Ty Volante 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.

Ty Volante is a tender spirit with a gentle strength. My partner once called him the kind of guy you’d want to have in a repopulating-the-earth sort of situation, and I absolutely agree. He looks for growth, understanding, and enjoyment in most everything he does, and he especially enjoys when any of this happens outdoors. He can often be found enjoying the company of others, philosophizing, talking politics, or engaged in what ever sport the weather will allow.

Ty is an especially delightful interviewee for me to have the honor of including, because he was my first male best friend and also the first guy I met who didn’t play by gender “rules.” When we met at the sweet age of thirteen, he had rainbow hair and painted nails. I thought that was the coolest, and there has certainly been no shortage of coolness to witness in him in the twenty-two years that we’ve been friends since.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

Certainly, strength is one that immediately comes to mind. Courage seems like another that transcends time and cultural influences. Toughness. Adventurousness…

In starting to answer this, I found myself a bit stumped on the most essential characteristics beyond the ones above that immediately popped into my mind, so I turned to the global repository of human knowledge for inspiration. Surprisingly, the first link I clicked on gave me what I was looking for. Despite the cringe-worthy décor and title, this website and this article in particular did, I thought, a nice job at distilling a response to this question. It doesn’t hurt that it confirmed some of my already-written responses. Though I don’t agree with all of it, I thought it was interesting. Below are a couple of notable passages, though I’d encourage reading the whole thing.

“These were the factors that our forbearers weighed on the scale in making the decision to assign the protector role to men. It wasn’t a matter of plain sexism, and trying to keep women down, but a basic biological calculation. In a harsh environment that was rife with perils both natural and human, it was a strategic decision designed to increase a tribe’s chances of survival and keep the most people alive. Individual desires and differences were trumped by group needs.

Thus, an innate attraction to and greater comfort with violence likely naturally drew men to the way of the warrior and made them well-suited for being tasked with the role of protector.

Donovan argues that understanding the dynamics of these ancient honor groups is the key to understanding the essence of male psychology and how men relate to, interact, and judge each other even up through the modern day. What men respect in other men (and women find attractive), is rooted in what men wanted in the men to the left and the right of them as they stood together side-by-side on the perimeter.

Strength, courage, mastery, and honor are virtues that obviously aren’t exclusive to men, and it’s not that there haven’t been women who have embodied these traits in every age (as we shall see next time, the idea of a soft, fragile femininity is a modern conception). It isn’t that women shouldn’t seek these attributes either. Rather, the tactical virtues comprise the defining traits of masculinity. If a woman isn’t strong or acts afraid in the face of danger, no one thinks of her as less womanly because of it. Yet such shortcomings will be seen as emasculating in a man, even today.”

I also liked this quote I found on a very different site that sort of reaches the same conclusion, with different terms: “Rather than defining strength as ‘power over,’ feminist masculinity defines strength as one’s capacity to be responsible for self and others.”

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

Growing up, they were mostly those I was exposed to through popular culture. Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Clint Eastwood in everything. Superman, Batman and other male superheros in comic books. Today, I would say mostly athletes, especially the ones that exist amongst environments rife with toxic masculinity (professional sports) but avoid the negative expressions of their gender that are so ubiquitous there. Interestingly, one could argue that athletics are modern displays of all of the things that make people good warriors and protectors. Strength (really all physical attributes, but the more ‘manly’ games emphasize strength), teamwork, quick-thinking and strategy, passion, fearlessness/courage. In the way that the author of the post in the last question defined the most essential traits of masculinity as the traits you’d look for in who you’d want to stand with you in war, the modern analog is, what are the traits you’d select in a teammate? In so far as the athlete is the modern archetype of masculinity, he is all of those things, but constrained by honor, respect and sportsmanship. President Obama is, to me, an archetype of the modern expression of masculinity – mentally fit, articulate, strategic, loving, virtuous and kind. He seems like a good man who is also good at being a man, to use a turn of phrase from the article above. And maybe more fundamentally, like I think most people who grew up with a [healthy] father in their lives, he is an archetype that teaches us what it is to “be a man.”

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

First, I think we need to spend more time as a society asking ourselves what our archetypes should look like, and what makes up the ideals and traits of our conception of masculinity. As much as these ideals are shaped by our cultural lenses, we need to understand our roles in creating them and how we have the ability to encourage or discourage a healthier view of masculinity. And then, we need more leadership from men that will demonstrate (live) these traits in highly visible ways that inspire and compel others to do so too as well as establish them as the ideals.

What role(s) do you believe the masculine has in regards to the feminine? What do you see as a balanced dynamic there?

Yin and Yang. Both equal and essential parts of a whole. Without one, the other is not complete. Just as men need women to continue our species, and vice versa, masculine energy needs its aggressive and violent tendencies softened and smoothed out by feminine energy. In fact, I think most of the problems we see in modern society are due to an imbalance in the way that masculine energy has an out-sized influence in what is predominantly a global patriarchal structure.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Someone smarter than me once said, “Strength is not having no weaknesses, but it is the ability to recognize one’s weaknesses and to address them.” I’m not sure if that relates to vulnerability exactly, nor was it meant to, but I think admitting weaknesses or shortcomings can be viewed as a form of vulnerability. Furthermore, asking for help in addressing weakness is a form of vulnerability because it requires saying to another, “I’m not perfect, and I need your help.” Any time we rely on someone or ask them for help, that requires a level of vulnerability, and so far as we all have flaws, we all should learn to rely on others.

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

I would like to redefine it “be a good man” in the way that the following passage explains the difference between being a ‘good man’ and ‘being good at being a man.’

“Strength, courage, mastery, and honor are the attributes needed in a team of Navy SEALs just as much as a family of Mafioso. If you’ve ever wondered why we are fascinated by gangsters, pirates, bank robbers, and outlaws of all stripes, and can’t help but think of them as pretty manly despite their thuggery and extralegal activities, now you know; they’re not good men, but they’ve mastered the core fundamentals of being good at being men.”

That is, I’d like it to mean not only ‘be manly,’ as if that was something valuable or good in and of itself, which it isn’t really, but ‘be a better person.’

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

That it just means power and that it is the antonym of weakness. And that being good at being a man means the same thing as being a good man. See above. Finally, that there is no room in masculinity for emotion.

