As a young man coming out and coming of age in the era of the women’s consciousness movement, I was fascinated by the concept of “sisterhood is powerful.” I was also somewhat envious: the idea of being part of a like-minded community who were fighting for their rights and exploring issues of gender and equality was foreign to me. The nascent gay liberation movement hadn’t yet reached the wilds of my suburb in Cincinnati, Ohio. When women’s groups started springing up all over the country, they seemed daring to me but also disconnected from my teenage life.
I admired the solidarity of the women in the 1970s who met together to openly discuss their most intimate concerns in a way that was both personal and political, especially their desire to shatter gender stereotypes that society had imposed on them. But back then, I didn’t have a community of gay men with whom I could meet. In high school, when being openly gay meant asking for trouble and getting it, I only had one close male friend. I didn’t know any other gay teens in my neighborhood, so I grew up feeling isolated.
For most of my life, I have usually found it easier to bond with women, who seemed to be able to express their emotions more easily than many of the men I knew. You could count on one hand the number of men I was friends with. Then, three years ago, my closest male friend encouraged me to attend a men’s retreat in the Maine woods. I was immediately filled with trepidation. The idea of being surrounded by a group of straight, gay, bi, trans, and questioning men piqued my curiosity, and yet it also made me wonder if I’d be able to step up to the plate and share honestly about myself. I wasn’t used to connecting with a lot of other men. But my friend had been at this retreat before and he thought I was at a stage in my life where I would benefit from it.
He was right. It was as if he sensed what my soul needed even before I did. At the retreat, I loved the in-depth conversations I had with men I would never have met in other situations. We spoke freely of past traumas and emotional wounds, and how we all defined masculinity for ourselves. I was hooked and like anyone who discovers a new joy, I wanted to make it part of my daily life. But this retreat was only a twice-a-year weekend event. What was I going to do for the other 50 weeks of the year?
Another friend suggested starting a local men’s group that would meet every other week and would be open to a wide range of men. The first meeting was in my apartment and we plunged into conversation over potluck and then had sharing time when each of us would check in. One member of the group created an impressive wooden talking stick that each of us contributed some personally significant item to: a quartz crystal, a piece of ribbon, a dreamcatcher, a feather, a Human Rights Campaign sticker, whatever we wanted to add that represented something about who we were.
We’ve now been meeting for three years and though there’s been ebb and flow, the group is still solid. For me, it represents a community of men friends I never had before. I take comfort in knowing that whatever I bring up in the group, they will be there for me, to support me when I feel confused, and to catch me when I feel like I’m falling.
For me, true masculinity walks hand in hand with empathy: when I experienced an unexpected instance of homophobia in the outside world, my men’s group brothers offered me a safe space to speak about my feelings. Even those who hadn’t encountered such bullying were able to step outside themselves, not only to bear witness but to see what I saw and feel what I felt. Being a “real man” isn’t about acting tough and standing alone; it’s about being connected enough to the humanity of others to walk in their shoes.
This group gives me a brotherhood of men for the first time in my life. It helps me to heal the isolation I once felt. From my men’s group, I continually learn that others have experienced the same struggles, large and small, that I lived through. At one recent meeting, I spoke about always being the last one picked for any team in high school. Another man recounted that it had been true for him as well. I asked if the other men had experienced this, too, and almost every single man raised his hand. Many of them are men who are now physically active and in excellent shape. Yet in our youth we were all made to feel “less than.”
I take hope from being part of this “league of last-picked men” not only because I feel I am in good company but because I see they didn’t let their early experiences stop them from pursuing their own athletic abilities as adults. They are wonderful examples of men who have risen above the bullying they had encountered in their early years.
That’s the unexpected lesson of being part of a men’s group—not only do I find support for what’s going on in the present, but I also discover that my past is part of a shared history of other men who lived through similar circumstances. I can rewrite my story: I no longer see myself as being alone through all those years of being taunted and teased. Instead, I know the men in my group were going through the same thing as me in their high school years: being bullied and yet trying to keep their heads up high, despite the pain. The boys they were then grew up to be the men they are now, sitting in my group, and offering brotherhood and compassion. They may have been the last to be picked at one time in their lives, but there’s no one I’d rather have on my team now.
Produced in proud partnership with the United States Air Force
Photo: Getty Images