As a gay man, sometimes I feel unsure of, and insecure about, my place in this world. A fact I have discussed many times within the pages of this blog. In so many ways I am still finding my footing in this life. I am still figuring out where I fit. Where I best belong. Who I want to be. What kind of man I am. What does it mean to be a man in the first place?
Though I am getting better at it, I am still in the habit of spending too much time comparing myself to other men. In the past, the differences I have seen between them and myself have led me to question my masculine identity. I never recognized John Wayne’s ever present calm in myself, and I never saw Marlon Brando’s handsome and stern composure reflected back at me in the mirror. Are such discrepancies reasons to feel shame?
In today’s post I am turning my search inward to explore my struggle with a seemingly simple question, “What does it mean to be a man?”
As a child, I suppose I began to create an image of a man from the steadfast and know-it-all fathers, cowboys, detectives and superheroes I saw on TV. These men were always calm, strong, and confident right down to their physical stance. But they were also caring and affectionate towards their wives, children and mothers. They were compassionate, but not soft. When they smiled, or laughed, it was for good reason.
Men were pillars. They held the rest of us up with their broad chest pushed out and their fists clenched. They were always prepared for a fight if necessary. If these men had any personal doubts they handled them internally and the worry was hardly ever shown on their face. Perhaps most importantly, they seemed to feel no fear. Almost nothing rattled them. Stress was not a word in their vocabulary.
Having never felt much like a calm pillar of strength or a confident presence devoid of worry, I always seemed to miss these marks. My history of anxiety and fear related to my imperfect past and my uncertain future rattle me on a regular basis. Stress is a part of my daily reality and I frequently appear to be coming unglued. As a result, I’ve never found my demeanor to be one which other men should envy.
Is it just me, or are the handsome, confident, well-built men always good at sports? As a child, I was always running away from situations that placed me in athletic environments. I never relieved stress by shooting hoops, or by calling up the guys to play touch football out back. I never felt comfortable in these environments, and worse yet they filled me with fear of looking stupid or inadequate. Sports and me always felt wrong. My mother’s compassion and hugs were always more inviting to me then a basketball coach screaming at me for not dribbling well or not scoring enough points at practice.
I never understood other boys’ competitive natures when it came to sports. Why did they always feel that they had sometime to prove? Where did their obsession with declaring themself the strongest boy come from? I never felt the need to push myself to earn these silly status points.
Though sports never interested me, my avoidance of them always seemed to leave a feeling of inadequacy within me. I barely know how to throw a football and others judge me for it. People, even my close friends, find my lack of sports trivia knowledge hilarious. They tease me about this ignorance and at times I can hear in their voices that they find lack of sports knowledge as tiresome as it is odd. It makes me less of someone they can relate to. Less of a regular guy. Does not knowing how to pronounce the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback’s last name really make me less of a man?
I pledged to a fraternity in college. Talk about being surrounded by men and huge levels of testosterone. Most of my fraternity brothers were water polo players, swimmers, lacrosse players or simply huge lovers of weight lifting. I was intimidated by pretty much every one of them upon our first meeting. Eventually, I felt cooler being friends with so many “guys’ guys”. I felt manlier by association.
Even though I started coming out to friends long after college had ended, I was literally terrified to tell my fraternity brothers that I was gay. I felt that admitting I was gay, and therefore engaged in anal sex with another man, would by this very definition force them to view me as less masculine. I feared that they would suddenly feel uncomfortable around me and be fearful that I would always be checking them out and waiting to flirt with them. I was convinced that their rejection would crush me.
Turns out I did not give my fraternity brothers enough credit. Most of them were so unaffected by my being gay that the conversation about it was borderline boring. If their reaction was at all emotional it was because they were being congratulatory and supportive. Since they are my manly, masculine friends, even now that they know I am gay, does that make me more of a man?
Male superheroes like Superman are some of the cornerstone ideals of enviable masculine power. It doesn’t get much more manly than Superman. And look at the things that make him a man: his body, his voice, his saving women from burning buildings, and his girlfriend Lois Lane.
All our super masculine male role models have them; their beautiful leading ladies. James Bond had all his Bond girls. Clark Gable had that amazing kiss with Vivien Leigh. Indiana Jones got every woman he every saved with his leather whip. Even Rocky’s victory meant more when he also rescued the cripplingly shy Adrian with his love.
We all love the image of a handsome man saving a beautiful woman, his chiseled jaw smiling down at her as he leads her to safety. But there is more to the equation than just that. These women are all perfect matches for their men. They are the perfect feminine counterparts to the men’s enviable masculinity. Any man who is worth his salt has a woman to rescue. These women’s love makes the man more of a man, right?
Well, Gentle Reader, my face frequently registers a look of worry across it, I’m more awkward than athletic, and I have no interest in rescuing a woman from any burning building. In fact, since I am gay, many of my most eccentric fantasies have a sexy, masculine man rescuing me. Despite these things, I assure you I am a man.
For better or worse, the concept of ‘what it means to be a man’ is a constantly evolving phenomenon in our society. Professional athletes are now gay, comic books are beginning to include physically strong, LGBT characters, and television fathers are starting to kiss other men goodnight at the end of their difficult work days. Nowadays, one man’s love, plus another man’s love, can equal a masculine man in the same way that a man’s love, plus a woman’s love, always has.
In the world of film, Sean Connery displayed a very different James Bond than Daniel Craig, just as Christopher Reeve fulfilled a different image of Superman than Henry Cavill. In our modern adaptations, both James Bond and Superman do not instantly appear to know all the answers for solving the problems they are presented with. Sometimes their foreheads even wrinkle with worry and their faces frown from uncertainty. Imperfection in a man is becoming as admirable as perfection once was.
I suppose that if vulnerability and mistakes can be a reality for even our strongest of heroes and male role models, than I can begin to accept myself for my personal and modern day version of “Adam masculinity”. Perhaps I can take all of my above listed questions and become my own, valid answer for each. Perhaps I can simply be the kind of man I am, and one day that will be enough for me.