Toxic Masculinity and Racism Challenged by Men Meet Matt
Toxic Masculinity and Racism Challenged by Men Meet Matt
© 2018 Sherryl N Weston MA, MSW, LCSW (pending in CA)
It is a pleasure to provide Chapter 5 of this series, featuring Matt, another man of color who provide still another perspective on the cultural challenges related to factors related to toxic masculinity. Through his story we have another example of the way sexual orientation can play a role in how the male role is influenced, adopted, adjusted to and managed. With a clue about his spiritual orientation, we get a peek at how religion can play a constructive role, and not only a narrowly binding one. We also see the application of a radically inclusive feminist orientation to gender roles and equality.
SW: In what years were you born/raised? Where are you from and what/who were the strongest influences on your male identity? Ethnicity?
MF: I was born in the West Denver suburbs in 1988. I graduated from Green Mountain High School in Lakewood in 2006, during George W. Bush's second term, at the advent of the smartphone and amid the early days of social media. I was born to a white man, the son of a small-town doctor and his nurse in upstate New York (from whom I inherited a sense of Italian pride) and a Chicana mother, whose ancestry hails from the American Southwest to times before the United States assumed dominion of the region (quite possibly back to 16th and 17th Century Spanish exploration). Their lives painted a striking contrast in the mythos of my childhood: while my teenage father was being escorted by police safely to his home after being pulled over driving drunk, my mother was stealing bikes and selling them for drug money.
I am a gay-identified cisgender man. For the sake of perspective on my early development, I was fully and undoubtedly aware of my sexuality at the age of ten. My sexual identity means there are aspects of my early conceptions of masculinity which are less traditional/more liberated, and also more rigidly conventional than many men…
I never felt compelled to be a manly man. I was not athletically inclined. I found sports and conventional masculinity brutish and easily trumped by intellect and sophistication. At the same time, I prided myself as being a gay man who generally "passed" for straight, and very much viewed myself as more normal, more relatable and therefore, better, than effeminate gay men.
SW: Can you identify when you began to realize what was considered “too girly” or “weak?” Give one personal example.
MF: In response, I offer a sampling of poignant, formative memories. In elementary, all the girls had heavily photoshopped Lisa Frank school supplies, pink bookcovers and fluffy pens, while the boys all had licensed sports team, shark, dinosaur or pro wrestling merchandise. I never felt like I had room for my own identity between the two. As a kid I wanted to be a chef, and I loved watching Emeril LeGasse cooking on television. My grandmother told me she hated the show and refused to watch with me because he was too "flakey". I had no idea what that meant until I excitedly told my mother, at 11, that I loved the colors blue and white together, calling the combination stunning. She frowned and told me not to use that word because it too was "flakey". As an aside, I still fail to understand why Queer men are apparently likened to well-made pastries, but I digress. Reading a news article (later debunked when it became obvious that fragile masculinity and homophobia had compromised the methodology) about computers being able to recognize gay men by facial structure, my mother looked at the synthesized images and said, "I mean, he kind of looks like a fag." Watching early television depictions in the late '90s of gay men, camp and neutered, intended as comic foils, my mother remarked that she didn't understand why gay men act "like women". As far as she was concerned, if you want a woman, get a woman.
SW: What do you think would be the best strategy for a father to influence his son to NOT follow the gender double standards and “notch on the belt/ conquer, then brag” sexual games that boys & men play?
I don't know that this conception of women was an overt presence in my youth. I was a Mama's Boy and was never close enough to my dad to get the ceremonial pat on the back for sexually conquering a young lady, nor did the opportunity for such congratulations ever arise. I suspect my brother received such an education when I wasn't present. In my case, there was a palpable and uncomfortable disconnect between my father and I, as if we lived in different worlds, between which neither of us could relate. As a result, I'm not intimately familiar with this social institution.
I do, however, think it's crucial we support our boys in their passions. As a 29-year-old gay man, I'm grateful for the half of my life I have spent in Queer world and the perspective it has offered. I often tell people who routinely pry about my gender and my sexuality that gender is a realm of infinite variation. Even the term "spectrum" I find problematic because it implies a binary grounded in traditional gender roles. I like watching football, fixing cars, building things, shopping at the hardware store, shopping for clothes, singing, fashion, cooking, sex, philosophy and a million other things. I care a lot less what people think about me or how it affects my image than about how much I enjoy all these things. How incredible would it be if we raised our children, especially our boys, to shamelessly embrace their passions and take pride in their strengths? What if we taught them to take more pride in what they can create than in whom they can dominate?
