…literally, when the wind blows.

Kelly Wallace wrote a great piece for CNN that highlights the way that school dress codes body shame girls and how this complicates parenting (Tues, May 30, 2017). I think it is important for more parents (mothers and fathers) to address how girls in particular are shamed in the school setting. As someone who studies masculinity however, I couldn’t miss one quote in the article that really spoke volumes about how male fragility damages everyone.

In the article, Wallace quotes Dr. Catherine Pearlman’s experience with her daughter being told to change her clothes as an example (community Today blog). Dr. Pearlman is the founder of The Family Coach and author of Ignore It!. She advises parents on all matters of child rearing:

“Pearlman said her daughter, now 13, had been told in the fall by a teacher that she couldn’t wear yoga pants because the boys would get turned on and then be embarrassed.”

So in this situation, a 13 year old girl is being told that she needs to feel responsible for adolescent boys’ sexual arousal. What is more, it is assumed that the boy will be embarrassed by his physical response so the message is that his erection is shameful and the 13 year old girl who causes that erection is to blame.

Wow.

As a male bodied person who grew up with a penis, I seem to recall that being 13 years old and being aroused were basically one in the same. Being asked to read in front of the class…‘schwingg’; singing in chorus…‘sproingg’; eating lunch…‘attention!!’. Anyone who would tell a 13 year old girl that her wearing yoga pants is a more likely cause for a 13 year old boy to have an erection than his getting an A on his math test is someone who is at best ill informed about adolescent sexuality and at worst someone with a serious agenda to indoctrinate gender based shame into the lives of young women.

I just wanted to point to this article as a great place to start a conversation among parents and also between parents and children; and not just parents of girls. Parents should share this article with their teenage boys.  This needs to be a conversation between mothers and their sons or any parent of boys and male identified children. Male privilege is not just present in what men are allowed to do or be. Male privilege is present in the blame and responsibility it places on those who are not male identified. It begins by saying to the 13 year old girl that your yoga pants turned him on and ends with a rapist walking free because the defense was able to place blame on the victim’s choice of clothing or appearance.

This is a great article as a starting point for a much deeper conversation.  It is a reminder that men and boys can end sexual violence, but only if we are held responsible for our bodies.

Love your body.

– ALD

Link to original article on CNN.com: Do School Dress Codes End Up Body-Shaming Girls?

Goodbye Pussy Bow Blouse

tr-and-taft-bow

Teddy Roosevelt (Bo Peep) and William Howard Taft (her sheep)

I started this post with the intention of writing about Teddy Roosevelt and the word/phrase “bully!” I figured that would be a creative way to address some of the double standards in this disgusting election process.

Then the final debate happened.

Clinton, who is far from perfect (but remember Obama opposed same-sex marriage and had ties to the Chicago “machine” when he was elected) delivered one of the most gorgeous pieces of pro-choice rhetoric in a flawless manner that brimmed with the exquisite balance of an international politician’s skill and raw gut feeling. Her words were history…and neither of the men in her immediate sphere heard a word she said. But sure as hell when Clinton mocked Trump’s penchant for avoiding taxes he countered with the meme ready phrase “such a nasty woman” which everyone seems to have heard just fine. The other big thing everyone heard was Trump challenging the democratic process by avoiding an answer as to whether he would respect the decision of the American people if the election went against him.

The problem with us only focusing on these moments (Trump’s resistance to concession and his childish insult) instead of focusing on Clinton’s wisdom and insight is the basic problem we are facing in this election: maleness refuses to give up the spotlight. Calling Clinton a “nasty woman” isn’t about Clinton, it is about Trump. It is about every substitute word one could use in place of woman. Saying he won’t respect the outcome of the election, as well, isn’t about Clinton, it is about a democratic process that has been entirely male and is based on European male honor codes up until this point. Therefore, of course the election can’t be legitimate…she’s a woman. Of course a 40+ year political and legal career can be reduced to petty nastiness and namecalling…she’s a woman. This shit is messed up. What’s more messed up to me are the many women who are still supporting Trump. Messed up…but not surprising. One look at the history of women’s suffrage or the women’s rights movement and it is plain to see that sadly almost as many women who have been for progress have been against it.

Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, arrives before the second presidential debate between Republi can presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, arrives before the second presidential debate between Republi can presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

I am not an anthropologist, I am a minister. My study of history and data always comes back to asking the question, “where do people find peace?” As such, I spend a lot of time thinking about what motivates people in general and I’ve come to the conclusion that above all, it is the promise or premise of safety that drives people most. Whether it is seeking a better job or pulling the trigger of a gun, ultimately someone is making a statement about how they do or don’t feel safe in the moment. I have to believe that the women supporting Trump, much like the anti-suffragists are motivated by feeling the need to defend the way they see and experience safety and order in world. I would say that Clinton may even pose a greater threat to them than an Obama, simply because some of these women may have certain negative assumptions about Clinton that reflect the negativity that is projected about women in general. If you have been taught by male focused society to never trust yourself or as I believe is the case here, never feel safe with yourself, why would you ever vote for someone who mirrors your experience? That is not to say that Trump’s women supporters are ignorant or under the thumb of men or only capable of an emotional decision…they are grown people who can dig their own graves.  Rather, I am naming this cultural challenge to call out the toxic role of patriarchy that pervades all of our concepts of what we think a “President” should look like, sound like or how they should prioritize the value of life and the world.  We’ve learned that President = male identified embodiment and affectation.  One look at the criticisms of Clinton’s voice, demeanor and clothing over the last year proves this point and treating her position on women’s unique healthcare as a footnote in this last debate underlines the dominance of male privilege even more.

In this patriarchal society where the vast majority of women are pressured to present themselves in a way that is entirely about the male gaze and male based criteria of desire, the idea of a woman who is self possessed and who cannot be diminished by an irresponsible male partner and who is impenetrable to personal assaults on her accomplishments or her gender is not just anathema but may actually be mortally terrifying to some. It upsets the order that has been ordained by certain faith (1 Corinthians 14:34) and codified over the years by law (the eras pre-19th amendment and pre-Roe v. Wade, etc.) It flies in the face of how we have learned to navigate gender. It doesn’t let some people feel or aspire to what they know as safe. What does make some people feel safe? Melania Trump made up like a prize show kitten surrounded by expressionless hyper blond women who show no greater joy than promoting the “strong” “successful” man in their life who is someone who “tells it like it is” even if he’s not capable of telling the truth…least of all about himself. Seeing women as props for the male ego…that’s what makes some people feel safe.

I have two hopes for election night. The first is that Hillary Clinton is elected as the 45th President of the United States. The second wish is that she publicly and openly weeps with joy at the accomplishment. Not because she is a woman, but because it is a long over due achievement in erasing the ridiculous gender norms of politics that have been killing us all and for which the nation and our ancestors regardless of gender identity all deserve a good deep cry. Yes, Barack Obama opened the door to non-white men filling the office of President, but Clinton will actually take the door entirely off its hinges.

And you can be sure she won’t be wearing any (f**king) pussy bow blouse as she steps across the threshold.

01-pussy-bow

(c) Vogue Magazine

Let Him Cry

Another shooting.

100_8700While I was waiting for my laundry to finish this morning, I sat in my car writing.  Across the street from the laundromat is a residential care facility.  I’ve often sat in this spot and I watched as women, who I will assume are mostly Muslim (by their headgear) and possibly immigrants, walk in to this facility also wearing the typical care facility garb of scrubs and comfortable shoes.  This morning, I realized that in all the time I’ve looked at this place, it hadn’t registered in me that there are people living there, and possibly living out the end of their lives there.  I thought of the vibrant world around this place: gentrifying hipsters, long time black, Latino and Asian families, young people on skateboards, politics, street fairs, muggings, joggers, commuters, busses, bikes, all literally passing this place by and with it the people inside.  The women in scrubs, caring for each, maybe doing their jobs well, maybe not
, but doing what they can to both earn a living and to actually accomplish some small part of caring for someone who cannot care for themselves.  And it made me cry.

There was a recent article (PolicyMic, May 15 2014 – Eileen Shim) that looked at the quality of tears based on why they were being shed.  Rose-Lynn Fisher goes into wonderful detail of this phenomenon on her website. As I recall there were several types that were easily identifiable, but never did it mention the tears of mixed emotions.  My tears would have been a good sample for this.  Seeing this care facility, my tears were angry…that there weren’t bigger windows or more family visiting; my tears were touched by the dedication of the staff who may not be making more than minimum wage to deal with the messy bodies and emotions of the sick and dying; my tears were filled with sadness…for the families that had been lost by the people inside, whether physically or lost in the lack of commitment from others for their care; and my tears were the memories of having seen my own mother in such a care facility.

