I’m going to tell you a secret.
Since I was young, maybe 8 or 10 years old, I’ve never had a male role model.
To be clear, I did grow up with a father. My parents never split, and while they had their issues – I wondered at times if they should have divorced – for the most part I grew up in a stable environment. I disagreed with my dad (and still do) on plenty of things, but generally we get along and have made our peace on most of the details. Of course, I would do it differently if I had children…perhaps that’s a fairly standard response considering the generational gap (I’m 29, my dad is 72).
But, when I think about men I admired growing up there is an empty space.
Searching for role models
My dad taught me some important things, like the value of hard work & attention to detail, and honesty to a fault. I use those every day, and am grateful. In fact, I wrote an essay in high school about my dad’s blue collar ethic and what I considered to be his everyday heroism, but even then I recognized it was an abstract admiration. I certainly respected and loved my dad but I didn’t want to be anything like him.
So from a young age I went looking for other role models.
At 9 years old I dreamed of being like Michael Jordan and loved watching him compete, but it was hard to escape the fact that he was often arrogant, and at times unkind to others, in pursuit of excellence.
At 12 years old I read On the Road and wished I could be like Kerouac, knowing I could never write so gracefully and intensely about what it meant to be a man, wild and tough and free.
At 15 years old I wanted to work in public service/government in a leadership role, but my passion for great ideas was pushed aside by uneasiness over what seemed like a requirement to play the game, be tough, and take part in a tradition of exercising male virility in American politics.
At 20 years old I dabbled in the usual confusion over college relationships, unsure of what was a date or a hookup and trying to be a gentleman even though most of my education in that area consisted of books like Great Expectations and a high school romance that was bonded more by chemistry than any sort of intellectual or spiritual connection.
At 26 years old I married my college sweetheart because I had an idea in my head about white picket fences, true love, and the responsibilities of manhood, despite some obvious issues that destined the marriage to end quickly.
All of these moments, and others, had a quality of uncertainty. Some of it was simply about growing up, and the inevitability of leaving behind a path littered with versions of who you used to be.
But there was a deeper thread too, a voice within that asked is this how a man is supposed to be?
“Real Men” are [ ___ ]
If you’re a man, gay, straight, or anything else, you’ve heard the same phrases over and over:
Be a Man. | Toughen Up. | Take What You Want. | Don’t Show Your Emotions.
These are just a few of the standard expectations that come with manhood. There are less obvious but still troubling ones, too, like “real men always protect their families” or “women aren’t as good at making decisions in high pressure business situations so men have to be.”
I hear even men and women I normally respect using variations on these ideas, or making statements based on personal recollection that aren’t supported by research. And yes, I am one of those annoying people who demands more than personal recollections followed by “all Men are X” or “all women are Y.”
This type of carelessness breeds contempt, and allows people to shape and craft culture without responsibility. It also highlights an unfortunate truth:
Just like women and girls, men and boys are constantly held to an ideal that isn’t fair, or even possible.
I’m not the only man I know who doesn’t really know how I’m supposed to be. Even friends who are gay and/or on the margins and already thinking more radically express the same frustration. We simply aren’t being represented. Our fathers and public figures (actors, politicians, etc…) are nothing like us. And I say that with great love for my dad, who does care about me even if he doesn’t often understand where I’m coming from.
I’m also fortunate to have had a feminist mom, who was quietly more radical than the vast majority of women I’ve met. It was less about what she said and more about what she did, refused to set boundaries for her children, that shaped my life and gave me the opportunity to be where and who I am now.
Personally, I’m not a feminist, though I support the foundations of feminism. By that I mean the core idea that each person should be free to choose who they are, and the people and things and concepts they want to be part of their life. I believe that to be true whether you are a man, woman, trans/intersex, in transition, gay, straight, bisexual, questioning, asexual, or any other variation of human. We all have a responsibility to raise each other up.
Because I didn’t have a male role model I spent many years confused about what a man is supposed to be, and ultimately it led to my wearing a mask that forced me to be something or someone that I am not.
It’s a mask I would argue most men I know have been forced to wear. I’ve said more than a few times on this blog that gender parity and other justice movements aren’t a zero sum game, meaning that for women and other marginalized groups to be raised up doesn’t require an “opposite” group to be held down.
I’ll say it again: We all have a responsibility to raise each other up.
Learning to live without boundaries
Finally, I want to tell you a story.
It’s a story about another secret that I’ve known for a long time, and a much harder one to share because I am unsure of the reaction I will get. I think it will be supported by some, not by others, and probably make a few people uncomfortable who won’t say anything about it at all.
A couple of weeks ago I attended my first Pride Weekend here in San Francisco, and went to a bunch of events. I’ve been working here for about 3 months, and while I like the city I didn’t truly understand how special a place it was until then.
At Delores Park I was moved by Dykes on Bikes. I have friends who are gay, straight, black, white, “weird” and “normal,” but I’d never seen so many people of all colors, shapes, and ages. There was something tremendous about seeing a black woman and her partner, both in their mid-40s and riding together that made me think about how they got here, and what they had to do to simply be who they are. Needless to say, even though I’m pretty cynical about the value of the institution of marriage itself, I support marriage equality 100%.
I also went to the march/parade on Sunday and was equally moved by the variety in humans, all there to celebrate the idea that you can and should be whoever you want to be. Afterwards, I ended up dancing at the side stage on Larkin & McAlister.
One thing that I don’t talk about much is that, along with being obsessed with music, I love to dance. I’m most comfortable in a small basement headbanging to some gritty rocanroll with punk kids or stomping my feet to old soul or R&B in someone’s living room. On this occasion, however, I committed to electronic music and dancing with a crowd full of ecstatic kids. Looking up, I noticed a guy on stage grinning widely, and our eyes met. He was slender but muscular, with a slight mustache, and had that mischievous look in his eye that I always appreciate in another human. He came out into the crowd a little later, and we talked for a few minutes, and, after a moment of hesitation I gave him my number.
I’ve always known I was different. I tend to fit in well and get along wherever I go, identify as masculine, and am generally pretty “dude.” I’ve had a few fairly limited experiences with men when I was younger that I didn’t quite know how to categorize. It’s pretty clear to me that I am not gay, and bi-sexual isn’t really a good fit either. I talked with a good friend and she correctly identified that the closest label would be “Queer” because while I am attracted mostly to women (the range of women I find attractive is much bigger than that of men, when talking about physical attributes), the defining factor in what I find attractive is passion for life, and the desire to commit to ideas and experiences 100%.
But for the first time in my life, in that moment, I had that feeling that you get when you realize the world is much bigger than you are, and that you can be whoever you are, wherever you want to.
This is much more personal than I normally get, even with close friends, not to mention on the web, where once something is out there it exists forever. So writing and sharing this wasn’t an easy decision. But I also believe that where the most change happens is in modeling. This is my attempt to do that, and while I’m not sure what reactions I might encounter, the decision feels right.
What boundaries are you breaking down in your life?