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.

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.

Tom Rogers 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.

I’m beyond delighted to share with you the words of someone who had a powerful influence on my career-  my high school homeroom and sex ed teacher, Mr. Tom Rogers. It’s a sweet homecoming for me to have the opportunity to interview him at all, but even better is that his response is a shining example of his signature positive influence.

Tom spent a solid portion of his life as a teacher, having focused in college on biblical studies. I imagine there were several challenges to effectively teaching sex ed in a Catholic high school, so I’m all the more impressed and grateful that he approached the subject comfortably, candidly, and with plenty of humor.

He now works at what he jokes is Rogers’ Desert Rest. I follow him on social media, and this man is clearly doing retirement right. It’s no surprise to me. He always struck me as having boatloads of emotional intelligence, and I do believe you’re about to see what I mean.

I remember being told I was a boy. I do not think I have ever been certain, man or boy, what that truly meant. Life does not give us a chance to wait to be sure. It lives and so must we, full of doubt, and endeavor of faith.

Comparison and contrast seem to me the two feet of living. So I remember watching men and older boys to find a model to copy. From as long as I can remember I had an intuition to spot the phonies. It was as if I had a built in bullshit detector. It sounded most loudly at evidence of exaggeration. The overblown, the overly insistent, the demanding. Bullies and braggarts repelled me with what I would later learn was called inauthenticity. So I decided to be a truth-teller and as much as possible a person who lives his truth.

I remember how fascinated I was with what then I thought was my opposite. I was told that they were girls. I liked them from the very start! As I look back now I am realizing that I think I thought they were more real, confident in who they were. I wanted to be friends with girls, get closer to them to see them up close maybe this was because I felt closer to my mother’s way of being than my father’s distant busy-ness with the things of manhood. So the contrast I sought (can I figure out how to be a boy by not being a girl?) was a path I rejected early. Instead I searched for friends, like-minded peers who shared my disdain for the caricatured machos and the silly flirts.

My first masculine role models were the religious brothers who taught the boys from 6-8th grade. My favorites were the really smart ones who captured my interest by their passion for whatever stories they were telling. Their vitality in the classroom as well as the athletic field resonated with the person I was becoming. They displayed a kind of powerful humility. No boasting, just real knowledge and real action. I admired how they always had time for us. We were their work, their project and I realize now that I felt so proud that they never seemed bored with us. I felt relevant, meaningful.

An incident occurred with one of these brothers that helped me define myself to my surprise. He asked me to stay after school to talk about something. He got right to the point. Did I ever think about becoming a brother? I answered immediately. “I like girls too much!” He looked disappointed. I think I too felt a loss of connection to one of my heroes. Pursuing the truth of this statement became an important quest for me.

The sexual desire that drove me out of myself, this great gift of relating, proved very challenging and engaged me in a most difficult struggle with myself and my desire for sexual pleasure. My ideal of honesty at times seemed at stake, as dishonesty proved a better way to navigate the way into a girl’s arms. Whether it was my Catholic guilt or a more profound loyalty to my truth, I never became comfortable with deception.

Fortunately for me, I found an honest erotic love at a young age. It may not sound romantic but I feel like responsibility was one of the strongest ways I experienced my role in this life changing relationship. Caring translated into taking care of another person. This became our path as we served each other with heartfelt passion in every room in our many apartments.

We became parents and partners in what we still experience as the mystery of our life together. As a father of four boys, I sometimes felt as if I knew what each of these boys needed by tapping into the unmet needs of my own father-son relationship. Freedom to be themselves as their own gifts emerged was the gift I wanted to give them and yet I know I placed strong demands on them when I feared that my shaping hand was failing.

As a teacher I feel like I found the best vocation to give to others as they strove to grow and mature. Though my sex education classes came about quite accidentally, I found there a natural way to help lead young people out of shame and confusion but also affirm their erotic awakenings. I believe together we discovered a sensual path to healthy and healthful sexual development with lots of laughter along the way.

Later in my life after retirement I found myself, like Dante, in a dark wood. My journey through a most unexpected depression proved an encounter with the vulnerability I had fought against in all of the expressions of my masculinity. A sober realism provided the tempering influence to an idealism and high energy generativity that I thought wholly defined me. I learned in a therapeutic dialogue that an acceptance of the real was necessary to keep hold of my self as a powerful yet far from omnipotent creature.

As I look toward the future I take comfort in the many young fathers I know who proudly nurture their children and welcome a balanced partnership with their beloved.

