Grey Weinstein (he/they)
If I’m being completely honest, I’ve never really liked men. I’d like to say that this isn’t my fault, but that’s not entirely true. It started when I was in early middle school, when I first started researching feminism online. (Yes, I know how that sounds, but bear with me; I promise this is not a rant about how feminism turns your daughters into angry, hairy man-haters.) Luckily for me, the online activists who first introduced me to the concept of feminist thought proudly proclaimed that their feminism was intersectional. I’ll be the first to admit that the rhetoric I encountered was far from radical or even actively anti-racist– it would be years before I started engaging critically with concepts like Marxism and abolitionism– but it introduced me to ideas like white privilege, intersectionality, and the importance of centering trans women and women of color in feminist action. My online feminist spaces were far from perfect, but while they probably don’t reflect my current political views, they were a useful stepping stone to getting me where I am today, ideologically speaking. (That is to say, a raging, foaming-at-the-mouth queer feminist leftist.)
But now that I’ve established that I have never been a TERF or a “glass-ceiling” white feminist, I have a confession: the feminist rhetoric I was engaging with caused me to internalize some rather problematic views about masculinity. Rather than presenting patriarchy as a social, political, and economic force rooted in systems and institutions, a lot of the feminist articles I was reading online simplified it down to “men oppressing women.” Which might be fine to some extent; patriarchy is complex and I was twelve. But it meant that even as my understanding of systemic oppression broadened, part of me still thought of patriarchy as a social force that was located in the male body.
Here is where anyone familiar with transphobic rhetoric, particularly transmisogyny, starts to get nervous. Of course, the concept of a “male body” or a “female body” is as much a social construct as gender itself; Western society takes a wide range of biological markers such as chromosomes, external sex organs, internal reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics and bundles them together as “male” or “female” with no regard for the vast variation that actually exists in the way that these traits are embodied. To construct the “male body” (usually as “body with a penis” or “body with xy chromosomes”) and then label bodies with those traits as agents of patriarchy is obviously deeply problematic. It quickly lends itself to transmisogynist claims that trans women have male privilege or that they pose a threat to cis women’s safety. It also creates a dichotomy where (cis) men are always the aggressors and (cis) women are always victims incapable of perpetrating harm. In this conceptualization of gender, transmasculine people cross a boundary from a state of unquestionable moral purity to become unscrupulous agents of patriarchy.
All of that is to say, even though I managed to avoid ever engaging with or even seeing such transphobic rhetoric, I engaged with its building blocks. If you’d have asked me then, I would have passionately proclaimed that feminism was not about hating men, that it was about building a better world for all genders (and challenging the gender binary, of course). But I also would have told you that I honestly had no interest in conversations about how men could fight the patriarchy or about envisioning healthy masculinity. I had internalized the idea that men were inherently more patriarchal than women, and I didn’t care to engage in the project of constructing healthy versions of masculinity, which I saw as related to but ultimately separate from the project of women’s liberation.
I still think it’s fine for women to remain uninterested in those sorts of conversations about masculinity if they want to, but it probably goes without saying that my journey through the man-hating-lesbian-to-gay-trans-man pipeline hit me like a fucking train. When I first started questioning my gender halfway through college, I kept bumping into the idea that trans men and transmasculine people were “gender traitors.” Although I was able to dismiss this talking point as TERF nonsense, I constantly felt it tugging at the back of my mind. I had the pervasive, all-encompassing sense that transitioning would mean losing something, some sort of moral purity or inherent feminine goodness. The fear of becoming an evil, masculine agent of patriarchy held me back from transitioning for quite some time. Working through it involved asking myself some questions that I still don’t have answers to. (How much of my fear was because I didn’t want responsibility for the aspects of male privilege that might come my way after transitioning? Or more harmfully, because I didn’t want to give up my ability to invoke the victimhood of white femininity? Or was it simply that I feared transition would somehow negate the experiences of misogyny I’d lived through for twenty years?) But when I came out the other side of this period of questioning with a prescription for testosterone in my hand, I was still terrified. I suddenly had so many questions about what masculinity should look like, questions whose answers I had spent years proudly proclaiming to have no interest in.