SW: How comfortable are you with the way our society currently handles sexuality and expectations of cis-gender boys to men?
MF: Profoundly uncomfortable. Fragile masculinity is (or should be, anyway) painfully visible to gay men, because one of its definitive hallmarks is the widespread assumption that there is an ideal masculinity, to which all men should aspire. Any deviation from this path towards ideal masculinity is a dangerous heresy, and it predicts a further departure into deviance. The parallel to contemporary Christian conceptions of sin and righteousness (e.g. the "straight and narrow path") is inescapable. I cannot tell you how many straight men have propositioned me sexually for no other reason than they had not had sex with a woman in a long time and were therefore wondering if they might be gay. How screwed up is that?
To turn this toward the topic at hand, it seems reasonable to conjecture that for every straight man that has approached me for sex in a confused dry spell, there is another who instead attempted to reaffirm their hetero-masculine identity by sexually objectifying and using a woman to "reset" their ever-looming count of days since their last vaginal penetration.
A recent trend in the popular culture has been to demean and derive humor from the LGBTQQIAA* push to recognize non-binary, individual gender identities by claiming genders such as "attack helicopter", but I imagine a world where men are men because they identify as men, women are women because they see themselves as women, and any other number of labels are valid, and no one needs to use another person's body to affirm their chosen identity. It should be good enough to say "I'm a man." I don't need to check your resume.
SW: As the numerous accusers of sexual misconduct against male entertainment industry and political leaders come forward, how do you feel as a man? Do you feel any personal connection to what caused this environment and therefore somehow shamed? How common has such male attitude been in circles you have had experience in?
MF: In a word, yes. I think that we are all personally connected to this crisis, because we are products and enablers of fragile masculinity and sexist social order. I mean, in no way, to downplay or minimize the seriousness of the stories surfacing daily about men sexually harassing and assaulting women. Yet, I also think that we cannot come any closer to justice solely by going after individual men, simply because we will never reach the end of the stories. I truly believe every man in this society is guilty of some sort of sexual misconduct, from showing persistent, unwanted affection to pressuring a partner into sex to violating a partner's trust by bragging about sexual exploits or slut-shaming. The problem runs far too deep to solve with a witch hunt. We need to fix our men. We need to teach our boys about consent, bodily autonomy and gender equality.
SW: If you were “the power in charge” and resources were no object, what will be the most effective action at this juncture, in terms of prevention and in holding other men accountable?
MF: Call up a woman and make her the "power in charge."
The problem of sexism will never be solved by a man holding power on behalf of women. To answer the question in a more personal way, I would say that we need to seriously invest more energy into sexual education, to start. Even in areas where sex ed is available (or even mandatory), we have so far been content to teach young people about pregnancy, sexually-transmitted infections and contraception. The prevalence of sexual misconduct which is being made apparent by movements like #metoo should demonstrate that this is simply not sufficient. Programs such as the UUA/UCC** Our Whole Lives curriculum go beyond putting condoms on fruit. [referring to a practice of teaching proper condom use in a class, by using a banana SW] They start at a very young age, teaching children about bodily autonomy and consent. They talk about the emotions and feelings involved in sexual relationships, as well as healthy ways to relate to partners as empowered individuals. We need this.
Holding men accountable is a challenge, but we have some excellent models to look to in women's culture. Up to now, we've put the onus on women to prevent sexual misconduct. Men need to take a leaf out of women's books. Visit your local nightclub and look around. Women are repeatedly making excuses to get one another out of uncomfortable situations with men, while men are playing "wingman" for one another, trying to distract and isolate women so they can be chatted up and taken home. What if we started doing a little more protecting and a little less targeting? Everyone wants to help their bro "get laid", but don't men also have an arguably greater responsibility to look out for the safety and well-being of the women involved, too?
SW: What is your personal strategy in presenting yourself as a feminist man? (Toward women and men) What are any disadvantages? How acceptable do you perceive yourself to be as an ally to women?
