Michael Sam’s release from the St. Louis Cardinal football team has again put the issue of an openly gay athlete in the NFL back on the front page of media attention. What I find troubling about the coverage and talking head response to the issue of a gay athlete is that we are only hearing points of view responding to the extremes of the argument.. One side, which is subject to appropriate condemnation, is the view that gay men do not belong, and absolutely should not be in the locker room, of a college or professional team. This extreme homophobic notion is undoubtedly held by some but is far from the mainstream of thought among men. Yet, anyone expressing any concern or point of view or in any way contrary to the idea of total unconditional acceptance of a gay man showering with straight men is immediately condemned as a homophobic caveman. The bottom line is that an openly gay man, by definition, might find a naked attractive man as desirable.. It doesn’t mean he will act on that desire in an inappropriate way but the straight guy next to him is aware that he might be subject to someone elses sexual fantasy. This might make him uncomfortable. Should he be condemned as a homophobe for expressing his discomfort? Logically can we not extend the argument to a straight man showering with women. If he does not act on his desire for the woman next to him why should she object? Taking this even further, I wonder why there is not a hue and cry for unisex bathrooms and locker rooms. My point is that we should be able to voice our discomfort and uncertainties about homosexuality as part of the broader conversation so that we can all better wrap our heads around the bigger issues of gender identity, sexuality and tolerance.
The first anecdote in my memoir exploring my journey as a man is now on the blog in the book section. Please read it and offer your feedback. If you have a similar anecdote from early childhood I would love to read it and share it with the blog readers.
I wanted to wait a few weeks to talk about depression and men because I knew the topic would no longer be highlighted by the Robin Williams suicide. However, depression among men with its strong link to suicide is too important an issue to let the conversation end. Frankly, men suck at confronting mental health issues. Apparently many men still cling to the old man code exemplified by the John Wayne approach to dealing with problems. Suck it up and go at it alone. That is how real men are supposed to deal with problems. It is especially disheartening to see that when it comes to dealing with mental health issues even younger men raised in the feminist era still cling to the misguided beliefs of the old man code. The alarming suicide rates among active military further illustrates the issue. The misguided belief is that expressing vulnerabilities indicates weakness and needs to be hidden. Even more destructive is the linkage between being vulnerable and feeling ashamed of these feelings. Shame is such a negative emotion for men that we will engage in denial or self destructive behaviors to avoid experiencing shame. One way men can free themselves is to become involved in a men’s support/discussion group. In a group setting men learn to share their vulnerabilities without being shamed. Just knowing that whatever dark thoughts you are experiencing is not unique to you but is shared by other men is a great relief. The ability to share both the negative and positives of one’s life journey in the presences of other men helps to liberate a man from the toxic belief that needing help is not manly
Several writers on masculinity have alluded to the concept of a Man Code. Essentially defined as how the mixture of testosterone driven characteristics and societal norms are translated into set of beliefs/principles on how a man should behave and feel good about being a man. It is a strange mixture because one ingredient -Y chromosome generated testosterone – has remained the same over time but social norms about manliness have changed dramatically. Frankly, that is at the crux of the issue. The man code in most cultures that was in place for thousands of years started to become dysfunctional in the developed world as the suffragette movement evolved and became even more obsolete as the feminist movement has matured. What men are left with is ambiguity. Some men try to hold onto the old code with archaic beliefs like “real men don’t cry” and “housework and child rearing is women’s work.” Others attempt to embrace new expectations of behavior that just don’t seem to fit comfortably with their biologically determined flow of testosterone and wind up with uncertainty about what it means to be a man. The challenge is how can we re-write the man code in a way that acknowledges our biological imperatives but still fits the expectations of our 21at century culture.
According to the LA Times only about half of all boys expect to work in well-paid professional jobs when they grow up compared to nearly three quarters of girls. In other words, we’re somehow teaching young boys that either learning is girl’s stuff or that there is no point in aspiring. Either way a dumb lesson that does not seem to be a high enough priority among educators, especially at the K – 8 levels. Compounding the problem is the almost total feminization of school personnel. Only 16% to 18% of teachers in elementary and middle school are male. Therefore, we should be helping teachers learn how best to engage and motivate boys based on their gender based learning styles. For example, boys tend to prefer reading non-fiction over novels. With this in mind, teachers need to allow more freedom in allowing students to choose their reading material. After all the main purpose of reading instruction is to derive meaning from the written word. The particular reading material to achieve that should not be that important. Another example is hands on projects. In general boys are more motivated when the learning experience involves hands on activities. Again teachers should be planning their instructional activities to take gender differences into account. The adage, ” the equal treatment of unequals is inherently unequal” certainly reinforces the need for educators to include gender based strategies in planning educational activities.
If you click on the link to the book you will find the recently added preface to “Walk Like A Man”, the memoir that was the motivation for this blog. I wanted to again underscore that the blog and book are not intended to be read as academic works. Rather they are an attempt of exploring masculinity on a personal level and hopefully will stimulate others to contribute to the masculinity conversation through the lens of their own personal experiences.