What does it mean to "be a man"?
That question has been punted around most likely since the beginning of civilization.
In my experience, with a changing culture our definitions of masculinity have become more varied and hotly debated.
What I have also experienced is that what people's expectations of me and their views of me when it came to my masculinity were both damaging and oppressive.
Overall what it means to "be a man" is something that depending on a wide-range of factors looks drastically different considering where you are, where you come from, how old you are and what era you were raised in.
I at first knew that no matter what I wrote here when it came to perceptions of masculinity it was going to get varied and mixed responses. Some are going to see this piece and say, "Yep, thank you for saying this" all the way to "Go to hell you <insert expletive here>!"
Why? Because what does it mean to "be a man" in the first place? What are we going to work off of when it comes to forming a definition. It depends on what you are moved to work off with in the first place.
For me, I largely gather my definition of masculinity from the Scriptures. Even then, my personality dictates heavily on how I feel and act as a man. Meaning, though the Scriptures paint a picture of what a man looks like (kind of, not really, it's different depending on where you read), I don't reflect all of those pre-conceived notions.
My inspiration in writing this comes from an experience I had recently at work. At my current place of employment I had a new "boss" come into our company. She admitted to me a week after she started working there that she thought I was gay and asked me if I was gay. My initial reaction was shock, because of the inappropriateness of the question and with the sincerity she asked. She was convinced I was gay, and her definition of masculinity was one of a straight man. So if I was gay it would confirm her suspicions of me as a man who is not very masculine. I told her directly that I was not gay, I was straight. She looked at me with shock. She said, "There's no way. I have "gaydar"... great "gaydar." I told her that it was broken then because I know I am straight, I am married to a woman and she is pregnant with our child. She looked at me with wonder and slight disgust. I asked her why she thought I was gay and why she thought she had the right to ask that question. She simply stated: "I thought you were gay because you seem really nice... and kind."
Really, that's your standard for determining the sexuality (not gender mind you) of a person? Whether they are nice or not?
All I could respond with was shock, and I walked away... saying nothing.
Has she ever apologized for this? No. We've now been working several months together.
Later on I found out that she was talking to the entire staff at my work about me: about how shocked she was that I was straight and not gay. She claims, and I've heard from some, that almost everyone thought I was gay and that they are surprised. Now granted I work with a heavily majority female workforce who are all baby boomer generation age. These women think they know much but they don't when it comes to how to handle LGBTQ+ conversations, perceptions, and realities. What is most sad is that in this entire workforce of mine not one person decided to stop this conversation in the first place and secondly no one decided to push back against the narrative of what straight vs gay is and what masculinity is.
I suspect it's because no one knows how to.
While this is anecdotal, this sheds light on a major problem: we don't have a clue on what masculinity is or how to define it.
I'll break it down in the simplest terms: if you are a man, you are masculine (you just are, even though masculinity is separate from biological sex/gender).
If you are a man, you have masculinity. But also if you are a woman, you might have masculinity as well. That is because masculinity is separate from biological sex/gender.
Masculinity is a set of behaviors or attributes related to the male species. Men and women can exhibit these traits. Also men and women can exhibit feminine traits as well. I should also mention that not only is masculinity separate and distinct from biological sex/gender, it is also distinct from one's sexuality (straight, gay, etc.).
Masculinity is no more than a social construct to distinguish the sexes. It is used to determine how males and females will be treated and what expectations of the sexes are. It is not meant to be used to oppress, discriminate, or otherwise subjugate one sex or the other in any way, shape, or form.
But it has been used for these derisive goals for centuries.
Masculine norms, as described in Ronald F. Levant's Masculinity Reconstructed, are "avoidance of femininity; restricted emotions; sex disconnected from intimacy; pursuit of achievement and status; self-reliance; strength and aggression, and homophobia". These norms reinforce gender roles by associating attributes and characteristics with one gender.*
On the one hand I totally get that we have to have definitions for things, we really can't live in a completely relative existence with one another. On the other hand it is said best here when these norms reinforce stereotypes and therefore can cause massive societal issues and problems.
If I look at this definition for myself, I don't meet all of these characteristics, which would automatically push me away from masculine and toward feminine. This is problematic, for what really makes a man? I mean if we want the male species to be gynophobic, unfeeling, animalistic, aggressive, and homophobic; what are gaining here? What truly makes this a good path to go down for our male children and grandchildren?
This is not the type of masculinity we should want as a society. We want and need men that while they can be strong, they also can be meek. While they can be distinctly male, they can love females and treat them with respect. While they can master their emotional state, they are not be afraid to express their emotions as well. While they can enjoy the physical act of sex, they can also connect with their lover in a deeper, more meaningful way. While they can be self-reliant, they can also look to others for wisdom and help. While they can pursue success, they can also embrace failure. While they can be strong, they don't have to be a bully. And while they can embrace their heterosexuality, they can also respect the LBGTQ+ community: because we are all human and deserve love and respect.
Let us reframe what it means to be masculine: so we can see the next generation of men learn how to be a more complete and better man, and more importantly, a more complete and better human.
Publisher’s Note: originally published January 3, 2018