Sure, I knew how to ask for consent; I knew not to catcall or sexually harass women. I knew how to do the bare minimum to avoid being a sexual predator. I also knew that I rejected fragile and toxic expressions of masculinity, the type of insecurity in one’s own identity that would lead a man to only buy makeup if it was branded “warpaint for men.” But could masculinity be… good? Constructive? Liberating? Compassionate? And if so, how?
At a loss for adult role models of healthy masculinity in my personal life, I turned to my friends and peers. In a series of interviews, I asked students at the University of Michigan about their relationships with masculinity, and how queer and trans folks have been interpretting, reappropriating, and reimaging masculinity.
If one thing has become very clear to me over the course of this project, it’s that masculinity is a concept that’s hard to put into words. One of the first questions that I asked students was how they define masculinity. While answers varied from person to person, all of my interviewees had the same initial response: “Oh… what is masculinity?” My favorite definition came from Spencer Hall (he/they), a graduate student at the University of Michigan, who explained to me, “I don’t even think it really does have a definition. We live in a society where gender is a social construct, and I would argue that femininity and masculinity are also social constructs, so I would say that essentially it’s made up.”
Will McClelland (he/him), an undergraduate student, put it this way: “Masculinity is fake, but I use it every day.” He’s right; masculinity is nothing more than a set of behaviors, characteristics, and values that our society deems “manly,” but the fact that it’s socially constructed doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect our lives. The queer and trans students I spoke to are all active engaging in the process of sorting through those traits that society deems masculine, choosing the positive aspects that resonate with them, and rejecting the negative aspects they see as toxic or harmful.
One of the most consistent examples of that process that I observed was students grappling with and reinterpreting the concept of masculine strength. Our society tells men that we need to be strong, and students see some aspects of that strength as destructive. For example, Jamy Lee (any pronouns), a student and medical researcher at the University of Michigan, criticized “the idea of masculinity that society has pressed upon us, where masculinity is like, you are supposed to be the provider, you are supposed to be tough, you’re not supposed to cry, no emotions. Take care of people, don’t feel anything, and also eat meat a lot for whatever reason!”
As an enormous crybaby and vegetarian, I have to agree with Jamy that this aspect of masculinity does not appeal to me at all. But instead of rejecting it outright, many have decided to reinterpret this concept of “masculine strength” through the lens of their personal values, which include compassion and community. Will told me, “If you’re defining masculinity as acting as a protector of others [...] [then] by encouraging others around you, and protecting their emotions by showing your own care, showing that they have someone they can go to, that they have someone who loves them, that’s a really admirable form of it.” By keeping the part of masculine strength that resonates with him– taking care of others– while rejecting the parts that would harm himself or others around him– refusal to cry or express emotion– Will demonstrates how we can pick and choose which aspects of masculinity to adopt. Jamy provided a similar sentiment, saying, “Guys that stay home, for example, when their feminine partners go out to work– that’s not weak, that’s not feminine, to stay at home and take care of children.”
This particularly touched me because going into these interviews, I thought of “masculine strength” as a concept that could only serve to put limits on how men and masculine people express themselves and process emotions. As a result, I assumed that forming healthy, constructive relationships with others required a rejection of masculine social norms. However, Will and Jamy’s comments show how masculinity can be a tool that we use constructively. It can allow us to embody social roles in a way that feels gender affirming, comfortable, or freeing, while also strengthening our bonds to those around us.
However, that’s not to say that student’s don’t also have thoughts about abolishing gender norms. It’s not the traits associated with masculinity or femininity themselves that they have problems with. In fact, every student I spoke with had positive things to say about stereotypically masculine traits (which varied from “wearing pants” to “being grounded and dependable” to “speaking in a low voice”) and stereotypically feminine traits (ranging anywhere from “painting your nails” to “showing emotion”). Rather, students take issue with the fact that these traits are associated with any particular gender to begin with. Spencer explained, “When I think about an ideal world around masculinity or just gender in general really, I think I would like to see this relationship between masculinity and femininity being so oppositional no longer be a thing. I would love to live in a world where people just got to show up and be creative, whether that was whatever they’re wearing, or the way they present themselves to the world. I think about how, if we didn’t have these standards of masculinity and femininity, how many men I would see wearing dresses, how many women would I see wearing suits every day. [...] I think that would allow a lot of people to be themselves.” Or, in Jamy’s words, “Why is masculinity in this box? And why is femininity in this box? I’m just like, ‘Okay, open the boxes!’”
