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Leo X. Robertson

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How to be a man? (3/3)

In the last post, I tried to work out why masculinity is so difficult to talk about.

Maybe it’s no revelation at all to straight couples. It’s kind of chilling when female strangers try to use their sexuality to get something from me. I probably feel as much attraction to them as they do towards me when they say things like, “You look like a strong man, can you help me carry my suitcase up these stairs?” I don’t feel seduced, I only feel the pure manipulation of it. The concept of caring about one’s masculinity was probably as alien to her as it was to me. But, to have understood that it was important to men, and to then cynically game it like that—it’s creepy.

Moments like these that I’ve collected are the evidence I have that heterosexual couples are more aware of the masculine competition than I am. And maybe you guys are all discussing it at length behind closed doors, whereas in my house, we don’t even think about it.

To generalize, admittedly, it’s my impression that women and gay men share a depth of curiosity about how other people’s minds work.

I recently listened to a interesting episode of LBGTQ&A with Alexander Chee, where the interviewer (he’s really good!) said, “Gay people develop empathy early on because we’re not represented in most of the stories we consume. We have to constantly relate to “the other.”’

I’d never thought of it like that, but it makes perfect sense. Most times that any art explores the differences between men and women, I’ve been like, “I’m out.” (Literally lol.) It’s somehow implicit that the differences or interactions between men and women have something to do with them being attracted to one another and forming lives together. And that’s fine, and I can still take something from it, and I don’t even need a gay guy jumping around in the background saying “I’m here also!” I probably just need something else to supplement that artistic diet.

Some people are inclined to think of the mysterious motivations and desires of other people as an interesting topic of conversation. Others, like poker players, see this information as something to hoard rather than to share, so that it can be used against others as a way of getting what you want.

I’m not interested in playing games with others. I want all cards face up on the table. And if anyone starts a game, I’ve always held the belief that the easiest way to win it is not to play it at all. Sometimes you talk to people who are irritated with coworkers or friends and such, and they say things like, “She only said that because she wanted me to think she thinks…” etc, Their faces screw up like their minds already have. They’re trying to learn the shape of the board and where all the pieces are so they can make their next best move. Whereas if they just got up from the table and lived their damn life, the game inventor would be like, “This game sucks, people don’t want it, defo don’t Kickstarter this one, back to the drawing board.”

I want to know what masculinity means to men for whom it is important, and why it is so important to them. Not so I can use it against them (I can carry my own damn suitcase up the stairs!) I just want to help, or at least stop accidentally threatening it. Again: that’s never my aim, because I personally don’t care!

 

How to be a man? (2/3)

In the first of these posts, I explained how “masculinity”, whatever it means to those who care about how much of it they have or who is threatening it, doesn’t seem to matter to me at all. In this post I’ll explain why I still want to understand it.

Is it a relief or is it a shame that I have instilled in myself the belief that I am not like other men? Is the solution to dissolve the competition entirely or to make people like me feel accepted into it in future?

I really don’t know the answer to that one. As a rule of thumb, if there’s a thing people typically enjoy doing, I don’t do it. But if I then said, “The answer here is that everyone should stop doing things I personally think are dumb and participate in the things I only enjoy,” I’ve gone too far, and maybe shouldn’t even have started.

Maybe the principle is this: if people are enjoying themselves (the unrelatable joy of masculine competition), leave them to it. If we can use each other’s lives as examples of how to stop caring about things that add suffering to our lives, yes, let’s do that.  But playing someone else’s game when you don’t care about it is a waste of time, for reasons I explain later.

See the thing is, it’s not even the fault of other men that I don’t feel part of the competition. A lot of them still think I’m in it, in fact. But men so rarely talk about it, so how was I supposed to notice or even formulate, until now, my thoughts on what it is and why it doesn’t matter to me? And how were they supposed to know that there exist men who don’t care about masculinity? And how was I supposed to know what a threat to masculinity looks like and when I was making one?

Me threaten your masculinity? We really do live on different planets, mate.

It’s a weird backwards compliment if I ever get accused of trying to be more masculine than someone else. It’s a bit like someone saying, “You have a small face!” with enthusiasm. You think, “Do people actually care about face size? Interesting. I’m not going to start, but it’s nice that from their perspective, they just gave me a compliment.”

So, thus far I haven’t cared about being seen as masculine or not. But, if masculinity is something someone else respects, and thought I had it, I took the compliment.  Only so I didn’t insult them.

The insult is probably like this:

You compliment someone on their lovely eyes.

They say, “Thanks, but I never really thought that mattered.”

And you think, “But I’ve always thought my eyes were one of my loveliest features. In her world, that doesn’t matter. Does that mean she sees me without the loveliness of my eyes? I’ve relied on that so heavily that I don’t know that the rest of me is sufficient.”

I meant to end the example there, my point being, it’s mean to reject the compliment, and that’s why I haven’t rejected it so far. But what if you extend the implications of this apparent insult?

(This is where I wish I’d chosen a more substantial example than “lovely eyes”, but it’s sufficient for you to get my point anyway!)