The first shooting death of 2014 in Oakland was a 13 year old boy.

When I was a little boy, I was a “cry baby.”  I was constantly criticized for responding to every challenge and every confrontation no matter how small, with tears.  It was eventually impressed upon me that this was inappropriate behavior for a “man” and I remember consciously turning off that part of my reaction and suppressing my tears, adding a healthy dose of guilt and shame to my natural reaction.  Nevertheless, I learned how to be remote and stoic.  Never mind that I also became an enormously angry teenager who channelled that anger into compulsive and destructive levels of over achievement, often pushing himself well beyond his physical limits.  Never mind too that I developed esophagitis and the early stages of an ulcer.  

All of this changed a few years later one day in college when the movie Diva was shown on campus.  In the scene where “La Diva” and the young man walk around Paris to the haunting melody by Vladimir Cosma (Sentimental Walk) there was something triggered in me; the combination of the tune, with the lonely light and the two characters in their shared isolation…it made me bust out sobbing.  It was the first time I had really cried in 7 or 8 years and something in me said that I shouldn’t let it be the last.

Having so consciously cut this part of myself off  and then just as consciously reclaiming it, I have thought a great deal about what happens inside me when I cry ever since.  Something happens within all of us when we cry.  I suppose we try to hide it because it can be as intimate yet universal as a sexual orgasm.  It bubbles to the surface, it swells and wells up until it bursts in us and we can’t and don’t want to stop it.  Yet, terrifyingly, it can also feel so much like falling.  There is an uncontrollable feeling of cascading that comes with surrendering to the emotions that bring tears.  But where do we land?  This is the trouble for men.  Our culture doesn’t tell boys and men that it will catch them when they fall down this well of tears.  In so many ways, men are asked to bargain with society in order to justify their emotions and that bargain rarely includes tears. 

Tears for Western men are a sign of weakness; that is, not being physically strong enough to overcome the emotional tide of tears is contradictory to our misshapen male identity.  With the extreme emphasis put on men to have a monosyllabic physical strength, there is no place for that strength to be vulnerable.  Be strong = hit, push, run, jump, lift.  But if that physicality shows any opening to the inner world (dance, sway, rock, hug, kiss) our culture looks at it as a hole that should be plugged, like an opening in the hull of a boat.

74 school shootings in 18 months; almost all young white males; mostly teenagers; We are training killers.

I remember well the feeling I had in high school before my Diva moment.  I used the word “trapped” to describe it.  I felt as if there was no way out, that even once I graduated, I would be stuck in a way of living, on a path that I hadn’t chosen.  Always, I had this feeling as if I was supposed to be living up to an ideal “male” pattern that I increasingly didn’t fit within/live up to.  I hated that feeling.  I imagine that with all of the images of “ideal” men with all of the talk about what men are supposed to be and with all the competition for increasingly fewer resources of all kinds, young men today must be in a constant dance between devastation and desperation.  I can’t imagine being told to not cry in those circumstances.

But, we are too familiar now with the images of fathers crying on newscasts; the fathers of teenage boys who have been existing in today’s pressure cooker of a world, being told to “suck it up” and “man up”, not maybe in so many words, but in the shape of a world that still looks to Superman as the male ideal.  We are all guilty of creating this generation of murderers.  Every time we defend a classic “strong silent” type or tell a boy to be a “man” and assume that that means somehow acting less vulnerable.  Every time we look the other way when a parent puts a tool instead of an experience in a boys hands….a bat instead of a flower.  Every time we joke with our teenage boys about objectifying girls and women.  Every time we use the word “fag” as a term of derision; and definitely every time we tell a boy or a man either through our own embarrassment or actual words to stop crying.

1 Samuel 20:41 – After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together – but David wept the most.

The Bible is full of men crying and expressing themselves.  I don’t recall a single passage where the Bible says “thou shalt not show emotion if you have a penis.”  Quite the opposite.  Men express joy and love (even for one another) and frequently cry to God, to Christ, with other men with women…

How can we re-imagine a male equation that no longer holds on to emotion?  Like canned goods in the sun, boys and men without emotional outlets (beyond anger) are bound to explode some day: maybe in dangerous behavior, or in aggression toward those who are weaker, or in a career spent proving ones “manhood” over and over and over again.  Or maybe they will literally explode in the chamber of a gun.

For God’s sake, why can’t we just let him cry.