What’s your favorite thing about being a man?

Other than the convenience of standing peeing, I don’t know if I have one. I joke, but seriously, most of the things that are enjoyable about being a man come from the power and privilege bestowed by a partriarchical society that is fundamentally unjust and that I’d like to see become more egalitarian. I suppose one thing that I enjoy is that I don’t have as much societal (and/or biological) pressure to have children younger than I have felt ready.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

I think it will look more like femininity or at least a less pronounced version of what it is now, as more people come to see the virtues of both and the need for balance and the fact that we all possess both types of energy, if only we were not culturally bound by the need to express only one and conform to the mold. The future I see, both men and women are more balanced beings, exhibiting the gender traits that feel more comfortable or natural to them, with no pressure from society to conform to one or the other, but blend the best parts of both and celebrate that, free from social stigma.

Get a little more Ty on Instagram.

Dr. Nigel Stepp 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.

Nigel Stepp is a natural born scientist- one who became a career scientist not because of a desire to possess knowledge, but simply to enjoy it. His doctorate is in experimental psychology and he works in the Information and Systems Sciences Laboratory at HRL. His work steeps him in abstraction, which affords the ability to look at things from multiple angles and clarify their forms. This intimate way of approaching knowledge permeates much of his life, and it’s palpable when you’re in his presence. His dedicated curiosity and eloquence is very inspiring. And his particular flavor of appreciation for truth is a reminder that intimate understanding is rarely disappointing, and that awareness yields possibility.

I was hoping this interview series would go the direction that Nigel takes it through the complexity and depth of his answers. The concept of masculinity really is multi-layered, and as he demonstrates, understanding it more intimately is a provocative and important experience.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

This one is tough, since I consider that term to be yours, so I feel like I would not be able to add anything more than my understanding of what you mean by sacred masculinity. I could, however, say something about the characteristics of masculinity that should be preserved, appreciated, or acknowledged. The rest of these questions seem to address just that.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

For me it’s telling that nothing comes to mind immediately. Instead, I have an awareness of what sorts of archetypes are out there. There’s the gritty and martial Rambo-Norris; the suave, but pickled Bogart-Draper; the differently violent Bond-Brando. I would not identify any of these as my own, but using them as counter-examples helps to narrow the field. The goal in calling these counter-examples is not to be contrary, or say there’s anything wrong with any of them, but to reflect and investigate a lack of connection that I personally have with some of these more common masculine traits.

Each has some lack of dimensionality, even taking into account the inherent flatness of an archetype. For these, flatness is baked in as part of the archetype itself. And so perhaps I should look towards complexity of character.

Further, the counter-examples often rest upon or celebrate a flaw of character. This leaves masculinity painting itself as the underdog that has overcome something, through physical dominance, social position, cunning, or even sleight of hand. This suggests a true masculine trait of introspection, with which one’s character flaw is that thing overcome.

Finally, most male archetypes seem to be defined in terms of an other. The vanquished foe, the arch enemy, the ex-lover, the needful family.

Picking up the pieces, I am left with a complex character who overcomes his own weaknesses to act authentically in the moment. So who is that?

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

Time enough in our thoughts and reactions to follow those threads of complexity. What is needed to make that happen is a much harder question, since it really is an adjustment to what ends up being a reaction, or even a reflex.

The breaking down of the surface shell of masculinity and femininity may help, since it can cover up the depths underneath.

What role(s) do you believe the masculine has in regards to the feminine?/ What do you see as a balanced dynamic there?

It’s hard not to immediately go with a Yin/Yang approach — as far as I can tell it maps perfectly, at least as far as the mixing of two components go. But the question is more specific than that.

The role of the masculine is to be counterpoint (as is the feminine). In all self-organizing systems there is an interplay of opposing forces. If the forces are both balanced, and defined in terms of the other, then complex patterns emerge. Order may rise out of disorder.

Getting more specific, what are the masculine elements of those opposing forces? How many dimensions do we want to look at? How many dimensions are there? We could talk about different kinds of strength, which seems to be the most obvious (cliché?), but as they sometimes say in academia, that feels like stamp-collecting. An enumeration of things without regard to the encompassing theory.

Taking self-organization all the way, we can guess that the roles are context dependent. In fact there’s already an answer above: in a given context, the masculine role is to overcome a weaknesses to act authentically.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Strength without vulnerability amounts to luck, or at least happenstance. It also works against adaptation, which is the road to increased future strength.

For me, this comes from an image of an armored chariot rider, with plates of steel scaled around him and his horse, speeding through ranks of infantry. Each groundling is cast off without regard as he passes. Surely this chariot rider is exhibiting great strength, but what will happen when he gets to where he is going? What happens if he should have noticed a shifting pattern in ground or fodder. Why is he difficult to admire for his effort?

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

To re-define, we must agree on a definition. To me, this phrase usually means to stop worrying about pain or consequences and do the thing that must be done. To that I would add a flavor of selflessness, and will re-invoke my male archetype: a complex character who overcomes his own weaknesses to act authentically in the moment.

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

This question is more complex than it appears. Who is we and what is wrong? So I won’t pretend to answer the whole question, but will choose a few points and maybe answer a smaller question. Something that is wrong about some views of masculinity is that it is vulnerable. I don’t mean that it contains vulnerability, which it does, but that masculinity itself is under attack and in danger of being wiped out. Rather it looks like masculinity is getting bigger, even more durable by being more flexible.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

Taking the Yin/Yang approach again, it looks like masculinity might be headed towards identifying with the big curvy bit that folds together with femininity, rather than just the insular dot. Of course it’s both, but maybe it’s been a little one-sided lately.

The Inherent Feminism of Psychotherapy

One of my very favorite descriptions of therapy is that it’s about being with a person in such a way that they can be exactly who they are. This is also a fundamental part of the feminist movement, and all equal rights movements- differences are to be honored through equal rights and equal treatment. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s difficult to put into practice when you’re dealing with unconscious beliefs and motivations. These things guide as like a trance. And it is the realm of the unconscious where change must be exacted if we are to see it on a global scale. The practice of knowing yourself well enough to understand when you’re being guided by these unconscious forces is tremendously helping for staying mindful and present. Through the observation of present behavior, we are able to understand what the past meant to us.

