If you live in a progressive city anywhere in our country, this much seems obvious: Gender is in flux. We are in the midst of a big cultural shift.
For some men, probably most of you reading this, gender feels fixed, binary and frankly macho.
This essay is about these men and how we might all find charity for one another, perhaps walk together into a more friendly and evolved new world.
Sex & Gender Norms 101
First, here’s a little context for those who are unfamiliar with these topics.
What is sex? Like the biological designation, not the activity.
Sex is an outcome of genes, of fertilization. It describes a person hormonally. Sex describes anatomy. It’s about the kind of junk between your legs and a variety of neurobiological nudges. For you readers out there, Robert Sapolsky adds a ton of nuance and complexity to all of this, to our understandings of testosterone and estrogen and how things like gender work in our brains, in his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
And then there is gender.
Gender is the social construct, the performative norms expected of people and usually expected to correlate with said junk between your legs, with hormones and hair on different parts of your body. Gender is stuff you do in the world to affirm your gender identity.
In present day more rural America, this is often binary. You’re a man or a woman and a ton of heteronormative social expectations are attached to these two categories. Men like football, beer, maybe hunting. Women cook and clean, care for children. Traditional roles. For a lot of people, this feels simple and safe.
However, if you fall outside of these stereotypes, you can expect a life that probably includes mockery, confusion, alienation, and emotional pain. Move to San Francisco or New York or another big city, and life may be a little easier for you. In big cities, you can find communities that will embrace you, allow you to do your thing.
Few topics have garnered as much study, as many articles and as much constructive and destructive conversational friction in recent years as sex and gender. Sex and gender are deeply charged, strongly correlating to self-worth and safety.
The newest research and language to describe sex, gender and sexuality are constantly evolving, growing more complicated daily, and there is no shortage of enforcers of these new words and ideas. The hope is that all of this will make everyone feel included, respected, entitled to dignity, with an equal chance at a fulfilling life.
But how does this noble hope actually play out?
For trans or non-binary people, many of whom have suffered persecution, marginalization or violence, these issues can be enormously triggering and painful to even bring up around people who find themselves comfortably in the zone of traditional binary roles. The overall outcome is chilling and ends most potential conversations before they begin.
Gender discussions, and the language policing that comes along with them, often devolve into bitter culture battles, where people unable to keep up with new ideas are publicly shamed and mocked in an attempt to bring them into compliance.
Those with conservative views on gender will usually retreat from discussion. They often don’t show up in good faith, with a willingness to shift or learn. And as my friend and founder of the Sex and Medicine Summit, Anita Teresa Boeninger so eloquently puts it, “Progressives have long dug their own grave around the PC culture double-bind, that they’re only inclusive of the vulnerable and marginalized, but never of the ones they don’t like — namely conservatives.”
If we could find a way to dialogue in good faith, this might ironically bring safety and dignity to a lot more people.
Conservative Americans right now feel attacked — fomenting another generation of people who continue to remain uninformed and effectively closed out of the nuanced conversations, conversations that happen in small progressive bubbles and then broadcast outward through popular culture.
We most certainly live in a time of diversifying and even atomizing identity markers. To me at least, the effects are both good and bad.
Gender’s Dull and Privileged Terrain
I’d like to speak to a terrain that is more familiar to me — the terrain of what today is called cis-gender and heterosexual masculinity.
This bland area of privilege is not one most of my friends are talking about or interested in, because it’s frankly a minefield, and because the underlying assumption is this: Why expend any time, energy or words examining a group that has always been far more visible, with far easier access to public voice, and greater access to the levers of wealth and power?
I think the answer is because this is a huge chunk of the men in our country. We can’t will them away into invisibility. We all need to get along.
Black, white, Asian, latino and other hetero men often feel shut out and shut down in public discourse. Many seem to be retreating into echo chambers of resentment. This is not harmless. This demographic is very well-armed, for example. Many men are fearful and have been taught that power is a zero sum game, rather than considering the possibility of a positive sum dynamic. It’s not intuitive to your average guy that a future is possible in which all people, all races, genders and ideologies are better served, in equity and mutual respect. The concept of intersectionality is confusing, and not intuitive in terms of how they were raised. Honestly, it’s just not intuitive for most Americans full stop.