MF: As a gay man of color, this is largely a question of intersectionality. Let me give an example: Latin culture is infused with a characteristically rigid sense of traditional gender roles, and I find that I often have to switch roles from Latino to Queer when I encounter gender in Latin spheres. Living in the Queer space of men and women who defy the so-called complementarian man-woman relationship ideal, trans people and gender-nonconforming people has blessed me with a greater awareness of the mechanisms that perpetuate male dominance and gender inequality. In Latin spaces, it's easy to slip back into laughing at the jokes that reinforce the objectification of women. It's easy to find myself wrapped up in a casual conversation about what family should and shouldn't be, without realizing the sexist implications, because these things are identitative. They're a part of how we Latin people see ourselves in the world.
These are the places where it's most crucial not to be silent, however. These are the times when there is the greatest opportunity to disrupt the mechanisms of systemic inequality, and the best times to have a meaningful conversation about the problem. It's uncomfortable positioning oneself as the outsider, especially among a group marked by oppression and gathered in mutual solidarity, but intersectionality requires us to understand that the oppression of each group supports and reinforces the oppression of others.
Womanist ethicist Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes speaks of the "fantastic hegemonic imagination" which paints the canvas of narratives we use to assign meaning to the chaos of life, giving rise to a conception of society. By holding space at many levels, for many types of control and subordination across the society (hegemony), this imagination is permitted to extend between its central areas of control and infer false truths and perceptions to justify and perpetuate sexism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, ableism and so on. These structure hold space for one another in the complex of systemic inequality. I'm sure I've done a terrible job characterizing the work of Dr. Townes, but it's sufficient to say, when I speak out to dismantle sexism, I am also working toward my own liberation.
SW: What specific issues do you feel the most pressure to improve on in your own self-development, relative to these questions? Where are your discomforts?
MF: I need to treat men better! I'm guilty, as the product of the same sexist society, of sexually objectifying men, because I was socialized to sexually objectify people I'm attracted to. Just because I'm not guilty of sexually harassing women doesn't mean I'm not helping perpetuate sexism. By failing to end the inherited pattern of dehumanization, I am continuing to reinforce the mechanisms by which women are dehumanized and objectified. By perpetuating the stereotype that gay men are sexually motivated and sexually fixated, I perpetuate negative assumptions which are passed back onto women, due to the cultural proximity assigned to women and gay men by fragile masculinity.
Of course, an even simpler answer is "Listen to women!" It's easy to forget my male privilege in the Queerness that envelops it, but I'm still a man! I still catch myself interrupting women for no rational reason. I still find that I picture certain professions as male, and only realize I've done so when I'm surprised to shake hands with a woman. Sometimes, it's good to shut up and listen.
SW: What’s your personal strategy going forward?
MF: Listen and learn. I can't be an expert in women's struggle, but I hope to be able to claim I'm an expert in why and how I'm part of the problem. Disrupting systems of inequality, from the perspective of the privileged class, is equal parts knowledge and courage. Knowledge gives you the tools to make a difference. Courage challenges you to use them. It's terrifying to tear down a pillar you're standing atop, but it helps to remind yourself you really shouldn't be there in the first place.
*The following definitions are to be credited to Urban Dictionary [sw-clarification]
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies and Pansexual.
Lesbian - Women that are only attracted to women. Gay - Men that are only attracted to men. Gay can also be used to describe homosexual men and women. Bisexual - A person that is attracted to both sexes. Transgendered - A person that has/is transitioning to the opposite sex, as they were born as the wrong sex/in the wrong body. (Female to male. Male to female). Queer - A person that does not want to label themselves as, e.g. Lesbian, so they call themselves queer instead. Questioning - Someone that is questioning their sexual orientation, unsure which gender/s they are attracted to. Intersex - [sw-what has previously been called] A hermaphrodite. [sw-meaning one born with some combination of the genital attributes of both female and male] Asexual - A person that isn't sexually attracted to either gender. Allies - A straight person that supports the LGBT(QQIAAP) community. Pansexual - A person that is attracted to a person because of their personality. They do not care what gender they date, they care about what is on the inside. All of these make up LGBTQQIAAP.
by MewJadz March 15, 2011
**UUA/UCC = The liberal Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ denominations, which co-sponsored the inclusive sexuality curriculum nicknamed “OWL” (Our Whole Lives)