defines the very word in a countless number of ways.
Some of these men have been broken down by childhood sexual abuse, addictions, and domestic violence. Some of these men are living with mental illness. Others are veterans coming home with PTSD, fighting to be normal again. To anyone who might question why men might need support, it might be worth starting a conversation with your father, your brother, your uncle, cousin, or boyfriend. Ask them what their gender means to them and you might be surprised by the answer.
Conversations about gender are the only true way we can understand each other. Much can be learned by listening without judgement. One of my gigs was manning a suicide hotline on the night shift and we fielded calls from guys all hours of the night — stressing over their relationships, their finances, their personal traumas. Every single one of them just wanted someone who would listen to them. For many of them, the hardest decision they had to make was to call and open up about what was going on in their lives and I was always happy they did. It was my greatest pleasure to listen to them and to help them get through it all. On dozens of occasions, my callers would thank me just for listening and taking the time to validate their experiences. I’d like to think that what I did wasn’t anything special and that anybody would listen to a person who was just desperate for a little bit of hope.
My takeaway from my experiences has been that it’s important to help as many people as you can, regardless of what you assume their experiences in life have been. To assume that gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic would prevent someone from feeling pain is foolish. Talk less, listen more, and be open to the possibility that your assumptions might be wrong. It might be the first step to saving a life.
Photo: Flickr/craig Cloutier