When it comes to feminism, understanding the past occurs on a very grand scale. We must look at the thousands of years of cultural perspectives on gender to understand history and what led us to this point. This is why good education is paramount. It’s why it drives us feminists crazy that history lessons have such a heavily heteronormative, cisnormative and masculine bent. Worse, we too often fail to educate our children about how beliefs systems shape behavior and social constructions. Because it’s not just having information that exacts change.

This shows up in the therapeutic process all the time, and it’s why one can fairly quickly exhaust the benefits of the talk therapy modality. Insight does not always exact change. It gives us the why, but not the how. It is in the mastering of mindfulness and presence through much practice that we are able to really get our needs met. Only with this skill can we effect larger scale changes.

Institutional sexism (or any -ism) is a macro scale version of this unconscious process. The continue inequality of pay, for instance. is less of a malicious phenomenon than an unconscious one. For many historical cultural reasons, women are still often seen as inferior. So when it comes time to decide where a woman ought to fall on a pay scale range compared to a male counterpart. it’s the underlying beliefs that play the role that ends in bias. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock capture this beautifully with their comedic genius in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt when Carol Kane’s character Lillian says, “Ah change the channel; I can’t get the news from a woman.” This strikes us as absurd, because it is! As a viewer, you can feel that this isn’t something she’s though through. It’s unintentional. It’s unconscious. It’s a spot on example of internalized sexism.

Internalized oppression is when a person has negative beliefs about oneself which result from the experience of oppression. This can pop up all over the place, because it’s inadvertent. And this is where we must explore ourselves and encourage others to do the same. Because activism, as with therapy, is impossible if we focus on patching up all the symptoms of the problem. If Lillian is to change this belief about a woman’s ability to provide the news, it will be necessary for her to explore her beliefs about the female gender. If we over-focus on the news issue, her beliefs will pop up somewhere else, perhaps even somewhere very similar. But through a therapeutic process she would be able to look at her own personal history to understand the influences leading to this belief, to process when she’s been a victim of it herself, and to be mindful of when and how she’s unnecessarily limited herself and others through the behavior resulting from this belief.

Institutional -isms are macrocosms of internalized -isms.

The skills one learns through psychotherapy can then be extended to others. Fostering the process of therapy as a society would cause a whole lotta healing on both the personal and, eventually, the societal level. I’m lucky enough to live in a city where most people welcome a reference to therapy. I can say, “I’ve been exploring that with my therapist,” and get an, “Oh, that’s great,” instead of a, “What do you need therapy for?” I love when people say to me, “I don’t need therapy, but…” because no matter how they finish their sentence, I get to say, “Actually, it sounds like you’d really like therapy!” Those sorts of negative reactions are indicative of underlying negative beliefs about therapy. And lemme tell ya, negative beliefs about therapy are misunderstandings of what it actually is. Negative experiences as a client certainly happen, but that doesn’t mean that all of therapy is painful or unhelpful. We can change these misconceptions by inspiring others through self-disclosure, normalizing, and through demonstrating what we’ve learned. The more people who are skillful at understanding, accepting, and expressing themselves will mean way less baloney interactions, personal and macro scale.

Mental health is a social contagion. Just look at powerhouse of openness and insight Amy Poehler. Her message “good for her, not for me,” encourages people to disengage from comparing and making assumptions, and it is a fabulous example of this. This one simple sentence demonstrates self-knowledge as well as openness to and acceptance of others’ differences. This is what comes from the therapy process. You learn how to reach understanding, so you can practice with yourself as well as with others. Engaging in the work of psychotherapy is a revolutionary act.

Big ol’ shout outs to the likes of HeForShe, Jade Rivera, Jenipher Lyn, and SmartGirls for engaging in this kind of micro-level activism. I triple dog dare you to watch one of Poehler’s Ask Amy videos and not feel better about yourself, others, and the future of our world.

On Male Friendship

When I first met these guys, I was instantly struck by their magnetism. They were cheerful, handsome, and they both make great eye contact- a trifecta of appeal. I felt at once welcome in their presence, and energized to be on my game, for these two beckon to really see you. They are on a select list of people to whom I reacted with, “ohmygod I wanna be friends with you.”

As we became friends, I thought for a while that they might be a couple. When I realized that they weren’t, I was blown away in a thoroughly delightful way. If their epic level of closeness wasn’t due to romance, this meant that I had before me an astounding example of healthy male friendship. These guys adore each other, and they aren’t afraid to show it.

Because of them, I hold the capabilities of all friendships to a much higher standard. And believe me when I say that I always thought deep intimacy was possible between male friends. I’d just never really seen it until I met Jordan Huxley and Nick Westbrook.

Nearly all of my male clients, regardless of orientation, have expressed to me a desire to have more fulfilling friendships with other men. Often what is sited as the barrier is all the other men. Way too many of them believe that they are practically alone in wanting this. And the insistence of their female therapist that this isn’t the case makes only so big a dent in this belief. So Nick and Jordan graciously agreed to shed some light on how and why they have gotten so close, and how the other menfolk can do the same.

 

So tell us about how you met. What did you each think of the other?

Jordan: This is a story we love to tell, mainly because it seems so iconic that we’re the best of friends and initially didn’t like each other. I was going to school in New York and living in a dorm in Brooklyn. I liked to hang out by the side of the building, chatting with friends, sometimes playing music. I had made a lot of friends that way, simply being around and meeting new people. A mutual friend of ours, whom Nick had grown up with, introduced him to me one day, when I was outside playing a little music. The way he likes to tell it, I was this hip socialite, completely surrounded by adoring friends, but for me, it was more akin to enjoying a crowd. He, on the other hand, looked like the epitome of cool. A spitting image of James Dean you might say, with his collar popped up and a cigarette and earrings and this look on his face like he didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. So again, we both thought that the other person thought they were hot shit, but it turns out that we were both just attracted to the energy of the other person.