You’d probably get the following: “Even though she has dismissed the loveliness of my eyes, perhaps there is some loveliness to me, some other quality of mine, that she values as highly as I value my eyes. Some aspect of me, currently hidden, that others appreciate, and that I can feel proud of. Just as I value eyes and she doesn’t, I’d bet she has some equivalent feature or property that she values highly—whether I ever find out what it is or not. But, I would like to know what it is, so that I can learn what matters to her and give her compliments and encouragements in the areas of her life that she cares about. And I would like to know how I fare in these previously hidden arenas. Because, perhaps those times I was beating myself up about not measuring up to my own chosen criteria, other people saw me excelling in areas I hadn’t even seen. Once I discover and reveal these previous blind spots, perhaps I will see that I was more competent than I thought. There is also the possibility that I am less competent in hidden arenas also. But the more information I have, the better I can be and the richer the life I will lead.”

A strange kind of humbling and enriching experience, then. This is the interesting challenge of hanging out with people who aren’t like us, and the benefit of talking openly about our experiences and remaining curious about one another.

That’s the apparent double bind of masculinity, then. If I were a straight man who valued my masculinity, who would I talk to about it? Other men? They’re my competition! And maybe not my girlfriend, because if she laughs at me, that’s a threat to the masculinity. Or what if she learns what I value and exploits it?

I can’t talk on the female experience of masculinity. Of course that’s not here, and it’s worth pointing out. Not only don’t I know much about masculinity myself, but a gay man writing about masculinity was never gonna pass the Bechdel test, was it?

And by the way, as always these blogs, and basically everything I do, are invitations for you to contribute, and a female perspective on masculinity is indeed missing.

What I do know is that those who are aware of the importance of masculinity can and do exploit it. I’ll give an example in the next blog post.

How to be a man? (1/3)

Seriously, I’m asking. For a friend. That friend is you.

Only on occasion do I ever hear men alluding to “what makes someone more or less of a man” or what they consider a threat to their masculinity etc. But just because I don’t hear it often, doesn’t mean it isn’t a more widespread consideration.

Quite the opposite, I’d guess. A preoccupation that is kept secret because the vulnerability of admitting it is a threat to masculinity.

In these blog posts, the type of masculinity I’m interested in isn’t one I consider “toxic.” If I have anything to comment on that at all, it’s not here. Anyway!

Masculinity isn’t something I have ever thought about. To grow up gay was, to me, to be something so outside the traditional notion of masculinity that I felt completely disqualified from the competition. Though honestly, I probably just didn’t even notice that it was going on!

Is it that I don’t care about my masculinity, or is it that I’m comfortable with it therefore I don’t notice it at all? I don’t know.

I do know that it remains common for straight men to tease each other for being gay because it implies, “I respect your masculinity, which I will show by pretending you are something less masculine: a gay.”

You hear it in their company sometimes because they assume you’re straight until proven otherwise. Again, for better or worse, that’s something I’m used to. “Why wouldn’t they assume? Most people are.”

The joke itself doesn’t really insult me. It’s like an alien language. It’s a joke amongst heterosexual men: I don’t think it’s that it necessarily insults gay men, we just don’t even compute in that specific language. The joke contains no real gay people, just imagined gay versions of people who are definitely straight. It’s not the cleverest joke, sure. It’s the “talking about sports” of jokes.

Is this what they call internalized homophobia? Maybe.

In that case, here’s an associated problem I have. I’m a weirdo. Almost everything I do say and think makes perfect sense to me, and almost everyone I meet seems like a complete weirdo to me, but they don’t seem like weirdos to each other. That makes me the weird one!

(It also means weirdos are my favourite people. When we meet each other, we sigh the relief of having carried a weight most people can’t even see. And because they never acknowledged it, we began to deny it ourselves. We were just like, “Hahaha, I’m genuinely having fun in this bar and my chest hurts for some reason!”)

That makes me think two things:

  1. I wouldn’t have it any other way but weird—but is that only because I’ve become accustomed to the way things are?
  2. When people relate to you as poorly as others relate to me and vice versa, you have to choose the boats you want to rock very carefully if you want to make a change, or they won’t consider you worth the effort at all. Again, maybe that’s unfortunate, but that’s just how I perceive it.

Just so you know what bias is at work, here, before I go on: I’m a master accepter. Come to me if you need help with accepting something, and we’ll accept the fuck out of it! The world needs many other types, but I’m good at accepting things—so I accept that too!

If you’re gay and someone has assumed you aren’t, you can wait until it arises in conversation that you are, and pay close attention to how they react. I have to say, I’ve yet to have someone who makes “haha you’re gay” jokes treat me differently. So, whether or not it’s insulting, the people I’ve met that do it didn’t mean it that way.

I was once at a party and this guy asked me and my husband how we knew each other. When we told him, I saw the look on his face and I think I was like, “We’re gonna go round the room and make sure we say hi to, uh, other people.”

I cringe when I think about that look even now because I feel bad for that guy that he had to meet us!

“Sorry for my gayness” syndrome seems very close to internalized homophobia. However, there’s no non-gay version of myself to compare myself to, but if one existed, I kinda imagine he’d find something else to feel equally bad about.

Mine was just a gay-flavoured shame void. I almost completely left it behind at 23 when I moved to London for a year. London may or may not be a homocracy, but I acted as if it was, and now whenever I meet new people I assume they’re okay with the gay unless informed otherwise. Almost everyone has been—or silently became okay with it. Whatever prejudices remain seem like background noise to me.

That’s why I think it’s so important to represent yourself honestly. It’s like passive grassroots activism: your honest existence is how you stand for what you believe in.

Anyway, wasn’t I talking about masculinity? We’ll get back to that next time when I explain why masculinity, or any property others value but that we dismiss, is still important to understand.

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