#MasculinitySoFragile

#MasculinitySoFragile is a hashtag movement intended to shed light on the very important issue of ego in the self-expression of males. The message is supposed to be that masculinity is strong and complex enough to withstand such things as two straight men sitting right next to each other in a theatre, or the use of things colored pink. However, even just standing on its own, the wording of the hashtag borders on mockery. Worse, I’ve been seeing it used too often in shaming and passive aggressive ways. So I feel compelled to unpack it a little. There’s so much juice in this movement, and we need to reach in and extract some of the sour flavor so that it can have a wide positive impact.

First of all, the essence of this message is beautiful: Masculinity is complex and diverse. It can stand up to judgment or doubt. It is not devoid of vulnerability or emotion. I love seeing people push this. I especially love what a great reminder it is that gender is a social construct. It is what we make it. It is what it already is inside of us. That’s good stuff. It’s the true stuff. And we need it to reach the people who don’t yet understand. We need seeds of complexity tolerance to be planted in the people who use phrases like, “Don’t be a pussy.”

Those folks won’t be reached through posts that use broad spectrum or absolute language like, “#MasculinitySoFragile that these manbabies are offended by this HT.” Ouch. Wouldn’t you like to show your vulnerable side around the person who wrote that? I sure as hell wouldn’t. What runs through so much of what is being made fun of is shame. It will not be a shaming stance that brings people out from underneath shame. One of the loudest voices of opposition, who has been tragically attacking back with his own use of absolute language and cruelty, happened to find a great word for it: taunting. Indeed one can’t expect a taunt to result in change, let alone self-reflection. Taunts buy you hurt feelings and defensiveness. As the same fellow pointed out, negative comments in response to this hashtag do not prove that it’s true. They prove that cruelty begets cruelty. Somatically speaking, this creates severe muscular tension and shallow breathing that can become chronic if they aren’t already. This serves to perpetuate the problem. Free expression of the self comes through relaxation, warmth, connection and safety. We don’t need more divisiveness; we need less.

Where we find shame, we know lives anger. So let’s unpack this a bit, too. It’s ok to be angry. It makes perfect sense that the tone in many of these posts is an angry one, because it’s a response to the oppressive force of patriarchy. And anger is excellent fuel for action. Expressed cleanly, it has the power to be heard and to exact change. Anger expressed through hate can be cathartic, but it’s important to know that that will be solely for you and those who already get it. If you’d like to help create change, it will be through connecting.

Patriarchy and simplistic views of masculinity are painful and damaging largely because of their ability to divide and disconnect. Being inside the man box means that a man is forced to be separated from a terrifying number of things: vulnerability, the landscape of emotion, fraternal or platonic intimacy, delicateness, sensuality, receptivity, openness, gender fluidity, orientation fluidity. It’s a force so oppressive that it causes massive internal oppression and splitting. “Splitting” is something that we do in our minds to keep things in tidy little black-and-white packages, and it’s hugely responsible for the absurdities we’re trying to call out. It’s what happens when you refuse to allow new information to expand your understanding of a concept.”What?! I’ve never seen a blue pen before. This must be an entirely different object!” A narrow definition of something that is in reality quite complex creates endless absurdities.

Being in touch with and expressing emotions and vulnerability takes practice, and it’s wonderful to see attempts at empowering more men to start practicing. That’s the feeling to look for: empowerment. So sure, poke fun at things, point out the absurd. Just be sure that what you say has an air of “fuck that,” instead of “fuck you.”

When something like this hashtag surfaces, I believe that it’s really important for lots of people to speak up. I’d love to see Twitter flooded with positive messages for males as a result of this so that when a guy clicks on it, he feels inspired to shed false fears. So here are a few tweets that I appreciated:

#MasculinitySoFragile that in general, men either challenge my masculinity or assume we’re allies in an unhealthy toxic masculinity. Over it. -@handsomefmnst

My brothers told me that they’ll never paint their daughter’s nails. #MasculinitySoFragile -@funfettipancakes

#MasculinitySoFragile 2 men at a Subway will LET U FUCKIN KNOW just bc they are paying for their food together doesnt mean THEY are together. -@discohaylie

#MasculinitySoFragile “My masculinity is so important that I’d rather go a week without washing than use some god damn pink FAIRY SOAP!” -@N_Ver_Sean

All of these tug at my heartstrings. Even the last one in all its silliness, because I have heard sentences exactly that absurd uttered with total seriousness. These posts leave me wanting to make sure that I’m helping to make it safe for the men around me to just be. Make no mistake, there must also be an internal process for everyone in order for change to be made. But it’s welcoming and informed environments that make internal change possible and effective. And it’s our widespread mutual goal to be allowed to simply be who we are.

Combining humor and activism is a form of artistry. Sex educator and comedian Dane Ballard once said to me that humor has this beautiful ability to deliver a sort of package. It’s easily received, but then unfolds in the mind of the listener. This is the opportunity we have with #MasculinitySoFragile, but it must be used well.

