Several years ago I did an exercise in a class where we drew a box on the black board and we called it the “Be a man” box. (I learned this exercise from the sociologist Michael Kimmel.) The idea is that the class identifies what they think of when they hear the phrase “Be a man!”
They were invited to use stereotypes. The interesting thing about stereotypes is that everybody knows them. Even those who claim not to believe in them. Stereotypes still are a part of our cultural package, of what we know.
I wish I had taken a picture of all the things the class, women and men, called out. But they were indeed the things you’d expect. Strong, independent, reliable, rational, powerful, in control, athletic, those type of things.
And then I asked what the things were that you were called when you fell outside of this box. And most of the insults—because once you fall outside of the box you risk being insulted—were about being gay or about being a woman.
And then we did the same for women. We called it the “Be a lady!” box. Somehow, the class agreed it didn’t sound right to call it the “Be a woman” box. And again, the usual stereotypes fitted in: Nice, emotional, helpful feeling. But the opposite of being a lady was not only, you’re a man or you’re a lesbian. It could be that. But it wasn’t necessary that if you didn’t conform to being a lady, you could still be a woman. Yes. you might be called a […] woman (you fill in the blanks).
Women, it turned out have more ways of being seen as a woman than men have of being seen as a man. And let me hasten to say that being gay and being a man are of course not contradictory. Neither is being a lesbian and being a woman or a lady. Those were just the crummy stereotypes with inherited from the late 19th century.
Anyway, here is what I wanted to tell you about this. There is nothing wrong with being called a woman or gay. And I don’t know if you’re gay or not. I’m saying, that also if you’re not, it’s completely fine to be seen as gay. In fact, I’ve known many gay men whose example you’d do well to follow.
The reason so many people don’t think this is cool is called sexism. And sexism is the most enduring form of bigotry we are stuck with. And for you to realize this will carry you far towards becoming your own man.
Why is sexism the most enduring form of bigotry? Because as a society we believe that sexism is based on a fundamental truth: the essential difference between women and men. It is a horridly old fashioned idea. And it is an idea that has lead to great human tragedy. It is true that you and I will never have a child. And if anything, we should only have tremendous awe for women’s ability to bring forth life. It is the ultimate power.
Here’s the tragedy.
Most men, of whatever sexual persuasion, do not love women. Don’t ask me why. It doesn’t even matter. What matters is that you look around you and notice that there is no sign of love that men might have towards women. Now, men do learn to love women, certain women at least. There are many happy older couples. And yet, there are too many ways in which you can see the men do not love women.
When I speak of love, I mean of the course the real love that you understand in your heart. The love that emanates from the center of your being. I am not talking about the superficial kind you might feel for sugar cookies. Many men will say they love women, but they don’t actually behold the person in front of them. They use women and “love” women for the ways they can use them: to be seen with them, to gain pleasure from them, and to be served by them.
When I speak of loving women, I think of the intense curiosity you feel when you meet someone great. When a person sinks a hook into you and you just can’t rest until you know every little detail about them. Until you have found a way where the center of your being connects with the center of their being.
Now, hold on. You’re not going to love every woman and you’re not going to get to know every woman. But can you approach women with this sense of: Behold! What an awesome person stands in front of me!
Time to come out
One of the great differences between gay men and straight men is that gay men had to consciously grapple with their sexuality. They had to recognize that their sexual desires did not fir a standard pattern. And then they had to decide that they were going to stand by themselves. They had to figure how to live and love differently from the ways most of their parents expected them to. They had to choose.
Straight men did not choose. They just followed along, for the most part. And they missed a wonderful opportunity. They missed that critical period in their life where they had to ask: What is true about my sexuality, about my desires.
Mind you, many gay men are just as sexist as straight men are, even though many deny it. Don’t be fooled. Gay men have investigated their love for men, but many have not considered what that means for their love for women. Not all love is expressed sexually after all.
No, by and large men do not love women. For it they did, insults about being a woman would not sting. It’s as simple as that. And it is exactly because those insults sting that men have such a hard time just being themselves. That’s why I started to write you these letters to begin with.
I will have much more to say about all this. Let me finish today with two things.
First of all, gay bashing is real. And many who are gay-bashed are not gay. They didn’t behave as a “man” should and became a victim as a result. They were considered “weak.” The ‘real’ men who bashed them were such cowards they they could do no better than to prey on the weak. Have you noticed that most gay-bashing happens in groups? And those are the “real men?” Whatever gay-bashing is, it is not a sign of strength.
My point is, if and when you act in a way that is not considered “male” according to some stereotype, you run a risk. it is a risk worth taking, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you. Always be safe. And also always be aware that all women, yes all women, live with the risk of being assaulted. We’re not special.
I love women!
And finally, for today, there is only one way out of the sexism that hinders your freedom so. And that is the way of love. Love the women in your life. All of them. (No, I don’t mean sleep with all of them, silly.) Love them. Have an open heart towards them, behold them, desire to get to know them, and do get to know them when you can.
If you love women from the center of your being, you will have opened an important door to love yourself. Only then can you figure out who you are as a man. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re gay, straight, bi or questioning.
It’s when you learn to love women as women, that you can make friends with that side of you that would otherwise remain closed out of fear. Deep love is the most secure way out of that fear.
Say it with me: I love women! When we get men to say that from the deep wells of their hearts, then and only then will we see an end to sexism.
And you can become your own man. And as I said, there is nothing I long for like seeing you become your own man.
With all my heart,