Nick: Haha! We love telling this story. The last time we told it we were a little tipsy—maybe a lot tipsy— and we acted it out with an exaggerated performance of when we first met. The extra drama of us telling the story together is that we both have completely different perspectives on it. I thought Jordan was too cool for school and it made me anxious, and he felt the same way about me… It was a fall afternoon at the Brooklyn dorms for the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts (or something like that), where Jordan was going to school. A former friend of mine from Georgia had just started there, too, and he was showing me around the neighborhood. My first impression of Jordan was of seeing him sitting up against the exterior wall of the dorms with a half circle of college students around him, and I swear I’m not exaggerating here, the dude was basically glowing. He was pretty clearly the center of attention, and he was pretty clearly settled into the role. He was smiling and he seemed very charming and confident, two things that I tried to embody, myself, but when I saw them in other people I could easily distrust or feel threatened by — at least in those days. I was only twenty. Anyway, I thought he looked like a really cool guy and in my young silly way I immediately took that to mean that he was probably a stuck up jerk, like the other popular guys I’d met during my one, mostly unpleasant semester in college. Sometime that day or that week I heard he was screening one of my favorite movies, Jaws, on a… ahem… projector in his dorm room for his … ahem… many adoring friends. What a jerk! Of course, I just saw him as an alternate reality version of myself… the one who had prospered in college and even ended up with a projector and a bunch of friends… and I guess I just couldn’t deal with it! Honestly, I’ve never even realized that much about it until now. We usually stop the story short with “I thought he was too cool! I thought he was too, cool, too!” and then fast forward to the important part… the fateful second meeting. I’ll just put that part below, since it goes with the next question.

When did it become clear to you that your friendship was on an epic level of awesomeness?

J: I would have to say that it was clear to me that our friendship was something genuinely special and interesting when we had our first legendary Tuesday. We had already been hanging out for some time, since we had decided to write a screenplay together. But as we got to know each other and our enthusiasm began to grow mutually, we could tell that we were going somewhere. And one day, a Tuesday, Nick invited me out to a place called Fabulous Fannys. It’s a vintage and antique eye and headwear boutique and I was immediately enamored. I love classic style, and he knew. There was a classic fedora he had his eye on, a brown Stetson, and he looked at me and told me that we needed to get matching ones. It was expensive, one of the more expensive articles of clothing I’ve ever bought, but I knew that it was worth it. Sometimes you gotta take the leap. We walked out with our new hats and new confidence. It called for a special occasion, so we caught a 2-for-1 martini happy hour and proceeded to laugh and talk about everything. The city faded into the background and I felt very much at home. But what was more amazing was that the people passing by kept commenting on our hats and how great we looked! Even a cabbie rolled down his window to let us know how stylish we were! It seemed like the world was proverbially our oyster. I just had never really felt so adult, and confident, and at home with a single other person like I did that day.

N: Like, immediately. Not even kidding. It was in the air. The stars and planets were aligned. We knew we had stumbled into something grand and life changing. We had seen each other a couple of times after that first meeting and gotten along fine, but following a falling out with our mutual friend at Jordan’s school, I stopped coming around and we didn’t see each other for a year or so. Then, one fateful fall evening, when I had little to do but put on my long coat and walk around rolling cigarettes and hoping to look cool, I took the train over to Brooklyn heights for a nostalgic kick and went in for a drink at the Pub where all the underage kids from the dorms used to drink every night. The bartender might remember me, at least. I didn’t really expect to see anyone I knew, and I especially didn’t hope to run into my former friend from Georgia, but I was surprisingly, pleasantly, surprised (read it again, it works!) to see Jordan sitting at a booth in the back. Something about his energy that night just put me in a great mood, and this was the first time we realized how contagious and exponentially self-perpetuating our energies could be together, because we started drinking together with his other friends and we were telling stories and talking about movies and more or less hanging on each other’s every word. And we had a couple whiskeys and went for a couple smokes and by the end of the night we were out there by ourselves and I felt compelled to go out on a mighty limb, but I wasn’t scared and I know it wasn’t the whiskey that gave me the courage, it was something deeper and more substantial.

Our beliefs are such a guiding force in how we live our lives. What did you learn growing up about male friendship?

J: I think initially, from school at least, I learned how male friendship is very much about the things you are both interested in. And discussing, debating, and detailing the differences in your opinions about those things. I observed as well, that many other male friendships were very rough, kind of braggartly, a lot about showing the other one up. I never felt comfortable with that, and I knew that there was a fundamental part missing. As a consequence, I had maybe two or three good male friends, but lots of female friends. My female friends seemed to want to talk about more things, like emotions for instance, that my male friends never seemed to want to get into. In my family I also felt a kind of resistance to discussing any feelings that weren’t in the norm. A kind of unflappable personality was recommended. But I knew there had to be someone with whom you can discuss and share all these things. It just seemed as if close male friendships were innately hostile and unforgiving.

N: Everything I feel about male friendship starts with my dad. He and my mom divorced when I was too young to remember much, so all of my early memories of he and I are of a very close, affectionate, and exclusive dynamic. We would spend time with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and his friends, too, but many of my most vivid and favorite memories are of us by ourselves in this house in north Georgia, out in a very rural part of the county, where we lived on five acres of forest and field. There was about six months where my mom was living in South Carolina and she was also recovering from a bad wreck so it was just me and dad at home, and he was single then, too. We did everything together, and everything we did was fun and intimate— we built campfires in the woods several nights a week, we went on long night rides on his Harley Davidson, we took the ford bronco four-wheeling off roads, through creeks and large pools of mud, we took a vacation to Florida in the mustang with the top down, we went to biker bars and went across state lines for fireworks. He treated me like we were best friends and father and son at the same time. And that’s what we were. My grandmother died when I was only five, after which I spent a lot of time with grandfather at his house, and it would be just the two of us while my dad was at work. So I was spending a lot of quality time with the two most important male figures in my life and they both made me feel that way, like a great companion. I slept in my grandfather’s bed with him after my grandmother passed, and we were never lonely. I remember my mom’s third husband being really strict and telling me to call him sir. I got in the habit of it and the first time I called my dad “sir” he looked at me like I’d said a bad word! He knelt down to me and he said, “You don’t have to call me, sir. We’re friends. Buddies don’t call each other “sir”.” I look back and I think it’s miraculous, now, because he had a very bad relationship with his dad, but he was going to break the chain at all costs. He was going to make sure that we had a great relationship, one of mutual respect and trust and love. And he never forgot to be stern when he needed to be, and I wanted to be good because I loved him so much, instead of because I was scared of making him mad. Sorry, I’m getting a lot out, here. But I know that having the concepts of friendship and close love between men fused together… of being each other’s world entire, even if briefly… is what eventually allowed me to recognize and believe in the potential of my friendship with Jordan. It’s hard enough to embrace something and not be scared about it… but the next step, the one I think that’s the hardest to find, is to go past that and just know it. Jordan and I have always just known that we were destined to be friends indefinitely, and to try to do great things together. I’m lucky that I got to know that kind of certain love at such an early age.