How to Speak Out Effectively

  • Anger towards an oppressive force is an early stage of healing. While you’re in it, direct your anger as specifically as you can. Avoid speaking in absolutes and making generalizations. Be mad as hell, just not at everyone. That feels crappy anyway.
  • Ask if your feedback is willing to be received. This isn’t necessary in an original post, but it is in any conversation- especially ones with strangers. Before you get into it, ask the other person if they have a few minutes to hear your impressions. If they say no, you’ve wasted no energy on them, and that’s a win for you.
  • Speak about your experience only. A point is not made stronger, but weaker by exaggerating or using absolutes. Tell the person what you feel, and why. That will indeed mean being somewhat open, and that’s exactly what’s needed in order for someone to hear you. If you can’t communicate with at least some openness, that’s ok. Wait to say your piece until you can, or find someone who can say it for you.
  • Jump at opportunities to speak up, especially when you can use privilege for the good. It is easiest for a person to hear something from someone they consider an ally or the same as they are in some way. When that’s you, it creates a beautiful opportunity for change if they say something with which you disagree. Remember that what you say can be very simple. “I’m not sure that’s true,” or, “My experience has been different than that,” are brief and safe, but very powerful statements that can get others thinking. This isn’t easy, but it’s easier. And it feels really, really good.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke from 1908:

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

“Neuroqueer: An Introduction”

Originally posted on www.neurocosmopolitanism.com on 2 May 2015 by my amazing friend and colleague, Nick Walker. Nick is an Autistic educator, author, speaker, transdisciplinary scholar, and martial arts master, and has been at the forefront of the neurodiversity awareness movement for many years. It’s my pleasure to present his latest work.

“The term neuroqueer was coined independently and more or less simultaneously by Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace, Michael Scott Monje Jr., and myself. Having coined it, all three of us managed to spend a few years not getting around to using it in any published work, even though the set of concepts and practices represented by the term came to heavily inform our thinking. I almost used Neuroqueer as the title for my blog, but decided to go with the title Neurocosmopolitanism instead. Michael almost used Neuroqueer as the title for a novel, but decided to go with the title Defiant instead.

It wasn’t until Michael mentioned this last fact, in an online conversation in which he and Ibby and I were all involved, that we discovered that all three of us had been playing around with the same term. Happily, though we were all approaching it from different angles, our various interpretations of neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering) were in no way incompatible. In the same conversation, we learned that another friend and colleague of ours, Melanie Yergeau, while she hadn’t yet stumbled upon the word neuroqueer, had been thinking along quite similar and compatible lines in playing with the concept of neurological queerness; Melanie’s contributions have been extensive enough that even if she didn’t come up with the actual word, I consider her – along with Ibby, Michael, and myself – to be one of originators of the concept of neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering).

All four of us – Ibby, Michael, Melanie, and I – emerged from that conversation freshly inspired to begin introducing the term, and the set of concepts and practices it describes, into our public work and into our communities and the broader culture. Since then, we’ve been following through on that intention in various exciting ways. Ibby, Michael, and I, along with Bridget Allen and Corbett O’Toole, founded the independent publishing house Autonomous Press, to publish books in which neuroqueerness of one sort or another tends to play a prominent role (starting in 2016, Autonomous Press will also have an imprint called NeuroQueer Books). Ibby founded the NeuroQueer blog, with Michael and Dani Alexis Ryskamp and I later joining as co-editors. Melanie is working on a book that I can’t tell you about yet, but it’s going to be extraordinary and most definitely relevant. We’ve all started talking about neuroqueerness and neuroqueering in our academic conference presentations and public speaking engagements. Ibby and I are now co-editing the NeuroQueer Handbook, which will be published by Autonomous Press in 2016.

Meanwhile, the term is catching on in various circles and communities, taking on a life of its own, as terms and concepts tend to do when the time is right for them. It’s showing up in academic papers and conference presentations, creative projects, Facebook communities, blogs and Tumblr accounts and all manner of social media platforms. It’s been adopted by a whole lot of people I don’t know – and when a new term/concept spreads beyond the social circles of its originators, that’s generally a sign that it’s “got legs,” as they say. In other words, it’s a term that you’re likely to be hearing a lot more of in the years to come.

(The day before I wrote this piece, I was at California Institute of Integral Studies for the first meeting of a course I teach called Critical Perspectives on Autism and Neurodiversity. I was introducing my students to basic neurodiversity-related terminology like neurotypical and neurodivergent, when a young undergraduate excitedly asked me, “Have you heard of the term neuroqueer?”)

