Monday, January 17, 2011

Creating Our Own Definition of Manhood

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

Next week, weather permitting, I will be heading east to the Boston area to participate in the First Event conference, a gender conference hosted by the Tiffany Club of New England, where I will present a workshop called “The New Masculinity: Creating Your Own Definition of Manhood.”

I’ve offered this workshop before, at First Event and in other places, and it is basically a group discussion of the many ways that trans men construct their own masculinity and create their own definitions of what it means to be a man. There is always a wide range of experience based on an infinite number of factors, including age, class, ethnicity, geographic location, and life experience.

Some trans guys were never faced with “constructing masculinity.” It came as naturally to them as breathing, and they reflected “traditional” Western masculinity, or the masculinity that was traditional for their culture, from the time that they were old enough to realize that they were separate entities, apart from everything and everyone else around them.

For others, it was a more difficult struggle. Female socialization runs deep and remains with many of us (including me) throughout our lives. In some cases, we struggle mightily against it, only to have it return in times of stress, crisis, or other emotionally charged situations.  And some of us (including me) gave up the struggle a long time ago and recognized that we could never ban it entirely, and that the more logical course was to integrate it into who we are now and always will be. And many of those who did this (including me) did it in part because we liked aspects of our “female self” enough to hold on to them.   

Identity is a slippery slope that incorporates many facets and experiences of a person’s life. I was socialized as a female in the 1950s and ’60s, when there was really a very specific blueprint for what it was to be a girl and a woman – at least in my white, semi-middle-class, Midwestern-United-States cultural model. That has changed and relaxed some, but I’m surprised at how constant its core has remained. 

I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and I have argued repeatedly that freedom of gender expression means freedom for everyone, not just those who choose to express their gender in non-traditional ways. Boys CAN be boys and girls CAN be girls in the strictest sense of their culture, if this is what is comfortable and natural for them – at least, in my opinion, it should be so.

But one of the interesting things that I find when I lead a discussion on redefining manhood is how many trans guys feel trapped by their culture’s definition of manhood, whatever that may be, and by their culture’s expectations of men, whatever those may be. They sometimes express relief when they are given permission not to follow the very strict and restrictive requirements that their culture has established for membership in “manhood.”

And I wonder if the same thing would be true if a group of heterosexual, non-trans men got together to redefine masculinity and manhood, and to create their own definitions of what it means to be a man. The problem is that, at least in my culture, doing so would be the antithesis of what it truly does mean to be a man.

Straight, non-trans men rarely get together to deconstruct manhood. They rarely get together to “dialogue” and “share” their ideas, thoughts, and feelings about masculinity. If they did, they might experience some similar relief when they are given permission not to follow the very strict and restrictive requirements that their culture has established for membership in “manhood.” 

But the very concept of doing this is “anti-masculine.” And since, at least in the United States, straight, white, non-trans men control the definitions of manhood (and womanhood), it becomes unfortunate for all men – straight, gay, trans, non-trans, traditional, and non-traditional – who might want to alter or expand those definitions.

I personally am not opposed to “traditional” expressions of masculinity. I only balk when there are no other acceptable expressions available. And this is where those trans men (including me) who cannot, do not, or may not even want to fall within the established “guidelines for manhood” come in. 

We do have the potential to create a definition of manhood that both encompasses and expands upon the current traditional definition. We have the power to free not only ourselves, but non-trans men as well, from the confines of the current restrictive guidelines. 

But we only have the power to do this if we don’t see ourselves and our self-created definitions of masculinity as inferior. We have to see the definition of masculinity that each of us has created for ourselves as equally viable and equally legitimate. And that is how we can create definitions of manhood that will eventually benefit everyone.