Are you breaking any of these “rules?”

J: Absolutely. I’ve learned through being friends with Nick that although it’s okay to keep a confident positive air, you need to be willing to discuss what’s actually going on with you. The more you keep under the surface, the more you bottle it up, the more it will express itself negatively. I also know now that it’s okay to be inquisitive about how someone is feeling. And that you need someone to talk to about the deeper questions of your existence. And that aggression and hostility are never the correct answer to any frustrations you may have. And that the more you cut under the bravado, the more you know yourself and your friends.

N: No, I don’t think so. Jordan and I are pretty much operating at what I see as the full potential of friendship, at least with this number of years under our belt.

What is it like for you when people mistake you for a couple? How often does it happen? How do you react to them?

J: Oh I don’t care if people mistake us for a couple. It happens occasionally, to be sure, but I for one, am flattered that we are close enough that people either think we are a couple or, more often, brothers. It doesn’t occur to them that people can be as close as we are without being one of the two. I also genuinely love surprising people and breaking down their expectations. When people find that their assumptions are wrong, that is usually a positive thing, in whatever small way.

N: It doesn’t bother us at all. We sort of welcome it in a very self aware and comical way. It might be hard to believe but I think it makes us proud. Again, that’s possible because we have the confidence of absolute knowledge. We don’t think we’re great friends. We know it. When you know something completely it doesn’t matter what anyone else perceives, and I think it’s the nature of our combined spirit to not only not let it bother us, but to let it be something fun and a source of pride for us. If people can see us interacting and only assume that we’re something different than incredibly close friends, then that makes me feel like our friendship is progressive. I don’t know if I’d say it’s cynical to dismiss it as rare or not normal, but I’d say that’s selling it short, and it’s selling all friendship short! To say that ours is weird is selling short the potential that’s actually there that no one’s thinking about or choosing to see. Does that make sense? I guess that’s why I see it as progressive instead, because I like to believe that in the future more friendships could be like ours. For now, it just makes me proud!

Have you ever been discouraged from being so close or showing each other so much affection?

J: Yeah, but really only out of the jealousy of others. I won’t get specific, but there has been a time or two when another person grew resentful or jealous of our closeness and tried to cause dissent between us. It didn’t work, to say the least.

N: Um… Not really directly. We’ve encountered negative reactions to it, but those always seem to be projections of insecurities that arise from within people outside looking in at us. No one’s ever tried to discourage us in a direct way, like telling us we’re being impertinent or making people uncomfortable. But people have felt jealous of our friendship before and we’ve seen it bum people out. We’ve also seen people view it as an unfair advantage in social situations, like where a group discussion is happening, because we tend to agree on most things, not all things, by any means, but most things. And so we can each present an opinion in a group with the confidence of knowing that we won’t be left to fend for ourselves if there’s opposition. That’s great for us, and it comes from a place of love and support but sometimes, you know, people are again threatened by it. It doesn’t happen often though.

What are your fights like? How do you resolve disagreements?

J: I would say, of the few fights we’ve had, the root was a genuine misunderstanding (aren’t almost all fights?). Situations arise where one of us might think we knew what the other felt about something, only to be surprised by the answer. And as soon as you can take a step back and realize that the other person, whom you know so well and hold dear, isn’t purposefully trying to make you feel bad, then you can talk about why you felt a certain way and make peace.

N: Our fights are always very sudden, very intense and emotional, and resolved relatively quickly. If we are fighting the reason is almost always that one or both of us is compromised by something external or internal, but separate from our dynamic. Sometimes it is too much whiskey. Sometimes it is tequila. Sometimes we are stressed, and we take on extra guilt from not being able to immediately make the other one feel better, and that guilt becomes more stress, and that leads to tension. So when that happens it’s still stemming from the seed of love and support, but we’re both human and we need to feel our emotions in our own way. And sometimes we can cheer each other up and sometimes we need to work through our stuff but this expectation to cheer each other up is still hanging in the room and it deflates and feels awkward and heavy and that can be a sort of tension. Sometimes a tension builds up because one or both of us isn’t willing or ready to talk about what is going on inside. Like a pebble in your shoe, something tiny can become something very upsetting. Sometimes I am not being honest with myself about how I’m really feeling and I’ll have myself convinced that i’m feeling great and then Jordan sees me and I know he knows I’m not alright and part of me resents him for breaking down my illusion. But he just knows me that well. That goes both ways sometimes and it’s very hard to be in that situation. In that situation, someone asks you if you’re alright and it sounds like an accusation when it’s really not. But we both have the tell tale response that shows we’re hiding something and usually we talk it out and feel better. We always talk things out after we’ve gotten mad at each other in a very sweet and constructive way, because we both really want to rush back to that feeling of harmony and oneness. Now that i think about it, it’s really when I’m not feeling harmonious with my inner self that i start to feel the disconnect with the people around me, even Jordan. It’s like I have to go through the thing I’m feeling with myself with him too in order to reset everything and work on feeling better. He helps me in ways he doesn’t even know, I swear.

What was one of your favorite moments together?

J: Wow, I have no idea where to start. Okay, actually I’d have to say that the most memorable and amazing experiences I’ve ever had at any time, was a road trip we took from his home in Georgia to my home in Idaho and then down here to LA. It was a long journey, but it proved to me not only the kind of deep friends we are, but that life can be simply amazing. The simplicity of how we lived on the trip and the vastness of the land we were traveling across gave me a glowing feeling inside that I still yearn for again. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to feel that way again, in the same way as I did on that road trip. But there’s been so many! I’m just gonna name off a whole bunch: When we used to sit in his car and record our late-night drinking conversations; when we go up north to the hot springs and talk about life; when we ran an under-ground restaurant out of our apartment; when we used to sit in his apartment stairwell eating pizza and reading each other our original writings; the epic Tuesdays.

