What Does it Mean to be a Man?

Man SignAs 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?”

50's sitcom fatherDoes a man’s demeanor make him 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.

Rich Froning AthleticismDoes a man’s athleticism or his competitiveness make him a man?

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?

Man and His FriendsDo a man’s masculine friends help establish him as 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?

Superman Saving Lois LaneDoes a man’s love for a woman make him 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?

James Dean the ManSo what kind of a man am I?

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.

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Me and the Perfect Male Physique

david williams rugby

The Beautiful David Williams

In this post, I would like to explore my obsession with the perfect male physique and the internal conflict that this obsession creates with how I view myself.

The truth is, I spent a significant chunk of my teenage years, and later my adult life, obsessed with the idea of the perfect male body, and thus the role it played in making a man a man. In further truth, I am still battling with this masculine image in my mind today. I have always associated muscles, athleticism, and confidence with being a man. But of course, there must be more to what makes a man than his physical body. I know I am missing other important pieces. But this constant fear of my body being inadequate, weak and not sexy always haunted me. I will admit, this fear has gotten better with age, maturity and life experience. But I still struggle with my body not being good enough, and thus fearing I am failing in my role as a man.

Even scarier, what if it is my fault that my body is not more masculine or muscular? If I wasn’t so scared of the intensity of sports, competition, and masculine roughness than maybe I could have been more athletic and come across as more calm and collected. Maybe then I would have looked and acted more like a man. 

In what felt like a side effect to all of this, the images I never felt I was living up to, the ones in my mind that were the most different from me, became the things I lusted for and desired. Football players with their silent intensity, and perfectly developed chests because erotic. I began playing ‘Where’s Waldo?’ games out in public, peeling my eyes for glimpses of the strong masculine back leading up to a pair of ripped arms extending from a sleeveless shirt, or a perfect ass reflected in cargo shorts leading down to strong muscular calves. Sweaty muscles, bulging biceps, and washboard abs became things that I would never have, but which would fill me with endless envy and obsession.  

sheridan towel man

The Sheridan Towel Man

Straight men will never understand how torturous simply going to the gym can be for a gay man. I do not mean to over dramatize, but I’ve always been nervous about staring too much. If someone noticed me staring at them I could get my ass kicked or at the very least be shunned as not ‘one of the guys’ and in fact queer. All gay men have done it, as they rest between sets, they try not to make it obvious that their eyes are longingly gazing at the sexy bodies all around them pushing their bulging muscles to their limits. And what about changing in the locker room? The anxiety mixed with excitement of catching a god like body as it undresses, or exits the shower drying off and wrapping a towel around his waist…it is exhausting just thinking about it. While viewing these male bodies is fun, it always made me feel separate from something I wished that I was. These bodies where not mine. I was never sure if I saw this same raw masculine power and sexuality in myself.

This brings us to a confusion I began to struggle with my freshman year of college. At what point does longing to be this masculine, perfect male body, turn into wanting to have sex with this masculine, perfect male body? There was a point where I honestly convinced myself that I wasn’t gay. I convinced myself that I was misinterpreting my not feeling masculine enough, my longing to physically be manlier, for an attraction to men. Maybe I was confusing this ‘something missing’, for a sexual attraction towards those I envied and wanted to be. Where is the line between these two things? Where does one begin and the other end? Or do they overlap? Does this confusion make sense? Can anyone out there relate to what I am saying?

Do I want to become the perfect male specimen or do I want to sleep with him? I am really gay right?

So where do I fit in? Where am I at with all of this today?

I wish there was a simple answer to that question. I can tell you that writing this blog, thinking these thoughts out thoroughly, helps. This post has a lot to do with my past and who I was before I came out, but, if I am being honest, the fears and questions I included here are still a smaller part of Adam in the present. It helps to bring this all out into the light.

I can tell you that coming out has made me more confident in who I am as a man. I have been in a steady workout routine for almost two years now, so though my body is far from perfect, I feel stronger and more attuned with it than I ever have. These are all positive things. I am who I am, and at the end of the day, I can tell you that I am sincerely proud of the type of man I have become and that I am continuing to become. And I can tell you that none of us should allow ourselves to be haunted and tormented by an invisible, self-constructed ideal of what it means to be anything.

So, now I realize that I am attracted to certain types of male, physical masculinity. But I am also attracted to viewing myself in a similar physically masculine body, and that is okay. I can want these things for myself and for my partner at the same time. I am still working out all of the details, but I think as long as I try to be realistic in my expectations for myself and a significant other, then this will all turn out okay. After all, any type of unobtainable and unrealistic ideal placed too high on a pedestal can be unhealthy.

The older I get, the more I can envision walking off into my ‘happily ever after sunset’ within whatever body I have and with whatever vision of masculinity I project or lay next to at night. If I really think about it, my body’s outline, beside someone I love, would look fantastic in front of a beautiful sunset, just as it is, in whatever form it happens to take. And perhaps, Gentle Reader, complete self-acceptance is the real ideal we should all be striving for.

men walking into sunset