A forgiving future of equity and reciprocal respect (along with humor, levity and fewer PC hair triggers) — this is what I hope and yearn for, for guys like me, and for all of us, in all of our glorious diversity. This is a future where peace becomes more likely and more progressive ideas have a greater opportunity to take root as policy.
It’s a future of long radically-inclusive dinner tables rather than fences around the perimeters of ever more narrow descriptions of who we are and how we group ourselves.
It’s a future of “Beloved Community” and inclusivity, of welcoming the stranger.
Dignity and the Value of Outsiders
What boosts your sense of dignity?
There are as many valid answers to this question as there are people and cultures.
For the most part culture defines roles for those born into a particular society, and our relative adherence to those norms makes us feel safe, protected by social validation.
When people approve of who we are, take ease in our presence, it strangely registers in our bones as existential safety. Mutual approval feels like the disappearance of a hungry predator. We can drop our guard.
For most human beings, conformity is a relief. It provides a similar existential safety. There are many ways to fit in, so conformity probably means something different on the UC Berkeley campus than it does on an average Montana ranch.
We live amongst behavior reinforcement loops, carrots and sticks, that make this so.
For an American man, for example, this means dignity is very often tied to earnings, to “providership,” because this is a message drummed into men through media and peers from their earliest moments understanding language. Hoarding of resources is celebrated and carries a halo of wisdom in our culture. Tying dignity in this way to conspicuous consumption is also, in my opinion, a death cult, accelerating climate change and inequality, but that’s a topic for another essay.
The providership fetish is one of the many ways men are ironically the victims of patriarchy, never worthy of love, never earning enough to rest in true dignity or to feel safe. Dignity = wealth is a story as old as civilization, but was perhaps best captured by playwright Arthur Miller, in his 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman.
A life of real autonomy and critical thinking, by contrast, feels unsafe for most people.
True self-determination means standing alone in our own integrity, stating unpopular understandings, ways of doing things that are not condoned by the majority. It means fearless exploration, wherever such exploration leads us, delving into new unexplored caverns, terra incognita. It means you’re the one guy in the photo at the beginning of this interview, his arms crossed in defiance, while the rest of the crowd gives a “heil Hitler” salute.
In a Paleolithic human tribe, too much of this exploratory and independent or non-conformist impulse could result in shaming or worse banishment. Or worse still, such a person would simply be killed as a “proto-apostate.” Non-conformity could get you killed. Today it sometimes still does, including for LGBTQ folks.
But autonomous inclinations also probably lead to breakthrough discoveries like fire and spears, new food sources and new ways of knowing.
Independent thought or behavior is creativity’s accomplice.
Evidence suggests that all civilizations benefit from respect and balance, between those who are attached to tradition and those who push for change. This is born out in research on neurodiversity and the value of the non-neurotypical, such as autistic people.
And within the category of progressive change, the newest thinking on gender and sex for instance, there are those who merely seek modification of inherited ideas and those at the furthest fringe of invention, people who are valuable and often ostracized, those attracted to whole new paradigms, completely new ways to think, do and collaborate.
Some native cultures found ways of simply creating additional categories for non-conformists or biologial outliers, such as the “two spirit” shamans of indigenous North American tribes. Some scholars hypothesize that individuals who would be diagnosed with a mental illness, like bi-polar disorder, found exalted positions communicating with the spirit world in traditional sub-Saharan cultures, often adopting the mantle of griots.
I’ve even heard religious scholars whisper that most founders of cults or religions, very independent or rebellious thinkers, would find themselves diagnosed with mental illness if alive today. Religion was a way to elevate rather than stigmatize atypical minds.
So, how do we make room for all the outliers and also the bland men?
Welcoming Back the Action Heroes
I was raised on action movies, on comic books and on Marvel superheroes, mostly men, all of them straight, mostly white, who gave us the reassuring message, over and over, that we could be the defenders of the weak and vulnerable.
These are noble warriors and the warrior character is probably the second major source of masculine dignity, alongside providership. If you’d enjoy reading a novel on “superhero dignity” and on the more nuanced reality that probably played out in the lives of many comic creators, try Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”
In my youth, superheroes suggested that we could uphold the moral foundations of our nation or even our species through athletic action. When Peter Parker’s uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility,” 12 year old me took that as a moral injunction, one that could guide me in my approaching adult life. Use privilege and power to care for others. Be responsible stewards of your high perch in the birth lottery.
