Thursday, 19 April 2018

Raising A Son In a World of Toxic Masculinity

This article is posted with permission, and was originally published on The Body Is Not An Apology. For more content please see:

Things I have heard about having a son:

“You’re lucky your son is gay. You won’t have to worry about him getting someone pregnant or treating women poorly.

“It’s good you have a son because he can watch over your daughters.”

“Boys are easier than girls. You don’t have to worry so much about them.”

“It’s too hard a world for girls. It’s better to have sons. At least you have one.”

When my son was younger, we were at the park with some homeschooling group along with a bunch of our boys. One of the boys ran by, and his father said, with disgust, “He runs like a girl.” I was pretty floored. Floored enough that I didn’t say anything. Someone said, “Oh leave him alone he’s only five.” Later in the car, I sat for a moment thinking of what I should have said. I should have said “Who cares? What’s wrong with running like a girl?” I run and I bet five bucks I can run faster than the guy who made the comment. And what does it mean to run like a girl anyway?

Now I’d like to ask “What if he still runs like this when he’s not five? Does it make any difference?” Does running like a girl ever hit a point where it’s unacceptable? Yeah. At five for some and at other ages for people like the mom who used age as the line.

The fear of boys acting like girls is about gayness, of course, but it’s also about misogyny. To want to be a woman is seen as a flaw, a weakness.

It is met with disgust and violence. To have womanly qualities is seen as bad, and ultimately wrong. Why do so many men not want their sons to “act like a woman?” Why do they say to them “Why are you crying like a little girl?” Why do they stop cuddling their boys after a certain age? What is wrong with acting like a woman (whatever that may mean)?

Shortly after this comment is made, my own son came running from the creek. He ran, awkwardly, all skinny limbs and overly long legs. Not graceful and certainly not “manly.” His elbows were tucked near his hips and his hands flop from his upward held wrists. He was flushed and happy because he has been taking photos. I did not look at the man who made the earlier comment. My son was not five. He was ten. If I see disgust, I feel like I might smack this man in the face.

There was a time when my son’s hand gestures, the way he crosses his legs at the knee would not have been seen as womanly. Judith Butler argues “If one ‘is’ a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered ‘person’ transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities”. Gender is never stable as it transforms not just through history but through different social places we inhabit.

Gender is free floating in some ways but also incredibly limiting because it imposes itself onto our bodies, and we learn through culture how to shape the way we carry our bodies in gendered ways.

Now I look back and wonder at how these moments have shaped the young man before me. Turns out that my son is indeed gay, but I don’t think it was the running that clued him or us in on that factoid. It’s because he’s attracted to men.

In fact my son struggles against the stereotypes of how others think gay men should hold their bodies (including the opinions of other gay men). The boy who ran like that stereotype at ten no longer does so at sixteen. In fact, he’s joined the  Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) and he does martial arts.

I have to confess that at one time I wondered if I should warn him that people might comment on the way he holds his body. I didn’t because I did not want to leave wounds. I did not want him to be self-conscious about his lovely body.

In no way, did we wish to contribute to society’s already narrow ideas of what a male body did and looked like. We never reinforced the idea that being in ways that others identified as feminine was in any way bad or wrong. Just as we never emphasized boy behaviors or girl behaviors as anything real. We never told him or our daughters that toys were often gendered in our society.

But sometimes like when he uses the word “emo” as an insult, I fear that we didn’t do enough. When he tries to defend internet bullying, I wonder if he’s inhaling society’s idea of masculinity with the air around him. We counter his words of course. I make him read articles on gamergate and when he tries to tell me that he hates in when girl gamers are so aggressive, I point out why. I lay awake at night and worry that my kid is becoming so filled with this toxic-ness that it will consume him.

How do we counter this? I ask myself this question every day. When I see my son engaging in things that just seem so male I fear for not just him but those around him. How can I not when I live in a world where men take guns into public places and shoot others. When I see the statistics on violent crime? Masculine toxicity destroys men but it also destroys all those around him. It’s not about me being a failure as a parent. It’s a lot more serious.

And all those comments I hear? They’re wrong. My son’s being gay does not protect him from this culture. It actually throws him into a strange place where he struggles to fit his gay identity into his male identity. He does not see himself as effeminate and when all the gay men around him seem to fit into that role, it makes him push against it. At this stage he does not see this as a problematic thing at least but I know it’s made him wonder about where he fits. My son’s role is not to watch over his sisters, not that they’d tolerate it anyway. But it’s another way he does not fit into the expectations. As I sat here struggling to put all this into words, I responded to the last thing… “NO! It’s not easier to raise sons! The world is going to grind him up too.”

Most days, I do not despair too much. I watch my son play with his baby sister. I’ve watched him stand up for her when others use Down syndrome as a slur. He’s respectful and pleasant to the women around us. He does not choose his friends based on gender. He doesn’t seem too bothered that crossing his legs in a certain way is considered effeminate. These things counter the things that keep me up at night.

And he listens to us. He talks to us as well. He doesn’t like what we say sometimes but I can tell that he’s taking it in, saving to muse on later. He has a good role model in his father who is a devoted feminist, who scorns the cultural expectations of gender. My son moves everyday among five females who often defy the stereotypes of female behavior. He doesn’t think it’s odd that his sister sometimes dresses like a boy or that a male friend from his art club wears fingernail polish and big earrings. He’s not put off by people who are gender neutral. He respects people’s gender identities. But the world pushes in all the time. In the form of teachers, the internet, friends.

This is the limitation of parenting, I know. You can teach and challenge but ultimately it’s out of your hands in the world out there. I have to hope that I raised a child who loves himself, and values himself not as a caricature of a man but as someone who dares to see beyond those roles.

Posted by Ginger Stickney