American Men Can’t Win the “War on Poverty”

Vitruvian $Reading commentary by Angela Glover Blackwell (CEO and Founder of PolicyLink) in the New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the start of the War on Poverty, I am more than ever convinced that we cannot win with our current mode of attack.  In the piece, she points out that it is “not a war” but an “Equitable Economy” that is necessary.  What she says is absoluely true.  We currently live by systems that grossly favor the already rich and ignore those who are poor or not connected to big corporate systems.  These systems are too numerous and out of the scope of my personal study and position as a theologically based writer to offer meaningful insight on, but I can appreciate her expert analysis and thoughtful direction toward tangible solutions.  Indeed, it is not a “war” that is necessary.  But the strategy she presents, although highly effective, could benefit by also addressing the deep cultural issue at hand.  Within an Equitable Economy and certainly more important than a “war”, there is something much more basic that needs to shift.

Lyndon Johnson coined the phrase “War on Poverty” as a battle cry:

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.  It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

These words, delivered during his state of the union address in 1964 on the heels of the Kennedy Assassination, were deliberate propaganda on the part of a skillful politician and orator.  This language tapped into not only a very real revenge mentality that was felt by a deeply wounded America in the wake of tragedy, but also the obsession with our place as the “richest nation on earth.”  The country had been at serious odds with itself in terms of race and opportunity and now Johnson, a white southerner seen as a turncoat by the segregationist “Dixiecrats,” was ironically in a position as leader of the United States to champion real and sweeping changes in government services that would benefit those that his fellow Southerners had fought against for so long.  But he needed an army; and that army was the American people.  He needed weapons; and those weapons were sweeping progressive legislation.

But saying that we need to win a “war on poverty” is like saying we need to win a war on Tuesdays.  Tuesday is not something that consciously decided to place itself between Monday and Wednesday, forever separating these two days in the week.  Tuesday happened as part of a measure of time; it is a result of the human need to order itself in the temporal arc.  Likewise, poverty is not something that lifted up its head and said to black men, disabled people and single women “I am going to oppress you…now!”  Poverty is a result of inequity which comes from human behavior, from both the oppressors and the oppressed.  Poverty is the measure of the problem of inequity and not necessarily the real problem at all.

Looking more closely then, the human behavior that sits at the heart of the problem of inequity and results in poverty is the male ego within the American dream.  Consider this: if the ‘founding fathers’ had been less concerned with their individual rights as men (We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….) and more interested in community, shared resources and collective mutual benefit for all human beings when they set out to establish this nation, we would have a very different picture indeed.  The name of the seminal document from which these words come says it all: the “Declaration of Independence.”  Rather than being a “Declaration of Community” or a “Declaration of Unity” it is a document that seeks, by differentiating a nation from one oppressive regime, to foster individual differentiation within a new regime so that no individual man is oppressed.  This model of individuation is above all rooted in a male centric domination concept of self importance where every man is his own ruler (king of his castle) and it is a mentality that permeates all aspects of the “American dream.”  Individual house/land ownership, upward mobility, career progress, financial growth, providing family security without public support, winning a spouse to create ones own offspring…each of these symbolize what it means in the classic sense to be an American and more specifically, what it means to be an American male.

Today, this is not just restricted to white men either.  Certainly, the founding fathers of this country were white men.  Historical and institutionalized oppression by white men in America of the indigenous tribes of this country, of immigrants, of blacks and Jews and women of all races, has been well enough documented without going on about it at length here.  However, the issue has evolved into one where, as oppressed groups continue to lift out of downtrodden positions, even slightly, they are adopting the same goals and pursuits of their oppressors.  This is why a “war on poverty” cannot be only about rich white men holding everyone else back.  Whether or not it started with white men, everyone…black, white, Latino, disabled, female, LGBTQ…are all now seeking to be in the position of privilege that is rooted in colonial style male dominance.  Everyone is looking for the individual goals of the American dream and no one is talking about how this type of individuality is based on a model of masculinity that is in itself the biggest culprit of oppressive behavior.

As we consider real solutions to poverty to achieve an Equitable Economy, we must also consider real solutions to archaic male dominance.  We need to progress from the language of “war, conquering and oppression” to a language of “respect, engagement and interdependence.”  Frequently, our culture looks at these latter qualities as being weak or submissive, but these are the same powerful qualities that bind tribes together and keep families strong.  If the “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Lincoln, 1858), why do we culturally attempt to build separate rooms?  If we can let go of the idealized male identity that is frequently defined by its ability to stand alone and conquer or rule individually defiant over evil and instead seek new gender identities that are based in a broader concept of self than the self alone, we might just stand a chance.