Some metaphorical superheroes were blue or green, stood 8 feet tall, were made of ice, fire or rock. Some stood for diversity and inclusion. The X-Men were essentially a hybrid of comic hero myths (and polytheistic pantheons before them) and the Civil Rights movement.
And then there was Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. These guys shaped a few generations of men. They were tough as nails cowboys, men of few words and potent violence, protecting and restoring the social order by brute force. They were less nuanced versions of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, most famously portayed by a young Marlon Brando.
In this story, Stanley is the everyman, drunk, entitled, a rapist, violent and not too bright. The story is a tragedy and the figure who stands for all intellectual pursuits, accomplishments, for culture, creativity and what we might today call “emotional intelligence” is Blanche DuBois. She is brutalized by America, by patriarchy, and ends as a tragic figure.
Willams the writer was a gay man who likely suffered homophobic violence and had resigned himself in many ways to his credo that “the apes shall inherit the earth,” that brute force is the final arbiter in all power relationships, so all sophistication and art essentially survive at the mercy of monsters.
But these men of action and violence, amongst my pubescent peers in Miami in the late 1980s, were genuine role models. We wanted to be like them. We wanted to be the tournament winner in Enter the Dragon; I spent a lot of time in mirrors imitating Bruce Lee’s moves. We wanted to win the Kumite like JCVD, with our hands wrapped in ropes, dipped in glue and pasted with shards of broken glass. If I go back and look now, these movies are unwatchable, silly beyond belief, offensive in their misogyny, but such was our youth. Such were the ideals of what it meant to be a man.
And our country is awash in men raised on similar ideas of what it means to be a lone vigilante and a giver of “justice.” The American predilection for conflating justice and revenge runs deep in America.
Most American men have never had the privilege in education or travel or immersion in other cultures that men like me have. I got out for awhile, enough to look back and the “how to be a man” dogmas of my upbringing. For most American men though, machismo likely goes unevaluated.
Kill the bad guy and win the girl is still a very prevalent ambition if you travel around the country and talk to the men you meet. It’s seen as an honorable way to live. There are thousands of action movies, war movies and living examples of the noble fighter that keep these norms alive, even if fantasies like Commando are no longer being made today. The tough warrior is fading, but still everywhere endures.
I wonder how we invite millions and millions of these men, even men who may revel in a juvenile bully’s glee, men who vote for strict father figures, who drag us morally backward into a “might makes right” world; I wonder how we invite these men into dialogue?
Given that “real” men have good impulses to protect the vulnerable, that there are laudable corners of the action hero mythology going all the way back to Gilgamesh and Ulysses; given that there are traditions of chivalry, generosity, humility and restraint within the more brutal veins of abuse, how do we invite our men into love?
How do we make it safe for fragile guys, who resemble a guy inside me, and who feel that the keystones of their own dignity are at risk; how do we invite them into a safe place to change? Can we muster compassion for the so called “male oppressor?”
How might we teach these everyday men that they need not stifle nor feel shame around strong sexual desire, but that there is a better world of honest dialogue with women and full consent? Can they imagine a more mutually rewarding sexual liberation, once they abandon the assumption that women’s bodies are theirs for the taking?
There are no easy answers and no silver bullets, to borrow a term from Coors breweries.
Thoughtful and effective changes will require a lot of collective dialogue. But if we don’t find many ways to welcome such men into our modern world, then we have added momentum and given fuel to the armed militias, to perversions of Seneca’s stoicism. We have only fed the “ammosexuals” and racist tribes, which is not good for any of us.
Imagine if we made old school macho behavior look silly and outdated and offered better, wiser and more rewarding options, new male ideals focused on collective thriving, rather than hoarders or warriors.
Imagine an evolved masculinity.
I think we could do this together. I think we could offer a more fulfilling future for men who are ready to let go of their teenage action hero selves, to leave behind that relic of youth.
Men could actually feel all their feelings, learn kindness and openness to all sorts of new friends, whatever their gender or sexual expressions, whatever their own hopes and concerns.