What We Are Talking About When We Talk About Masculinity
Is it time to toss out those stale ideas of what it means to be a real man?
Posted Jul 15, 2015
We gay boys and men have struggled for forever with reconciling mainstream definitions of masculinity with how we feel inside. Ideals of masculinity have in the past been so powerfully put forth, and anything outside of those images have usually been deemed weak or weird or in some other way unacceptable.
What about straight men? Of course, not every straight man fits the old mold either and so they also have been subject the consequences of not meeting traditional definitions of masculinity. Straight guys who didn't conform were also mocked or bullied growing up, and more subtly made to feel like outsiders in adulthood.
But here we are in 2015, and the world has changed for men, gay and straight. And we gay men may have some useful experience for heterosexual men at this juncture. Not fitting in has its advantages! Knowing that there was no chance of being "like," being different became something to be done with boldness. More willing to take risks in personal style, for example, gay men often live their flair, wearing colors that other men wouldn’t get caught dead in, or taking great care to decorate our homes or lay out impressive gardens. Maybe this is a kind of masculine that has been overlooked.
We are still guys, but with a little bit more. Our primary identity is gay, and even though many of us distance ourselves from the traditional manly part of the equation, we are actually among the most daring of men. We are willing to go against what society has chosen to idealize in terms of masculinity. So here's a paradox: gay men are courageous in these ways, brave, independent, strong -- all attributes masculinity!
As gay men, we have learned the following:
- We are willing nd able to stretch beyond cultural norms
- We tend to make choices based on interests rather than role expectations
- We are not so afraid of bold self-expression
- We are who we are (when we can get out of our own way), not who others want us to be
How freeing is this?
When you really think about it, isn't true masculinity about men willing to take risks? And isn’t that exactly what we gay men have learned to do?
Therefore, a newer version of masculinity can replace the older one. Instead of the stereotypical beer drinking sexist guy, a real man is passionate about his interests, confident in his abilities, yet simultaneously, he is free to be emotional and is comfortable expressing himself.
This new sense of masculinity is important to both gay and straight men but it will take some time to for everyone to get used to it. Self-protection, difficulty expressing vulnerabilities and wanting to “fix it” rather than simply sit and listen to the woes of others can be just as hard for gay men as it is for straight guys. With over 30 years of clinical practice behind me, I can assure you that we gays are no different than straight men in our deep reflex to take action rather than to take time.
Time for change
Once we as gay men find our ease with the attributes we have already honed, we can serve as role models to other men in being able to step outside the old male box . What we have learned through our struggles can serve as an example. Expression in personal style and more open communication are two areas that can make a real difference in individual and relational life.
Isn’t it great that younger men are feeling freer? And isn’t it so that straight men are already looking to gay men as role models? Yes!
Don’t women prefer men who are more well rounded? Wouldn’t a husband or father be more effective by being attuned, aware, and sensitive to the needs of others? I can imagine women would answer these questions!
Of course, we are not off the hook as gay men. We have our dark side to overcome -- and we would do well to look at the confidence of straight men to help us with this.
For example, isn’t it wonderful that straight men tend to have great certainty about their work abilities? Isn't it impressive that they seem so able to promote themselves openly? (The habit of self-protectiveness that gay men cultivated for safety as young people often carries forward in adulthood.) I surely wish I had the confidence to put myself out there like many straight guys I know!
I have learned from my experiences with straight men that what I have to offer, as a professional, family member or even friend no longer needs to be minimized or discounted discounted because of my fears. What a relief.
The good news
As I mentioned, younger generations are less rigid about sex roles than people of my generation who grew up in the 60’s or 70’s. Nowadays, being gay doesn’t have all the baggage that it used to. And straight guys are splitting household tasks with their mates in ways never seen before, no question, no problem. Additionally, younger men are unconcerned about having gay friends. Recently a 23-year-old straight guy said this to me about having gay friends: “What is the big deal? They are regular guys and it is normal to be friends with them. It never should have been a problem in the first place.” Amen.
So there you have it. True masculinity is the ability to possess strength and sensitivity, confidence and ease with self-expression. And, it is happening! It is harder and harder to tell who is gay and who is straight. Even though some gay men grieve the loss of this designated distinction, the flip-side is that it is exciting to be able to live in the mainstream and be accepted the way we are now.
Real masculinity is feeling a sense of worthiness and belonging, and it is way better than feeling segregated and keeping private. We can co-exist with less hostility and fear. Pass the brew please!