We absolutely need an Equitable Economy, but there really is no “war on poverty” to be won.  The only way that we will create a truly Equitable Economy is if we are able to craft new cultural identities that are liberated from classic ‘American dream’ masculinities: head of household, provider, primary breadwinner…master, President, King.  It is our challenge to make these labels obsolete in order to free not only those who have been oppressed by them but to free all men from the burden of feeling it necessary to start and then trying to win “wars” that only serve to destroy them in the end.

Conversations About Masculinity – Starving Men

“When I was a little boy, there was a point at which my dad stopped kissing me and holding me.  He was very clear that I couldn’t do that anymore…it was time for me to be a man.  I was 9.” – Story from an anonymous man

Hands of the poor

How many men can tell this story?  I was reminded of recently hearing this from a colleague when reading Mark Greene’s article in The Good Men Project “The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer. We are hurting our boys and men.  More than any blunt force, or assault, or simple neglect…we are actively and systematically damaging our boys, men and male identified people.  We surround them with images of “manliness” that celebrate force and control and demonizes compliance and emotion. Above all, we are hurting them in one of the most basic ways possible; and we are doing it without laying a hand on them. Literally.

When I read about trauma in men, I realize that I am reading about something that is sometimes as hard to pin down as gender itself.  It may look simple on the surface, but like gender, trauma may have fairly easy to see external signifiers, while at the same time it also has very complex, personal and individual internalizations.  In some of the work happening around healthcare and public policy, people are looking at trauma as a major factor in contributing to the outcomes, or rather the poor outcomes for boys and men of color.  The language is turning to “trauma informed care” (See: The National Center for Trauma Informed Care) and “school based health centers” specializing in addressing trauma in a way that will at once allow young victims to get what they need (care and education) in a context that factors in those cultural elements that have most held them back.  This isn’t just about people of color however.  In the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study done in 2012 on Tarpon Springs, FL, the predominantly white population in this small Gulf Coast community benefited to learn about the links to adult challenges (diabetes, heart disease) that can have their origins in childhood trauma (ACEs Too High Blog.)  Trauma is real for everyone who experiences it and it has deep impact on their lives regardless of both race and gender.

However, there is one kind of trauma that men in America experience we should be exploring much more deeply.  It has no official name at this point and it is not as simple as pointing to a direct victimization or something that is clearly outside of our traditionally based realm of moral constructs.  It is imbedded in the other traumas that get primary attention.  This trauma is a sustained, cultural damage that we endorse as a society and therefore will need much greater effort to combat.  Starvation by touch or what I would call culturally imposed skin hunger.  By forbidding touch, particularly touch between males, men in our culture experience life in a world devoid of unconditional human contact.  They are in essence ‘starving’ for physical contact and most of them don’t even realize it.  In an earlier blog post (Conversations About Masculinity – part 1), I described how American men are taught to experience touch as an exchange and how this “commodification of touch” doesn’t allow most men to experience touch outside of the experience of sex, gender stereotypes and power dynamics.  The most extreme result is sometimes a complete absence of touch experienced in the male life.  There are numerous studies that point to what happens when infants are denied touch…how they fail to thrive and develop (here is a great article from Pediatrics & Child Health.)  But this need does not actually change through life, hence the popularity of massage therapy and other ways in which adults experience human contact for a price.  When we  are regularly denied the most common and essential life sustaining elements of existence (food, water, light) we experience trauma.  Studying anatomy and physiology, one learns a great deal about how the body can’t actually distinguish between types of stress; how in fact, on an emotional level, the body experiences a punch in the face the same way it experiences the loss of a job (outside of the possible broken bones and blood vessels.)  If the body then cannot make the distinction between these kinds of broad differences, then why would it be able to distinguish between the more subtle trauma experienced surviving sexual assault and when it is denied loving human contact?

