Feeling pretty, and witty, and gay

When school officials and parents send a message to children that “boyish” girls are badass but “girlish” boys are embarrassing, they are telling kids that society values and rewards masculinity, but not femininity. They are not just keeping individual boys from free self-expression, but they are keeping women down too.

It is lopsided to approach gender equality by focusing only on girls’ empowerment. If society is to find its way to a post-#MeToo future, parents, teachers, and community members need to build a culture of boyhood that fosters empathy, communication, caretaking, and cooperation.

from: “Today’s Masculinity Is Stiffling,” by Sarah Rich, in The Atlantic.

Reading Sarah Rich’s article in The Atlantic gave me pause and much to think about.

I never had a penchant for wearing dresses, putting on make-up, playing with dolls, or having tea-parties when I was growing up. My parents made sure I new what boys like and the kind of games they play.

In school, gym teachers and coaches made sure boys were separated from girls into groups. Boys played basketball, baseball, or football; girls played volleyball and skipped rope. The two groups rarely, if ever, mixed or played together. Dodgeball on a rainy day was the exception; then it would be boys playing against girls.

Gender assignation was the norm and any deviation from it prompted ridicule and bullying from fellow classmates; teachers and advisors made “concerned” calls to parents so they would remedy the situation; if any resistance was met by the child, he or she was assigned a therapist or counselor who tried to “fix” the undesired or socially unaccepted behavior.

I was told from an early age that boys are not pretty, sensitive, artsy, gentle, or quiet. I was made to play with other boys and told scraped knees were a badge of courage. My parents didn’t buy me G.I. Joes or action figures. Those were for girls to play with Barbie dolls. Boys played ball and King of the Hill. They rode bicycles and raced each other. They killed toads and threw rocks into ponds. Boys never cried, and they certainly did not spin around in their rooms pretending to be Wonder Woman.

Today, psychologist and therapists are telling us that such practices are not conducive to raising healthy adult males who are capable of understanding and managing their emotions. Psychologists point out that the recent surge in violence, assaults by gun fire, and the rising rate of suicide among young men and adolescents is caused, in part, by the way they are raised and taught to handle their emotions. Adolescent boys are taught that they should not display positive emotions; they are encouraged to display only certain “manly” actions and to do otherwise indicates weakness. This, we are told now, leads to depression, anger, and confusion and the only outlet for such emotions is violence against oneself or society at large. One only has to look at the recent increase in high school shootings across the nation, all done by adolescent males, to pause and think about what we’re telling boys what they should be and how they should act. This kind of behavior is now being referred to as “toxic masculinity,” and the warnings from mental-health professionals should be heeded and properly addressed if we’re to have a generation of men who are capable of being strong, yet caring individuals.

tumblr_o5qen9BcTT1rw59xto1_1280.jpgAs far as I can tell, the typically accepted gender assignation never applied to me. I never wanted to dress up, wear make up, or play with dolls. Yet, I’m gay. I did want to play volleyball in school, not because I wanted to be a girl, but because it was fun and I was good at it. I can’t catch a ball for my life, but I can certainly spike one over the net. I don’t have a taste for killing frogs or torturing animals, but I certainly admire men who made a living creating and making things better for the world. I enjoy the company of gentlemen, and love addressing men as such. I tell my brother in-law he smells “pretty” whenever he wears his favorite cologne and he doesn’t mind when I do. These are aspirations and behavior I leaned over time by following the example of men no one told me about when I was growing up. I had to go find and search for them the way I had to go in search of my tribe.

Growing up, I wished I had someone tell me I was okay, perfect, as I am. That crying was an acceptable way of expressing grief and sorrow; that creativity and imagination, together, were the best antidote to solving any problem; that reading and quiet time were perfect ways to unwind and wonder about the world I live in; and that it’s okay to be and feel affectionate toward another man because deep down inside all we want is to be loved and accepted for who we are.

Last year, a friend sent me an illustration he found on the web. The drawing shows a boy being all the things boys are told not to be. When I first saw it, I found it to be so anti-anything-I-was-told was right and good for boys I thought of it as heretical. This, right away, made me like it. I read each entry carefully ticking off the activities I’ve always embraced and thought proper for any boy or well-adjusted individual. I averaged 9 out of 9, and thought about a few more that were not included in the sketch. I printed the illustration on a notecard and now have it taped to the wall by my desk.

If only we could teach boys from an early age that being gentle, kind, compassionate, artsy, and pretty are good things, I think we’d have a better world to live in, and a society of well adjusted men that grow up to be caring and healthy individuals.

Boys can be.png

Pose-key-art-3.jpgThis week, I began watching FX’s new show Pose, and found it riveting. The show is set in 1980s New York City and centers on the underground LGBT subculture known as “ball” culture where men and women don extravagant costumes and compete for trophies and prizes. The show shines with a soundtrack that takes me back to my days in high school and college; it does not recoil from showing the harsh circumstances these folk faced: AIDS, discrimination, and ridicule.

In this past Sunday’s episode, Blanca, the mother for the House of Elektra, is forcibly removed from a gay bar that caters to gay “men” only. Blanca and her trans friend are harassed by the clientele verbally and physically until Blanca is arrested by the police. The episode centers on having “access” to different situations, and it clearly shows how limited access is given to transgender men and women – or anyone who defies the “norm,” no matter whose norm it is.

The show is not shy about making a point about who is more honest about their sexuality and the place they have in society. In a beautiful scene between Stan, a “straight” businessman played by Evan Peters, and trans-woman Angel, played by Indya Moore, Angel asks Stan why he wants to see her. Stan delivers what, to me, has been the best line in the show: “I’m no one. I want what I’m supposed to want, I wear what I’m supposed to wear, and I work where I’m supposed to work. I stand for nothing … I can buy things I can’t afford, which means they’re not really mine … I accumulate. I’m a brand, a middle-class white guy. But you are who you are, even though the price you pay is being disinvited from the world.” He he ends by saying that he needs that in his life to keep going.

The scene is a stark reminder that we often miss, what really matters, and the people we discard in our life because we ignore our better judgement and follow what society tells us is right and wrong. The scene is also a beautiful illustration of what Sarah Rich advocates for in her article. She writes: “What I want for [my son], and for all boys, is for the process of becoming men to be expansive, not reductive.” Looking back at my childhood, I wish I had more options and opportunities to explore what masculinity and being a man is and avoid years of feeling shame for who I am.