N: Man, that is tough. There was that famous Tuesday in New York… but thinking of where we’ve been at these last couple years, the moment I’m thinking of was one night when we decided to drive up state for the night, just to get out of the city for a day and a half, and we did a few wine tastings in Solvang and got a good little buzz on, then we had a cocktail at a little Chinese restaurant and met some nice people- maybe they thought we were a couple now that I think about it, who knows- but we had to make it to this spa hotel by 11pm so we get an outdoor mineral spring jacuzzi tub and a bottle of wine (we actually called it our “gay-cation, so I guess we’re okay with it!). anyway, driving north up the windy road from Solvang with a buzz on and rushing toward our jacuzzi we started talking about how good it felt to get out of town together and to be free to just be ourselves and just be our pure, complete selves, like we only are when we’re together, and we got so excited about how good it was and how lucky we are that we just started shouting things in the car. It was cathartic and funny at the same time and it felt amazing to just have someone i knew and cared about that much just shouting in a car with me about how good life felt at that moment. My throat was sore the next day but it was worth it. And we had a nice time in the jacuzzi. We smoked a joint in the car and wandered around the grounds and gardens waxing existential about space and history and aliens and creatures and everything else.

A lot of hetero men tend to make their romantic partner their sole source of emotional support. Does your friendship change when one or both of you are coupled?

J: We certainly have less time to spend together. But not much changes in way of our relationship, simply that when we do see each other, we have more to talk about and feel the need to make that time count a little bit more. And frankly, I don’t feel as if I can have complete 100% emotional support if Nick isn’t there. It’s about balance; I don’t think one person should be your entire support structure.

N: No, as a matter of fact I think if anything it’s changed for the better, because when we’re in relationships we appreciate the others support more than ever. And we get more distance and sometimes that’s a good thing, because we’re prone to missing each other and that’s very lucky when you live and work with someone, isn’t it?

I’d call you both very comfortable with expressing emotions. Will you speak to the topic of crying?

J: Well, crying is damn good for you every once and a while. Obviously, because of societal norms, we both felt self-conscious about the fact that, say, if we went to see a powerful movie and it effected us, we would cry. But I think that freedom, and seeing that we both loved self-expression and storytelling to such a degree that we could allow ourselves to fully feel those emotions, made us closer friends anyway. And if you are friends with someone long enough, eventually you will go through a rough time, and it feels good to let it out. If you don’t feel that support, or feel judged, then something is being held back.

N: Sure, Jordan and I have cried around each other several times. I can’t count how many, but each has been treated as a something significant, and yet not out of place. We always treat it as something natural and easy but we also don’t gloss over it or ignore it. We’re completely comfortable crying around each other. Jordan was my main source of support when my dad passed away, and he saw me cry many times during that period.

A lot of close friends don’t do so well living together. What has that been like for you? How do you manage it?

J: It’s been great! I honestly cant see myself living with someone else in the immediate future. With anyone, there’s a learning curve when you live with them as to what their routines are, what they like to keep clean, how to manage your personal space and public spaces. It just happens that we have a lot of the same aesthetic so we both agree on how the spaces should be utilized. As long as you communicate, and in a way that is meant to be productive, then things usually go swimmingly. And now we’ve lived together, all told, for 5 years.

N: It has literally been a dream come true. I mean we used to day dream and talk about it all the time in New York, where we got to live together only very briefly and under haphazard circumstances, really. But here we’ve really got what we always wanted. A space that feels like home and has so many great memories of having fun and being productive. We’ve had the occasional point of contention regarding basic room mate stuff, but it’s very rare. We have a very hard time doing our own thing when we’re both home.  We always end up just doing whatever we’re doing together. It’s funny because at this very moment we are both at home and we are both in our own space doing our own thing, but we’re both doing the same thing because we’re both answering these questions. So even though this separateness seems like a rare exception, it isn’t because we’re still sort of doing it together. Anyway, we don’t get that tension from interrupting the other persons mojo or vibe, because we’re always wanting to do things together. We also have different work schedules which seems to work out in at least that aspect, we can rely on having the space to ourselves sometimes.

You do so many projects together. Your short videos, for instance, destroy me- they are so endearing. What makes it possible to work together?

J: Our minds are very much in the same places most of the time. We’ve talked so much about what interests us, what influenced us as kids, and what our artistic temperaments are like, that it’s very easy for us to talk on a topic or an idea and immediately see what the other person is talking about and where they’re coming from. But we don’t back down from each other’s critiques either. We don’t always agree artistically, but thats how you learn and get better. We are both sensitive to each other’s emotions, especially when working on a project, so sometimes, especially when it comes to me, I can get hyper-sensitive about something, but as long as we talk through it, it always gets resolved. And sometimes that means walking away from the idea for a while and then coming back at it with fresh ideas.

N: It doesn’t even seem possible. It seems absolutely inevitable. That’s just our dynamic— it’s very spontaneously creative. When we’re together we’re always on the verge of creating a little fantasy or a little story based on whatever’s nearest, like what’s on tv or what we’re talking about. We like building stories together and our brains sync up very easily so as soon as one of us has an idea the other is already building on it or going with it. There’s rarely the anticipation of waiting to see if the other person likes the idea. One of has an idea and immediately it’s our idea and we’re trying to rock it as best we can. If that freedom comes from anything in particular it is probably the lack of judgment between us. We can come up things so freely because there is absolutely no fear of judgment.

Do you ever get sick of each other?

J: Nope! I feel like there is always something that can be shared or talked about. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t also crave time to myself. I need a sense of solitude once in a while, but that hasn’t anything to do with Nick. I’d just as much rather go do something fun with him if the opportunity arises.

N: We’ve gotten a little cabin fever before. And like i said before, we let tension get the best of us sometimes, but no i don’t think it would be accurate to say that we ever get sick of each other. We can drive each other a little bonkers sometimes, but that’s not the same as feeling like we are sick of each other. I’m not being satirical when I say this: I can’t imagine ever feeling like I’ve gotten too much Jordan. Maybe I need time to myself sometimes but we’ve never been in that place where we don’t want to be together and in a good mood.