Where Does the Trauma Show

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a very impressive section on their website that explores trauma and stress in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) On this landing page they list any number of signs of PTSD and we are familiar with most of them in the context of those who have experienced war (sleep disturbances, anxiety, extreme behavior, etc.) But looking at the list of emotional disturbances, presents a very surprising parallel:

  • Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
  • Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy
  • Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
  • Being irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Becoming easily upset or agitated
  • Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world
  • Distrust of others, getting into conflicts, being over-controlling
  • Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned
  • Loss of intimacy or feeling detached

When we see the way in which men in America react to physical intimacy that is not connected to sex (this even goes for same gender loving men), many of these same reactions are present.  How many times do we see an angry reaction from a man who feels another man has gotten too physically close? How often to we see men avoid physical contact?  How easy is it to see men as being cold or numb to affection.  The comparison between how men react to being culturally denied touch and other types of trauma is easy and disturbing.

Some of the most obvious evidence of  trauma resulting from the demonization of touch in America is in the way men do express themselves physically.  The extremes to which some men will go so that they are not in physical contact with another man can be comical if not sad; whether it be a crowded subway or a party game.  If an embrace or a handshake with another man lasts “too long” the defense systems are deployed and the contact is broken, often accompanied by a verbal posturing to assert one’s non touch defined maleness (“I’m no homo”, etc.)  But paralleling the actions that are sometimes seen in those who suffer abuse, the reaction can be significantly beyond the perceived affront.  One could draw this kind of parallel between many different types of trauma (the child of the alcoholic who becomes an alcoholic/ the boy who is chronically denied platonic touch and becomes a rapist, etc.) Of course this is not science (yet) but it may be an indicator of one way that we can look at how the lack of touch for men, manifests as a trauma reaction in every day life.

Another indicator is language.  Men are taught to avoid language that points toward affectionate contact with one another. Men do not use words such as: caress, stroke, hold, embrace either with each other or in reference to each other.  These are words (if they are used at all) that are reserved for intimate sexual settings only.  This points to the most damaging indicator of gendered skin hunger creating a trauma response in American men: sexuality.  It is easy to look at abuse and rape as ways in which men are disconnected from authentic sexual relationships, but it is more difficult when we start to actually explore what men are seeking in their sexual relationships whether they be gay or straight.  Even just the vast preoccupation of our culture with sex contrasted with the body shaming that we engage in speaks volumes about a complete disconnect with how men are experiencing their physicality.

Regardless of scientific evidence, there is no denying that the touch languages expressed by most men in America do not come from healthy places of self-esteem or security in one’s masculinity.  Some may claim that as ‘animals’ men are compelled to prove themselves and display their dominance over one another and those around them, hence the reluctance to interact physically without challenging the other male(s).  But then what of the other ability of male animals to groom one another and sleep with and enjoy each other’s bodies as expressions of comfort and safety and belonging?

How we can fix it

If we can look at the effects of culturally imposed skin hunger as a real trauma then we must look at real trauma solutions to help men recover from it.  Creating safe spaces for men to explore touch with one another; redefining verbal and physical language; establishing a new set of criteria for acceptable physical expressions that are not based in narrow, 19th century stereotypes or 21st century media-types.  Men are exploring options through support groups and online conversations.  But still, the cultural standard is the “strong man” image; the stoic, independent and unflappable warrior.

As a black man in America, I am also aware that men of color are among the most guilty of perpetuating culturally imposed skin hunger.  The problem for men of color however is that changing this environment is dependent upon dismantling a concept of success built upon restrictive, heteronormative social mores.  This goes deeper and involves exploring the whole dynamic of masculinity as a survival mechanism in post colonial cultural structures.  I am convinced that the changes that have to happen with all men will need to occur both in the world surrounding us and inside of our hearts.  Through some of the work around trauma in general, getting stories out in the public without shaming men, exposing the human vulnerability of men may allow for a different external dialogue.  But getting into the hearts of men will be a much greater challenge.  This will have to come from nurturing better environments within families and communities and by letting go of fear based cultural norms.  In a world where people are actually starving for dietary nourishment, why would we let others go hungry for human contact when the solution doesn’t require either an act of Congress or a budget.  The only real cost involved in feeding American men what they most need is an open heart.

Websites on Trauma

http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/common-reactions-after-trauma.asp

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers/what-is-cts/12-core-concepts

Articles on Touch (from Mark Greene at Good Men Project)

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201302/the-power-touch

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201010/why-have-we-lost-the-need-physical-touch

Conversations About Masculinity – 2

What do we want to be?

