Guest post by my one and only! My husband Matt is passionate about mental health awareness and encouraging men to live lives of vulnerability, healing, and fullness. Matt is a law enforcement officer and uses his years of experience in the profession to create a culture of empathy in his workplace and with those he comes into contact with–often those that struggle with mental health. Matt knows his own struggles with mental health intimately. That is a story for another day. For now, enjoy as Matt shares his views on true masculinity and how men can better themselves by living authentically.
A little more than a week ago, a viral video popped up of the Sevier County, Tennessee Commissioner railing against the Democratic party here in the USA. Among other things he mentioned, he lamented the fact that “a Queer is running for President” and that “a white male in this country has very few rights and they’re getting took more every day”. This statement was met with cheers and “Amen” from others in the meeting.
#MeToo and Masculinity
As we end the first twenty years of the 21st century we’ve seen a massive cultural shift in gender relations. With the #MeToo movement there was a recognition of bad behavior perpetrated by men, mostly in the workplace. Men were finally being held accountable for the systemic superiority that has permeated the culture. There’s also been a recognition of racial and ethnic disparity in our country, and a highlight of inequity that has persisted even after the Civil Rights movement of last century. In an effort to right the ship of American culture there’s been vocal outcries against men, mostly white, and we’ve collectively seen these people “cancelled” from the public eye. Men that say something unprofessional to a woman colleague are now being fired. White politicians that are found to have used blackface decades ago are now having their political careers challenged. There’s been an uprising that says: “This behavior will not be accepted anymore and it needs to stop.”
This should all be a good thing, right? Equality in the workplace, holding men accountable for what they’ve said or done to harass someone, and not allowing this bad behavior to persist should be helping men move into the 21st century, right? For many men that I’ve had encounters with regarding this subject, the attitude is one of feeling victimized by the culture instead of affirmed. Several men I’ve met in my line of work would quietly agree with the Sevier County Commissioner. Why are men feeling victimized about our culture’s insistence that all are treated equally? In my opinion, it is because the very idea of masculinity is being challenged. The way by which a man identifies as a man in still judged against a historic concept of masculinity and this hasn’t idea hasn’t evolved.
Man By Definition
In this historic idea of masculinity the worst thing a boy can be called is a girl. The second is gay, because of the femininity attached to such a label. As boys are socialized with other boys a hierarchy is established: the “best” boy is the strongest, the fastest, and the biggest. The larger boys represent everything that a boy in our culture thinks a man should be. Many boys fall victim to these leaders of the pack when their thinking or ideas don’t align with the leaders. Boys are bullied or picked on for spending more time with girls than boys. They’re picked on for any traits that could be interpreted as non-masculine: being too short, or too skinny, or having a high-pitched voice, or preferring to do activities that aren’t based on physical dominance. As boys mature into teenagers this intensifies and can lead to violence. But this time in a teen boy’s life also introduces other measuring sticks for masculinity: the conquering of women and the recognition of money relating to power. Teen girls are then approached as possible conquests instead of equals, and they’ve already been phased out of equality because they’re not boys. This entire attitude persists with varying forms of maturity and becomes more nuanced as teen boys become adults. Many of these belief systems based on the historic idea of masculinity become implicit and may improve as a man has more interaction with women in professional settings, but I think there may be lingering effects.
One of these lingering effects that I’ve noticed among young men is the use of “no homo” when mentioning something even vaguely complimentary or vulnerable to another man. I recently overheard an adult man talk about how the leaves at this time of year are gorgeous and the response from the other guy next to him was, “that’s so gay”. Even as a joke, this idea that men can’t enjoy beauty or show affection without being accused of being sexually attracted to another man and thus emasculated is very telling of the culture. The idea that a gay man is somehow not masculine is also logically perplexing. There’s no allowance for a man to be vulnerable, to display sadness, or to enjoy anything that may not be traditionally “male”. When men buy into this idea of masculinity they can then feel victimized when the very definition of what it means to be a man is changing in our culture. When a man hears that his perception of masculinity is being challenged, that man can feel like his identity is being challenged. There’s so much baggage attached to this issue and it hits to the very core of many men and who they believe themselves to be. And since self-reflection and introspection is already considered vulnerable and thus not “manly”, many men are deterred from taking inventory of what defines their identity and sense of self.
In my profession of law enforcement, this definition of the masculine identity is something that I find to be pervasive. The job can be very physical, confrontational and authoritative—all traits glorified by traditional masculinity. I found out that my employer, which is a very large and progressive community-oriented Department, is staffed by 88% of men. Only 12% of the workforce is women. Recently a Captain on my Department (four ranks higher than me) and I both stopped to help a man that was in a car accident during morning rush hour traffic. This accident was just outside of our jurisdiction and was the responsibility of that county’s Sheriff’s Department, but it was clear the deputy needed some help. My Captain and I were both in business attire so there was no way to identify our ranks. After we helped, the deputy told me, “Thanks for your help, and thank the woman too.” I jokingly told him that it had been a while since I’ve seen a Captain help direct traffic, and that the woman was my Captain. He responded in such a surprised manner and it was clear that he was shocked to see a woman in that position. There was no harm in his reaction, but I think it’s just indicative of the reality of my profession. With so few women, I think that it’s easy to work in an echo chamber of men’s voices reinforcing the stereotype of masculinity.
Don’t “Man Up”
So where does that leave us? I think that it starts with men. It starts with people like me having the courage to be vulnerable and to break those stereotypes. If there are men in positions of power and authority that can have this courage, they can begin to change what it means to be a man among the men over which they have influence. But even if you’re not a man that appears to have a lot of power, just the circle of influence you have can be affected by your courage to be your true self. Learning to allow yourself time to be introspective is a great start to discovering what makes you- you. If a man can practice introspection and can then allow themselves the courage to be vulnerable with another trusted man, the connection formed can be life-changing. Around one in five men have experienced sexual abuse. Two-thirds of gun deaths in the USA (over 30,000) are death by suicide, and 86% of those killed are men. Men have baggage and pain. Men have emotional wounds inflicted on them by people they’ve trusted. Men struggle with anxiety and depression. Men feel isolated, unloved, and unworthy of love. Men need connection and vulnerability. It’s time that we as men stop denying ourselves a meaningful and enjoyable and healthy life because we should just “man up”.
Being a man is being you in all your strengths and weaknesses and fears and joy. We have the power to go into 2020 living authentically. The most masculine thing a man can do is to be genuine.
Let’s be men.
Let’s be us.