What do you recommend for other men who want to have deeper intimacy in their male friendships? How do you suggest that men like you find each other?

J: I would have to say that you need find someone whom you can relate to. Similar interests, upbringings, aesthetics. Then you need to be able to open up to them and trust them. And get yourselves into situations where you have to rely on each other. And then talk about everything. No holds barred. Even then, sometimes it can be difficult to become close friends. But if you both want that kind of friendship, I can’t imagine why it couldn’t work. Just remember that you are both probably meant for great things, especially if you work together.

N: I think the first thing would be to remove negative reinforcement. It’s okay for friends to jeer at each other in a playful way if you both really know where you stand, and that you stand in a place of love and support, but the biggest hurdle I see is men being very judgmental towards each other, probably because they’re afraid of being judged, and it all gets hidden and poorly disguised as humor. But in my experience the best humor is the good humor that comes when you’re comfortable and feeling safe. I think men being too hard on each other and not being honest with each other about how they feel is part of a different kind of self-perpetuating cycle — where guys are preemptively judgmental or defensive because they really don’t want to be judged or maybe they have been and they didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I think you really have to just do the thing from the old PSA— be the kid who makes saying no to drugs cool. You know how that kid makes saying no cool? He owns it. He’s not scared. He’s confident and that really is cool. I want guys to start talking about how they feel like it’s not even a big deal… It can be simple, it can be colloquial… just “man, we are awesome friends. cheers to that,” other guys start doing it, one day it’s totally cool to just talk about how you feel. And when you feel safe being honest maybe you start feeling safe in who you really are… and then maybe sarcasm starts to take a hike. I would really love that. I think sarcasm is really damaging when it’s not in a safe place, and I think it’s really great and really important to have that safe place be as rock solid and indefinite as a friendship.

Where can we cyberstalk you?

N: Well, all of our fun videos together are on our Vine and Instagram accounts. I’m on Vine as Nick Westbrook and Instagram as Jabbathemuttonchops; Jordan is on both Vine and Instagram as Huxglyph. I also have a website with my poetry at Tinythingsforyou.com, an. a channel on YouTube called Honey Butter Culinaire, which is a cooking show I shoot at home.

Because I was so moved by this interview and because answering my questions left Nick and Jordan with even more to say, we did a second interview together. So keep an eye out for my follow-up article, which will include further discussion of the implications of this epic friendship as well as tips for how to really get cracking on creating this for yourself.


Supporting Your Partner and Yourself Through Transition: The Basics

One of my specialties in working with clients is helping people and their partners navigate the world of gender bending. If your partner likes to crossdress or is interested in transitioning, you will need some solid facts and emotional support on your side.

First of all, crossdressing and transitioning are completely different. While they can coincide, a person who likes to dress doesn’t necessarily wish to transition from male to female (or female to male). I will be speaking about both of these in this article, because there are many overlapping myths for each. I will also be speaking primarily to an audience of heterosexual couples wherein the male partner is the gender bender, because this is the most common (and widely considered the most taboo) configuration. But know that each factor I discuss here applies broadly.

Basic Facts:

  • Crossdressing has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Your partner isn’t gay because he likes to wear women’s clothes. The very notion that dresses, skirts, etc. are women’s clothes is, in itself, a topic worth debating.
  • Transitioning has nothing to do with sexual orientation. A new coat of paint on the outside doesn’t change the interior of your house. Transitioning is intended to result in integration of inside and out- to make one look they way they already feel. Believing that your guy will become gay if he transitions is sometimes just an easy way to defend against understanding the truth: he is actually female. What’s cool about being able to grasp that is finding out that it doesn’t change much…
  • Your partner will not have severe personality changes. Hormones do cause some changes in self-expression and some people have stronger reactions than others. While you should be informed about and expect some shifts, you needn’t be concerned that your partner is becoming someone else. He will remain, essentially, the same person. His beliefs, interests, sense of humor, cadence… none of it will change because of putting on a dress or even because of transitioning. It should look no different than a new outfit, mood, or hormonal cycle change bringing out different self-expressions in you. If your partner does show signs of extreme change, a change in treatment is necessary, and this is why it’s important to already be in therapy!
  • Crossdressers are not seeking sexual contact. This is an easy concept to grasp if you switch it around and make the object a heterosexual woman: “She must be on the prowl with a skirt like that!” Cue a feminist crisis! That is hardly the case. As with any dressing up, it is a means of expressing oneself.
  • Gender benders are not psychologically unwell. I will quote blogger Lacey Leigh here, because I couldn’t say it any better:

“Modern psychology accepts that crossdressing is an expression of personality which is as immutable as left-handedness. Any problems crossdressers may develop are in reaction to social stigma, prejudice, and bigotry – not disorder. Social judgment is not a valid basis upon which to regard human idiosyncrasies as mental disorders.”

As with anything we believe, socialization is a major component and it must be kept in contextual check. For a little brain-stretching reading about society and gender, check out my other posts.

Notice how many of these overlap with or circle back around to each other. That is because we’re dealing with the topic of correlation and causation. See? Your math teacher was right: you will need to know this later.

If you find these things difficult to believe or understand, you must talk to your partner. For something you believe to be removed, it’s vital to know what to put in its place instead. So if he isn’t trying to hook up with other people, what is he doing? Ask him! For me to tell you that he’s using it as a means of self-expression probably isn’t specific enough and frankly, it shouldn’t be. I believe we should know our partner’s depth as well as we possibly can, and that takes constant and effective communication, which is no easy task. Many couples chose to make this a process supported by therapy, and they are among the happiest couples out there! You are also invited to begin your own individual therapy while you are navigating these beautiful, deep, and complicated waters of gender expression.

Role-Playing Polyamory

Polyamory is appealing to many and it is growing in popularity. But how can one explore this without actually opening their relationship, which can create conflict that is very difficult to overcome?

I had the honor of interviewing a couple who takes role-playing to the next level, essentially combining it with polyamorous sensibilities. Betsy and Sam’s inspiration for their frequent role play comes from people they encounter in their every day lives! So if Sam has a client to who he is attracted or Betsy finds herself turned on by one of their friends, that person is mentally brought into their sex play. Sam will pretend to be that friend, acting and speaking like him/her, so that Betsy can experience having sex with that person. *1 Then Betsy will return the favor on another occasion! How cool is that? It allows them to experience both themselves and each other in a variety of contexts and expressions.