MacArthurIf people don’t think that race and gender justice are deeply connected, then they are living in a delusional world.  When I first got wind of the horrific burning of an 18 year old gender bending youth, Sasha Fleishman by a 16 year old (unnamed because he is a minor) on a city bus in Oakland, I was stunned and immediately went to the place that most of us go for our news these days…the internet.  But in doing a search for “Oakland youth burned on bus” I came up with, among other things, a site that is called ‘niggermania’ (I will not link to it here because I’d rather not drive traffic to it and who knows what kind of crazies are behind it.)  On this site, there were a lot of people who were very intent on making it clear that because the victim was white and because the perpetrator was black that this would somehow lead to the media not making as much of it as if the race roles were reversed.  There were a lot of mentions of Trayvon Martin and a lot of very sad and bigoted language all around.  I still marvel that my search brought this site up.  But rather than just being pissed off by the existence of this site, I had a good long think about it and realized that this perspective actually didn’t surprise me in any way; in fact it seemed eerily familiar.  Not because, all white Americans are bigots…that is far from the case.  Instead I realized that this was a sampling of the worst elements of the dominant culture invective played out in its most exaggerated and acid tone and as an American, I am accustomed to always hearing about race.  America is obsessed with race.  Regardless of the conversation, somehow, there is always a racial bent on it.  Ask any non-American and they will tell you so.

But that still doesn’t answer the fact that the bigots have been correct in how this story has not had the juggernaut press of other stories of late where black people have been the innocent victims of crimes of racial profiling.  As I see it, there is one reason and one reason only for this lack of coverage: gender.  The sad subtext of the media being more tacet on this story than on the others has a lot to do with a very subtle approval of the suppression and ‘turning a blind eye’ to issues of gender non-conformity.  It is a subtle affirmation, whether deliberate or not, of the act of the 16 year old saying in effect that they agree on a certain level that a boy who does not present socially as a boy is a bad thing.  More specifically, this silence sends the clear signal that when someone who is outside of the gender norm is victimized, it is somehow not as important as when someone who is racially profiled is victimized.  We see this time and again with the non reporting of transgender crimes either to the police or to the media.  Now admittedly, this is part apples and oranges.  The profiling cases we are currently seeing in national media all involve murder and this case is assault.  However, this current situation also involves a minor choosing to permanently disfigure someone and the resulting punishment treats the minor as an adult.  With all of the questions surrounding juvenile justice and the mass incarceration of people of color, there is a significant conversation that could be had here about the fate of this young man thanks to his own twisted decisions.  All of these stories have ghastly and tragic elements and each deserves to be heard by the public.  But we cannot dismiss the Oakland burning as some kind of child’s play gone wrong…’boys will be boys.’ This was a deliberate and gruesome act based on (by admission of the 16 year old) a hate bias against someone’s gender expression.  So where are the marches?  Where are the protests?

Nowhere, because as a culture, we don’t care.

I ask the question, “who do we want to be” in the conversation on manhood, because we have choices.  We have the choice to decide if we are going to be violent and abusive; we have the choice to decide if we are going to put up barriers; we have the choice to decide if we are going to look at someone and call them disgusting, or worthless, or less than us in someway.  We have choices.  But we don’t have a choice in how we express our gender.  This is a completely individual and for some a God given gift.  It is part of the fabric that makes each of us an individual.  Likewise, we also have no choice as to our race.  It is not something we can fix and fiddle after the fact, because, like our gender and gender expression, it came along before us and is defined by who we are.  In no circumstance, can I think of a situation where race trumps gender. Nor can I see a place where gender expression is more important than race.  We must invest in the search for a new language (literally and figuratively) to talk about these elements of our humanness  as part of our basic makeup and it is the struggle toward that language that makes this journey so difficult.  What do we want to be?  We want to be free and safe in both our gender and racial expression.  We want to be whole.

Because I am black, I am not a monster…but I can choose to do monstrous things.  Because I am gender queer, I am not a pervert…but I can choose to do perverted things.  You see, we are who we are, but we choose what we do with it.  The young man who burned Sasha Fleishman is not a monster because he is black (although ‘niggermania’ would have you think so) but he chose to do something monstrous.  Just as Sasha Fleishman is not a pervert for being a man in a skirt, although our media and culture would have us think so through their tacet response.  We have choices to make about our actions and we should be choosing actions that are grounded in love.  We cannot make choices about who we are and we shouldn’t confuse bigotries and biases for identities.  We can choose to be full of hatred, but you must remember that ultimately we are all made from love.

