International Men’s Day: How femininity made me a ‘real man’

As International Men’s Day rolls around every year, we hear the earnest and all too familiar warnings about how suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 50, and how, if we just learn to accept vulnerability in men, to champion the ability to show emotion and talk about how we feel, we might begin to reverse this appalling statistic. 

Sadly, we then spend the following 364 days extolling strength, stoicism and other traditional masculine stereotypes as the gold standard in what it means to be a man. We spend them shitting on femininity as a sign of weakness. We spend them ridiculing those who don’t conform to age-old gender-based roles and characteristics, before starting the whole sorry process again the following year. 

That’s not to say the conversation isn’t changing- it is - but it’s not changing anywhere near quickly enough, and toxic masculinity still pervades almost every crevice of our society, blighting the lives of men and women alike.

I’m not, and have never been, what you would call typically masculine. I’ve never felt like a ‘real man’. I grew up in a culture where I was shamed for crying, where any display of emotion, or any trait that might be viewed as unmanly, was seen as a very bad thing indeed. But that didn’t change who I was, all it did was make me ashamed of who I was.

One of my earliest memories is of being maybe four or five and finding a pot of nail varnish unattended in a relative’s house while the grown-ups were in the kitchen talking. I set about painting my nails like it was the most natural thing in the world because, to me, that’s exactly what it was. I didn’t think about whether I should do the thing that would make my nails pretty, I just did it. 

I still remember how the grown ups ridiculed me on their return. I don’t think there was necessarily any malice in their jibes, and I’m sure they probably saw it as totally harmless, good-natured piss-taking, but it stays with me to this day. The taunts of ‘little girl’ and, my uncle’s favourite, ‘big poof’, formed the first of many lessons in how this was no way for a boy to behave, lessons that were reinforced throughout my childhood until any feminine traits I possessed had been all but erased.

Except, of course, they weren’t erased. They’d just been added to the big box of stuff I now knew was wrong with me, a box which could only be opened to put more stuff in, and under no circumstances to take anything out.

Coming out, then, was a massive relief: I could start unpacking the box. At least a little bit. I knew that wider society still had a problem with feminine men, but a combination of laughable naivety and wishful thinking led me to believe that the LGBTQ community, of which I was now a part, would be a safe, supportive environment where all were made to feel welcome, regardless of how they presented. So even if I couldn’t totally be myself walking around the former mining community in Yorkshire where I resided at that time, at least I’d be able to completely relax in queer spaces without fear of judgement or persecution.

I remember reading my first ‘camp gays give the rest of us a bad name’ tweet and thinking, “What the fuck am I seeing here?” The more I picked at this particular scab, the worse it got. Sneering, self-congratulatory posts from other gays about how liking guys didn’t mean you had to broadcast the fact by being all limp-wristed and flouncy. A lesbian friend (now former friend) telling me, shortly after I came out, that she was cool with it because I wasn’t camp, before launching into a lengthy rant about how she ‘couldn’t stand’ camp gays. Online dating profiles proudly proclaiming that they were ‘straight-acting’, and that they certainly weren’t interested in meeting anyone who wasn’t. No fems. Fems are bad.

I felt somewhat cut adrift by this ugly rhetoric, and actually began to experience a profound sense of loss for the warm, cuddly LGBTQ community I had foolishly created in my own mind. I was at a loss to explain why a community that faces so much judgement from without would visit that same judgement on those within. If we couldn’t celebrate our own diversity, how the fuck could we expect others to do so? 

I began to hope I’d made a mistake. Had I just been exposed to the worst elements? This certainly wouldn’t be unheard of on social media. Was the real LGBTQ community actually the big, supportive family I’d envisaged all along?

Sadly, no.

According to the Attitude 2017 Masculinity Survey, in which 5000 gay men were interviewed about their attitudes to masculinity in the gay community, a colossal 71% of gay men have personally been ‘turned off by a prospective partner showing signs of femininity’.

I find that figure quite upsetting, and not just because I’m a guy who displays feminine traits, or even because I’m frequently attracted to other feminine guys, but because it betrays an unpleasant underbelly of misogyny within our community. In admitting this, we’re admitting that we consider femininity in and of itself to be an undesirable characteristic. We’re saying that masculinity - being ‘straight-acting’ - is the gold standard to which we should all aspire because the alternative is inherently inferior.

Much of the blame for this, of course, lies with how gay men (and women, but that’s a whole other article) are portrayed in popular culture. Until very recently, it was virtually impossible to find a movie in which any token gay character wasn’t a shrieking, overblown stereotype, and scriptwriters are still all too willing to shit out the absolutely hilarious ‘implying that a straight character is gay for lolz’ trope in just about every sitcom ever made.

This, too, was borne out by the survey, with 92% of respondents saying they think effeminate men are made fun of in the mainstream media, while 41% have, at some point, thought that effeminate men ‘give the gay community a bad image or reputation’. It’s easy to think of this latter group as self-hating pricks who should eat a fucking dick and get over themselves, and to a large extent, I do think that.

But I also acknowledge that there’s probably some causality involved in the relationship between those two figures: effeminate men are portrayed negatively in the media, we don’t wish to be associated with these negative stereotypes and therefore reject men who display feminine traits as potential partners, blaming them for the fact that such stereotypes exist at all.

Sadly, this 41% seem to have missed the obvious point that it’s actually those in the entertainment industry deploying the effeminate gay caricature as the punchline to so many depressingly shit jokes, along with those gays who support the idea that femininity is a thing to be mocked or derided, who are doing the real damage to our community, not the guys who are courageous enough to express their true nature in the face of a hostile media.

I think the most interesting statistic to emerge from the survey, though, was that 41% - that figure again - said that at some point they’ve felt like less of a man because of their sexuality. One can’t help but wonder if this is the same 41% who think effeminate gays reflect badly on the whole community. If it’s not exactly the same respondents, I’d imagine there’s a significant degree of overlap, and this, for me, gets to the heart of the matter. We’re looking at the whole issue from a completely fucked up perspective.

The only reason to be upset about feeling like ‘less of a man’ is if we believe that a man is the best thing it’s possible to be, or if we believe that how much of a man we are is determined by how many typically masculine traits we possess.

I don’t believe either of those things. I was conditioned to believe them for many years, and it took me a long time to see through the many layers of bullshit so I could start to feel comfortable in my own skin. Over the past few years, though, I’ve been able, for the first time in my life, to feel proud of my feminine side. To realise that it’s what makes me who I am. That it’s what makes me happy in who I am.

And that, to me, is the very essence of what it means to be a 'real man'. Being your whole self without feeling the need to hide parts of who you are, or falsely promote those traits you think others want to see, is way more 'real' than any of the alternatives.

I realise all of the above is a very specific example, related directly to my own experiences and my own community, but it’s difficult to argue that it’s not reflective of society as a whole, that we aren’t all conditioned to act a certain way, or that it isn’t ultimately to our detriment.

It seems dispiritingly obvious to me that, away from our little woke bubbles on social media, traditionally toxic ideas of what it means to be a man, and of what behaviours and characteristics make you less of a man, are as deep-rooted as they ever were. It seems equally obvious that they will never change if we only talk about them once a year, and if we immediately go on the '#NotAllMen' defensive in any conversation related to toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity affects all of us. From the women who experience male violence, to the men who are needlessly losing their lives because of the intolerable pressure to maintain a granite-hard exterior through which the only emotion that may penetrate is anger, until eventually, inevitably, the whole facade crumbles and they feel like there’s only one way out.

The conversation is changing, but the statistics are not. We all need to do better.

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