I’ve already seen a lot of interpretations of neuroqueer and attempts at definition from folks who’ve adopted the term. Some of those interpretations miss the point, sometimes in ways that are truly facepalm-worthy. Other interpretations are more on-point but overly narrow, such that Ibby, Michael, Melanie, and I look at them and say, “Yeah, that’s part of what we were getting at… but only part of it…”

So what were we getting at? What is neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering)?

I should first of all acknowledge that any effort to establish an “authoritative” definition of neuroqueer is in some sense inherently doomed and ridiculous, simply because the sort of people who identify as neuroqueer and engage in neuroqueering tend to be the sort of people who delight in subverting definitions, concepts, and anything “authoritative.”

That said, the definition that follows is as close to an “authoritative” definition of neuroqueer (and neuroqueerness, and neuroqueering) as is ever likely to exist. I wrote it with the input and approval of the other three originators of the concept. So it’s the one definition out there that all four of the originators of neuroqueer have agreed is not only accurate, but also inclusive of all of the various practices and ways-of-being that any of the four of us ever intended neuroqueer to encompass.

Neuroqueer is both a verb and an adjective. As a verb, it refers to a broad range of interrelated practices. As an adjective it describes things that are associated with those practices or that result from those practices: neuroqueer theory, neuroqueer perspectives, neuroqueer narratives, neuroqueer literature, neuroqueer art, neuroqueer culture, neuroqueer community. And as an adjective, neuroqueer can also serve as a label of social identity, just like such labels as queer, gay, lesbian, straight, black, white, hapa, Deaf, or Autistic (to name just a small sampling).

A neuroqueer individual is an individual whose identity has in some way been shaped by their engagement in practices of neuroqueering. Or, to put it more concisely (but perhaps more confusingly): you’re neuroqueer if you neuroqueer.

So what does it mean to neuroqueer, as a verb? What are the various practices that fall within the definition of neuroqueering?

  1. Being neurodivergent and approaching one’s neurodivergence as a form of queerness (e.g., by understanding and approaching neurodivergence in ways that are inspired by, or similar to, the ways in which queerness is understood and approached in Queer Theory, Gender Studies, and/or queer activism).
  2. Being both neurodivergent and queer, with some degree of conscious awareness and/or active exploration around how these two aspects of one’s identity intersect and interact.
  3. Being neurodivergent and actively choosing to embody and express one’s neurodivergence (or refusing to suppress one’s embodiment and expression of neurodivergence) in ways that “queer” one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, and/or other aspects of one’s identity.
  4. Engaging in the “queering” of one’s own neurocognitive processes (and one’s outward embodiment and expression of those processes) by intentionally altering them in ways that create significant and lasting increase in one’s divergence from dominant neurological, cognitive, and behavioral norms.
  5. Engaging in practices intended to “undo” one’s cultural conditioning toward conformity and compliance with dominant norms, with the aim of reclaiming one’s capacity to give more full expression to one’s neurodivergence and/or one’s uniquely weird personal potentials and inclinations.
  6. Identifying as neuroqueer due to one’s engagement in any of the above practices.
  7. Being neurodivergent and producing literature and/or other cultural artifacts that foreground neurodivergent experiences and perspectives.
  8. Being neurodivergent and producing critical responses to literature and/or other cultural artifacts, focusing on intentional or unintentional characterizations of neurodivergence and how those characterizations illuminate and/or are illuminated by the lived experiences of actual neurodivergent people.
  9. Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities – and ultimately a society – in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged.

So there you have it, from the people who brought you the term. This definition is, again, not an authoritative “last word” on the subject, because that would be a silly thing to attempt. Rather, I hope this will be taken as a “first word” – a broad “working definition” from which further theory, practice, and play will proceed.

Happy neuroqueering!”

Reposted with permission from Nick Walker. Source: http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neuroqueer-an-introduction/

 

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.

Working with Gender

Gender is a spectrum. And the spectrum is a rich and beautiful one. It is not news that the notion of “blue or pink” is outdated, let alone damaging. As Jung proposed (1953), “identifications with a social role are a fruitful source of neuroses” (p. 83). Ideally, we would raise our children with little to no expectation of how their gender will affect who they are or what they do. Possibilities for the expression of self are infinite at birth and they ought to remain as wide open as possible.

So what does that mean for us as adults? How do you know your true gender? Therapy provides a safe container in which to explore your possible expressions. Gender therapy embodies a non-judgemental approach to exploring what you know about who you really are. Why do this? Because you should not be limited and wherever you feel that you land on the spectrum is perfect, because it is authentically you. A life rooted in the comfort of one’s own body and mind is a vibrant and meaningful one.

Inspiration:

Jung, C. (1982). Aspects of the feminine. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.