Conversations About Masculinity

Handshake-Bush-awkward-300x221Lately, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about what it means to be male.  Is it about biology or culture?  Is it about attitude or action? And on top of all that, as a minister in formation, I have to ask, what does faith say about this all?  Some of these conversations have been through my work with state policy advocacy around boys and men of color; other conversations have been with friends around the growing number of states that are allowing same sex marriage; still, other conversations have been in relation to the rights and needs of trans men and women and others who will benefit from ENDA and California’s bill AB 1266 (read: everyone.)  The feminist movement made it okay for us to question gender, sexual preference and orientation and frankly, the conversations about men really need to be including a lot more women…but that is another post!  Opening this door on the question of “male” has only led to more questions; basically it has led to the discovery of more doors.  Some lead to closets; some lead to corridors; some lead to basements with skeletons and some lead into the bright sunshine outdoors.

This post will be the first in a series where I will pose some of these questions in the hopes that some of my readers and colleagues will begin to formulate answers or possible directions in which we might go to achieve some kind of balance or maybe just a language that allows a conversation to begin.

Question #1 – What are we afraid of? (“Don’t touch me, dude!”)

I have long puzzled to myself, what are men afraid of…really?  This isn’t just as simple as the assumption that some gay men have where every straight guy is a gay man waiting to come out.  In fact, I would go as far to say that this sentiment is as damaging to the cause of realigning masculinity as straight men assuming that the only thing gay men want from them is sex.  In a paper last year, I presented how sexual expression between males is not inherently erotic.  Using the Biblical story of Jonathan and David in the second book of Samuel as my foundation, I make the case that sensual physicality is potentially part of every male relationship.  The physicality experienced by men can be intimate, but it is not automatically erotic.  In our culture today, however, we have been influenced by both misguided science (creation of the terms hetero/homo sexual was an anomaly of 19th century western science and its obsession with labeling things) and male dominance run rampant.

Unconditional Touch

Men in our culture are not taught to receive touch.  That is, men are not taught in our culture to receive touch without there being an exchange.  We are not taught about what I call ‘unconditional touch.’  Our current culture of male physicality reinforces the idea that “if someone is touching me…I must either do something or I have the obligation/right to do something in return.”  How often do we see men presented in comedy sketches where they get ‘a little too close’ and are defensively uncomfortable and have to reestablish their stereotyped masculine positions?  To us this is comedy, but really it is a tragedy.  In this transactional presentation of touch, the man assumes that every one who touches him, is doing so as part of an exchange: either sexual or positional (for dominance.) Example: a woman touching him = sexual communication (invitation/ expectation); a man touching him = challenge to dominance (sexual advance/ acknowledgement of boundaries/ threat.)  This is admittedly a simplification of some of what goes on, but we see this play out all the time in children and adults and it is repeatedly reinforced in our media.

I have seen this in my work as a massage therapist.  Most frequently, straight western men will want a female therapist.  Even though the massage relationship is professional, the underlying expectation presented in this situation is that touch = sex = opposite sex.  This also points to the reason that most straight western women want a female therapist.  They do not want to be presented with the transactional touch relationship of dealing with a male.  This same perversion of touch exists with same gender loving individuals.  The overwhelming majority of my male clients have been gay men.  Not necessarily because they expect a sexual exchange, but because their only context and their safest context for understanding touch has been in a sexual setting.

If men were allowed to experience touch without transactional obligations there might be more room for growth.  Both giving and receiving touch in this setting (without a transactional element) offers men the opportunity to express more authentic emotions, create deeper bonds and develop more genuine and loving relationships with themselves and their world around them.  When we look at two little boys playing together, they are physical.  They wrestle, they touch they cuddle and we consider this kind of interaction normal and endearing.  But at a certain point, rather than allowing the boy to grow with the sense that he can give and receive loving touch from a peer without obligation, we step in with adult expectations of gender norms and cultural restrictions and tell him that touch is only part of a specific set of rituals and can only be used as part of the exchange for sex.  There are many people who consider circumcision of boys to be a crime.  Despite my personal feelings about physical circumcision, I believe that much worse is the cultural circumcision that cuts boys off from the total experience of touch and physical interaction as a full and unconditional experience to be shared between loving people regardless of gender or gender expression.  This numbness is what disconnects men from themselves and from women and is quite possibly the foundation for our current crisis of objectification and rape.

(Coming Next: Question # 2 – Who do we want to be?)