What does it mean to be masculine in the Age of Masculinity? What does it mean to be “masculine” in the first place? These are things that my father failed to teach me. These are things that American culture has failed to define. These are things the world misconstrues as virtues and instead uses to instill fear, sell pills, and market hair replacement treatments to men whose masculinity and youth is called into question every waking moment. I’ve written about this before in a more general sense, but it doesn’t just encompass the heterosexual world. On the contrary, it’s pervasive and it exists along the entire spectrum of human sexuality and gender.

I know what masculinity isn’t:

  • violence
  • bigotry
  • misogyny
  • apathy
  • greed
  • vanity

As someone who has spent the better part of a decade trying (and failing miserably) to navigate gay culture and straight culture simultaneously, I’ve come to one real conclusion: both worlds are completely-and-utterly fucked.

The amount of intolerance and misunderstanding that a straight male has to deal with simply navigating the complexities and demands of traditional heterosexual culture is daunting enough:

  • Be the first/best in all things
  • Be the loudest
  • Be the strongest
  • Be the wisest
  • Be unyielding

Uninformed women push this agenda on men all the time, and men can be just as merciless to each other. We’re taught that masculinity has more to do with exertion of power, mastery, and influence than with cooperation. Feelings are to be avoided at all costs, anything less than total domination is unacceptable, and that any deviation from the idealized Western prescription of masculinity is attacked with swift and merciless judgement.

What’s more, homosexual society is the complete opposite side of the coin. By avoiding or otherwise not embodying the prescribed behavior model of the effeminate (some might argue emasculated) homosexual male, or by not actively rebelling against heterosexual hegemony through alcohol-fueled escapism, illicit drugs, incessant partying, or strings of sexual encounters, that the masculine gay male is guilty of committing himself to the middle-road and therefore unacceptable in the eyes of either camp.

If you think this is absurdism run amok, look at any popular gay-specific event over the last 20 years. Few, if any, of these events are truly engaging to gay men whose lives don’t match the behavior model prescribed above. I can only imagine how bisexual men feel at pride events or even how transgendered individuals begin to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that presents itself when the gay community tries to address issues of gender and sexuality. It’s maddening.

In all of this, there are few role models to look up to that are truly all-encompassing. Few embrace their sexuality publicly, and when they do it’s a watered-down and tepid comparison to the complex lives of most of the rest of the world. There are few established gay role models whose lives have been well-publicized and whose professional merits speak for themselves. While there are a tremendous number of actors, musicians, and some notable writers and politicians, the community doesn’t yet have many athletes or scientists who are widely recognized. In only really being “out” in professions not normally equated with masculinity, the gay community is still burdened by an inherent misunderstanding that by engaging in anything but heteronormative gender roles it reinforces the outsider status.  Furthermore, where does the masculine gay male belong in this complex equation?

Athleticism (and warfare by extension) has long been the province of heterosexual men whose entire purpose has been to conquer and destroy the opposition, whatever form that opposition happens to take on.  Masculine gay men bring an uncomfortable situation into stark relief when they are not hiding their sexual preferences or behavior–that of the hyper-masculine heterosexual male being forced to grapple with the concept that sexuality has no bearing on one’s capacity to perform physically or mentally in the spheres of combat and strategy.  The incorrect belief that to allow oneself to penetrate or to be penetrated by another male is to willingly emasculate oneself and to allow others to express domination over them, with the only major exception (that I am aware of in any case) being the social hierarchy present in most long-term criminal correctional facilities where the act of penetrating another male is actually a dominance display and not necessarily a direct correlation or expression of one’s sexual preference.

It could be argued that the conflation of sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression within the confines of traditional gender binaries (masculinity vs. femininity) precludes the context that each of the aforementioned concepts can provide us when taken individually.  When this context is missing from our discourse and our consideration of individuals, we fail to see the rich complexity that arises from these individual lives or even the phases that they may be entering or leaving.

What’s more, hyper-masculinity and the gender binary seem to have a strong capacity to inflict trauma and require the individual to compensate for their “otherness” or their perceived lack of masculinity by being as hyper-masculine as possible (even to the point of hyperbole).  This compensation can manifest in a number of different ways, denial being among the most common.  This denial can result in a number of different disorders and symptoms coming to the fore, but I would imagine that foremost among them might be an extreme fear of intimacy and paranoia surrounding their sexuality and their place in the world.

What remains to be seen and addressed at this point is the hegemony of the masculine-feminine binary as it exists currently.  With as much as we now know about the differences between sexuality, gender, and expression, the number of teenage suicides and the ever-swelling numbers of individuals diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD should be a tremendous wake-up call to those of us who know better and others still who feel somewhere in their hearts that there must be a better way.

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