My interviewees also reminded me that, whatever criticisms of masculinity I may have, my critiques can’t be applied universally. If masculinity is a social construct, then it must look different in different societies; and indeed, it does. Nishant Shah (he/him), another graduate student, explained how the way that he experienced masculinity shifted when he moved from India to the US. Nishant described India as “a very orthodox society [where] boys are expected to behave a certain way” and said that he was surprised and excited to see “so much ‘metrosexuality’ in major cities and especially in the US; it is so normal for men to wear makeup nowadays.” But that’s not to say that India was without models of healthy masculinity, either. “There are a lot of celebrities who are endorsing gender neutral clothing or gender blind clothing. [...] Like why is a sari considered feminine, why can’t a man wear one?” Nishant said. Similarly, he told me, “What made me realize [that men can show emotions] is Indian movies.[...] Indian cinema is evolving a lot, and I was in that teenage transition phase where I got attracted to a lot of movies. And because of that, and seeing that every actor had their own expression of an idea, or an expression of an emotion or feeling, that was one of the turning points in my life.”
Jamy had a similar experience, saying, “My background is that I’m East Asian, and East Asian [...] cultures have sort of this hypermasculine cisheteronormative aspect to them.” Yet at the same time, Jamy values expressions of masculinity in their own culture that are neither fragile nor unhealthy but are instead based on love and respect. For instance, “There’s this thing called ‘skinship,’ which is the physical touch of someone that you’re close with. So you will see girls in the street holding hands, you will see guys in the street with their arms around each other.”
Finally, I’ll conclude with the million-dollar question: Is the LGBT community queering masculinity? Although I say this a bit tongue-in-cheek, I truly do believe that queer and trans people are at the forefront of reimagining a masculinity that is not just “healthy” but exciting and liberating. On one hand, interviewees stressed that there’s nothing inherently queer about men and masculine-identifying people dressing or expressing themselves in a way that aligns more with the construct of femininity. “A man in makeup, for that matter, or a man wearing a skirt, that is masculinity for me,” Nishant said. “Especially for straight men, I would say that it was a stigma twenty years ago, but now I’ve seen so many influencers on Instagram wearing makeup, and they are perfectly comfortable in their masculinity.” However, while makeup may not belong to the gays, that doesn’t mean that queer and especially trans people aren’t doing new and exciting things with gender.
The process of transition, in particular, seems to open the door for students to play with concepts of gender. As Spencer explained, “Before trans folks inject hormones into our bodies, we sit and think, ‘Who am I? Who do I want to be in this world?’ And really reflect on our relationships with our own bodies and our gender, while I think a lot of cishet folks don’t do that.” While transness does not inherently gift people with the ability to see through the utter nonsense of the Western gender binary, trans people in general do spend a lot more time thinking about gender than cis people do. As a result, I do think that we tend to come to a greater understanding, not just of gender as a social construct, but also of our own internal experiences of gender as something that is complex and multifaceted rather than a simple “male” or “female.” And all of that self reflection often leads to the sense that gender expression and gender norms are something to be played with, giving trans people greater freedom to challenge or subvert conceptions about gender. “It does come with a sense of, ‘I can break these rules, and no one’s going to tell me not to do that,’” Jamy told me.
Observing how students are challenging and remodeling masculinity through these interviews– and how they are “opening up the boxes” of masculinity and femininity to break down gender norms– made me feel remarkably hopeful. If there’s one thing I took away from this experience, it’s an incredible sense of solidarity within this subset of the queer community at the University of Michigan. If gender is essentially a big group project, then this group is certainly taking on a challenge– whether that’s redefining constructive masculinity, confronting toxic masculinity, or abolishing the gender binary because, in Will’s words, gender “is all just vibes.” Regardless of what the future holds for masculinity, one thing is certain; as Spencer told me at the end of our interview, “Trans folks lead the way. We always have. And we continue to.”