Jay on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Jay is a queer, androgynous, and genderqueer human who loves poetry, books, and getting lost inside libraries. She was one of the first people I met when I moved to Los Angeles, and I was very drawn to her open honesty and her dry, absurdist sense of humor. After working together for several years, she’s become one of my closest confidants. Her curiosity about the world and dedication to growth makes her a well of insights, and it is for that reason that I was eager to interview her for this series. If you’ve ever heard me share wisdom from “a friend of mine,” I’m almost always talking about Jay.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

I had to think a great deal about this question before answering! When I think about sacred masculinity, first I think about its opposite, toxic masculinity. This type of masculinity believes it has something to prove, is easily wounded, and is built upon maintaining ego and pride at the expense of everything else. It is a masculinity that hurts the people embodying this kind of expression, and the people around them. I think of sacred masculinity, in the simplest terms, as a kind of masculinity that has nothing to prove. Stable, confident, gentle, authentic. A person who embodies this kind of masculinity is comfortable in their own skin and also puts others at ease. They do not have anything to prove in terms of their strength or prowess or skill. They are living their truth and also seek to help others express their most authentic selves. It is a type of masculinity that recognizes that showing vulnerability is not a sign of weakness or failure, but instead a sign of tremendous strength and courage.

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

I think a great start would be to eliminate the incredibly divisive way in which we talk about gender. I feel like so much discourse I see around gender starts with sweeping generalizations like “Women do this, this and this” and “Men don’t understand this this and this,” and these dialogues only continue to drive people further apart. I do believe that men and women have unique and very different ways of being socialized that most certainly have a huge effect on how they move through the world and are perceived by society. However, if we could approach one another from a more open heart and mind when engaging in dialogue instead of immediately operating from a place of assumptions and stereotypes, I believe that could help us start to see one another’s humanity a little bit more and allow some of those preconceived notions to fall away. In doing so, I hope that could give way to more authentic expressions of masculinity (and femininity) that aren’t tied up in how people think they “should” or should not behave. I think so much toxic masculinity is rooted in fear of being seen as weak or inadequate, and sacred masculinity is the undoing of that fear and expressing one’s masculinity from a place of ease and grace and dignity.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

When I was growing up, the men I looked up to the most were the fathers of some of my friends who I wished could be my father. These men were kind to their children, always showed up when they said they would, were gentle but firm with discipline, had a strong presence without being intimidating. They coached me in little league. They helped me with my homework. They drove me home from school. They made bad jokes and made a whole group full of kids laugh and cringe simultaneously. They were comfortably themselves.

As someone assigned female at birth and raised and socialized as a girl, the concept of having any kind of archetypes of masculinity beyond a father figure is a very new thing for me. I was raised by several strong women and had many ideas of what it meant to be a woman growing up, but I also based a lot of what I thought a girl “should” be around what I thought it meant to be heterosexual and attractive to men. I had absolutely no LGBTQ role models growing up, nor any concept that being a masculine-presenting female was something to strive for or be empowered by. Instead, it was the opposite. Any traces of masculinity might lead people to think I was a lesbian, or even worse, a dyke. Beyond a somewhat ‘boyish’ aesthetic in my clothing choices, I didn’t want anything to do with masculinity in young adulthood. In my eyes, it would give me away as queer, and it would make me an ugly woman.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to unpack all of that shame from my past and I am very proud of being queer today. But still, I am learning and growing, and at the time of this interview, masculine archetypes are a novel concept for me. When I read up on masculine archetypes for this interview, the main four I saw were: King, Warrior, Magician and Lover. Regardless of my upbringing, I find it difficult to resonate with any of the traditional masculine archetypes because they feature men and their archetypal female counterparts who are women. From an archetypal stand point, this doesn’t bother me, because archetypes are meant to be very traditional representations of a certain idea or object or person. But pretty much every article about masculine archetypes I read had language like “As every man knows…” or “Taking the journey from boy to man” or “How to become the best man possible.”  As a queer person who doesn’t really fit into the gender binary and is not a man, I don’t feel these archetypes are particularly representative of my experience.

