As a man who has been involved with the fight for women’s equality for almost fifteen years, I have never felt uncomfortable calling myself a feminist or critically examining the way that our systems of patriarchy have long created oppression for women, and how they continue to do so to this day. What was not as clear to me at the time, at least not as obviously, was how masculinity, and the norms surrounding it, are just as much a social construction as those relating to femininity.
My interest in the development of masculine identities began to grow as I found myself noticing how the roles of stereotypical masculinity were being played out among men in the gay community. While often placed outside of traditional masculinity by society at large, and while often open to challenging some concepts of traditional masculine culture, gay men still grow up in a society that conveys very specific ideas about how men are supposed to act and what they are supposed to value. While some gay men may be willing to adopt characteristics that are more traditionally “feminine”, there are many other traits that all too clearly bespeak the cultural training that we all learn from a young age. Many of these, I started to believe, cause issues of conflict in both friendships and intimate relationships between men. When males are taught that they are to be more powerful than women, to be the breadwinners, and to be emotionally stoic, how does that play out when there is a relationship with two men who have similar views of power? How do we have honest conversations about sex when both partners in a relationship are taught the same monolithic view that sex is purely a physical act, all about performance, dominance and one’s own pleasure? How do we discuss relationship violence when we learn that only women are the victims of aggression and spousal abuse, and that if a man is beaten up, it is something to be ashamed of?
As I started to examine these questions more, and started critically reading things written by members of the LGBT community, I started to realize that so many of the conversations we were having were, at their roots, informed by an unexamined, hegemonic view of masculinity. While it is true that gay men have often been victims of prejudice and violence because of this dominant masculinity, many have also absorbed much of what it teaches about the proper way to “be a man.”
These early thoughts and questions began to take more form as I started reading the book Guyland by the pioneering sociologist and critical masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel. I began to see the wider ways that men are taught, encouraged and celebrated for adhering to a certain kind of masculinity, and how this happens through a process that also teaches men to accept it as entirely natural and separate from cultural ideals and values. We may understand, for example, that our system of patriarchy has relegated women to the private/domestic sphere, but how often do we think about how that same system has relegated men to a public sphere where their identity is so intertwined with their ability to make money and achieve other forms of measurable success, keeping them on a treadmill of insecurity, constantly afraid that it will all collapse? We can see that our culture has denied women the right to express anger and sexual desire, but how often do we see that this same culture has denied men the right to express anything but anger and sexual desire, causing great damage, both emotionally and physically, to both parties?
Thinking about all of these questions, and how all of us are influenced to become a certain type of man or woman (while also ignoring the spectrum that is found outside of the male/female binary), I was very excited to learn about the Rebuilding Manhood program that was launching in the fall of 2012 at UMBC. I was a participant during that inaugural semester, and I benefited enormously from taking part, learning a great deal about myself, as well as the larger culture of which I am inextricably bound. When the opportunity arose for me to work at the Women’s Center, and to participate as co-facilitator of Rebuilding Manhood for the upcoming academic year, I jumped at the chance. Not only do I feel that it is crucial for us to discuss these issues relating to masculinity and what it means to “be a man” in our society, but I also love taking part in those conversations and learning from the experiences that all the participants bring with them. I look forward to another great year of the program, and continuing to do what I can to create a culture at UMBC and beyond where we are willing to have these conversations and critically examine what it means to be a man, and how to build positive and healthy versions of masculinity.