One of the most powerful gifts of a polyamorous lifestyle is tied to the fact that different people bring out different parts of our personalities. This is something that most anyone can relate to, whether or not you have experienced having multiple partners at the same time in your life. Different friends and family members bring this sort of experience to our lives as well. Your brother might bring out your playful side where your best friend inspires your creative side, etc. The same applies to sexual partners. Think back through your partners. You had different types of sex with each of them, because they are each unique individuals. And, of course, some of the sex was the same no matter who you were with, because you are the common denominator throughout and you were bringing yourself to the table (or bed! or chair!) with each of them. So imagine being able to have that broad range of experience in your sex life right now. Anyone would want that! But polyamory is not for everyone (I realize some would argue otherwise), and opening your relationship can be a lot of work. Sam and Betsy have found a way to bring in that rich and wide breadth of experience with far fewer challenges and risks. Note: fewer challenges, not none!

In my work with clients who are interested in polyamory, one of the first things we explore is what might be keeping one person from experiencing themselves more fully with their current (or primary) partner. Sometimes this is simple: you want to try something for which you believe your partner will judge you, but when you voice it, you find out that you were wrong, and you get to go home and try it! More often, we find self-judgments or triggers in need of either removal or toleration. This part can take lots and lots of work. It can feel like so much work that one would prefer to just ignore their needs or get them met elsewhere. And sometimes that is perfectly fine. But I am a therapist and I advocate for expanding one’s abilities. I happen to believe this for a lot of things. Want some good jam? Why not try making it? Need a scarf? Knit one! Yes, it is more work. And sometimes you will end up back where you were: in need of outsourcing *2. But all the work you put in goes towards you becoming an increasingly awesome person.

Back to Sam and Betsy. Sam could wish forever that Betsy were as feisty as his client, because he loves how playful he feels with that person. Or he could (and does!) ask Betsy to try out being that feisty person. Then, Sam gets to feel more playful in their sex and Betsy gets to add a little feist to her expressions of self *3. This stuff deepens intimacy like crazy. Why? Because it takes both people making themselves pretty darn vulnerable. And it feels wonderful when you open up a part of yourself and experience someone being with you in that space. It is so worth all the work.

I have oodles of tangents on which to go off, because this is a complicated and topic. If you have questions, feedback or heated (but kind) arguments to make, please send me an email. I will surely be making future posts on this topic.

Find the interview in my next post, transcribed for your amusement, enjoyment, and inspiration.

My notes:

*1 Yes, pretending to have sex with someone is different than actually having sex with them. But we know (from science!) that conjuring up a context can be as powerful as the real one. Check out the recent empirical data stemming from research on the therapeutic benefits of theatrics.

*2 Outsourcing is a term I use for going outside one’s primary relationship to get an emotional need met, just like we do with products and services.

*3 While a large part of what makes it possible for us to express something is the context within which we find ourselves, I also believe it is necessary to expand one’s ability to express themselves the same way, regardless of their surroundings. In the case of Sam and Betsy, were they clients, I would challenge Sam to find ways to be playful even if Betsy is not being feisty. And I would challenge Betsy in the same way.

Gender is not Dichotomous: Part Two

Here is a mind-blower: blue for boys and pink for girls is a brand new concept, relatively speaking. In my musings about contrived gender concepts, it occurred to me recently that the pink/blue notion has an origin. Someone made that up!

It turns out that the origins are not terribly clear, but there is a lot of amazing information about at least some of the influences. First off, think back to photos you may have seen of babies in the early 20th century. They are usually wearing the standard white gown. Some of those babies are boys. Those gowns were fairly standard through most of the 1940′s, which means that even people as young as the Baby Boomers were not stamped with blue or pink upon birth.

To boot, it seems that the notion used to be that pink was for boys and blue was for girls. The thought was that pink is a shade of red, which is typically thought of as a strong and fiery color suitable (or perhaps desired more than suitable) for males. Blue is typically thought of as a softer color suitable (desired) for females. Saint Mary is most often depicted in light blue, which undoubtedly had influence.

The earliest known examples of pink-clad girls and blue-clad boys are found in the 1940′s, seemingly as a result of marketing strategies by companies to push individualized merchandise. This seems probable to me, as indeed if one has a female child followed by a male, everything would need to be repurchased. Though the question remains: why pink and blue?

There are a number of experiments (sourced below) that have been run to determine whether or not an innate preference exists, but I am dissatisfied with most of the results. One experiment suggests that humans in general may prefer shades of red. Another suggest that there are physical differences in the eyes that may be the result of our hunter/gatherer days. The fact remains that blue/pink as a rule was only very recently created and I think it is worth considering the ways in which it can be damaging. At best, it is just unnecessary.

For further reading, I recommend the work of Jo Paoletti from the University of Maryland.

Sources:
Alexander, Gerianne M. and Hines, Melissa. “Sex Differences in Response to Children’s Toys in Nonhuman Primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus).” Evolution and Human Behavior 23 (2002), pp. 467–479
Eysenck, H. J. (1941). A critical and exprimental study of color preferences. American Journal of Psychology
Guilford, J. P. & Smith, P. C. (1959). A system of color-preferences.
Hulbert and Ling (2007). Biological components of sex differences in colour preference.
Maglaty, Jeanne. (2011) When did girls start wearing pink? Retrived from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/When-Did-Girls-Start-Wearing-Pink.html?c=y&page=2
McInnis, J. H. & Shearer, J. K. (1964). Relationship between color choices and selected preferences for the individual.
Paoletti, Jo B., “The Gendering of Infants’ and Toddlers’ Clothes in America,” The Material Culture of Gender – The Gender of Material Culture, Katharine Martinez and Kenneth L. Ames, eds. (1997)
Paoletti, Jo B. “Clothing and Gender in America: Children’s Fashions, 1890-1920.” Signs, v. 13, no. 1, Women and the Political Process in the United States (Autumn, 1987), pp. 136-143
“The Baby Show.” New York Times, June 6, 1855, p. 1