Now, beyond the father figures of my childhood, I will say that the place from which I derive the most strength and inspiration are other queer people assigned female at birth like me and who have been socialized female, who are gender non conforming in some way and navigating masculinity and queerness in a heteronormative world as best they can. One of my all time inspirations is queer and non-binary poet Andrea Gibson (who also sometimes goes by Andrew). Their poetry is prolific and covers a range of topics like queer relationships, politics, how to better navigate white privilege, gendered violence, gender ambiguity, hope, love, sex, and just the wild experience of being human, regardless of our background.

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, my grandmother was taking care of me. At one point I did something rude and acted out and yelled at her, to which she responded, “That is not very ladylike.” My response? “I’m not a lady!” There is no doubt that my rudeness towards my grandmother needed to be disciplined, but instead of being told why my behavior was wrong from a human stand point, it was filtered through a gendered lens. According to what I was told by my grandmother, I shouldn’t have acted out not because it was rude, or because I could have expressed my feelings more calmly, but because it wasn’t ladylike. My behavior signaled I was doing my gender wrong. Even then, I knew this was bullshit. I knew at 10 years old I was certainly not a “lady” or what a lady was expected to be. But I definitely knew better than to yell at my grandma, too. And had she left gender out of it, she certainly could have helped me own up to my behavior and apologize to her the way I should have, instead of fighting her even further over not being a “lady.”

So how would I re-define the phrase “be a man?” I wouldn’t. I would get rid of this phrase completely. I strongly oppose language or phrases that encourage or reinforce behaviors based on one’s gender (or perceived gender.) I think in its purest form, the phrase “be a man” means to step up, to do the right thing, and be mature. And those are all great things to strive for. So why can’t we just use this kind of language to encourage men AND women to be grown adults and act in the most mature way possible? “Be a man” also has a lot of negative connotations as well, like “don’t be a wimp,” “give into peer pressure,”  “take a potentially dangerous risk,” or “be aggressive/fight/take what’s ‘yours.’” So again, because of all the negative connotations associated with this phrase, I’d completely eliminate the phrase, and just start encouraging men and women to listen to their instincts, be mature, and make healthy and honorable choices.

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

For starters, that it belongs to men, that men are obligated to be masculine, and only certain types of masculinity are “right” or “valid.” Once, when I was trying to talk about what my masculinity meant to me with a family member, she responded, “But you’re so pretty, how can you possibly think of yourself as masculine?” There was so much contained in that statement. First of all, there was this underlying idea that prettiness and masculinity are somehow mutually exclusive. There was also this underlying idea that masculinity in women or those assigned female must be ugly or unattractive if I was in fact “so pretty”, and therefore, based on that logic, unable to be masculine. I felt fairly defeated in that moment, because I wondered if that’s how everyone was seeing me, as just a pretty girl, and not as the masculine and androgynous individual who I know myself to be. But that experience also gave me more determination to define for myself what exactly masculinity is and isn’t, and to continue living my truth, regardless of what others may think of me.

What is your favorite thing about navigating and expressing your masculinity while moving through the world being perceived as a woman?

From the time I was a child, I always felt like one of the girls and one of the boys, and moved very easily and happily between the two groups. I was a girl scout and a baseball player on an all boys team. I really do feel that I had a girlhood as well as a boyhood in a way that is sometimes difficult to articulate. As an adult, my experience is still very similar. I am often treated like one of the guys around men. I am included in groups of women and assumed to be one of them, and am treated with the same respect as any other woman. I feel neither distinctly woman nor man but more a hybrid of both. I believe my androgyny is part of what allows me to interact with others from a place of openness and curiosity, because I don’t carry as many preconceived notions about gender as I used to, nor do I feel I have to “perform” my gender (or my sexuality) in a certain way anymore.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

I truly don’t know at this moment, but I hope that it is one in which we see toxic masculinity dying a blazing, fiery death, and out of that ash and destruction, we hopefully see more loving, wholesome and authentic expressions of masculinity rising up to take its place.

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