Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why I identify as Male, part two

This is the last of four posts exploring my male identity and the challenges of male gender diversity. Check out 1, 2, and 3.

             Since I don’t believe there is an essence of maleness, obviously I cannot give one single reason that I identify as male. In this post, I’ll survey the variety of reasons I have, and assess how these reasons could help my ability to make mental (and social) space for male gender diversity.

            I identify as male because it “feels right.” I check off □male on surveys and forms, and it feels right. What feels right is based both on my experience of my own body, but also comfort with my social expectations and social position. At a deep level, I identify as male “because I just do.”
            I think this intuition level is important to dwell on, because it’s so personal and can’t be communicated. If I accept that my gender identity is ultimately ineffable, that should help me move past the need to understand that of an Other. If gender is so hard to pin down, my response to a ‘stranger’ should be to widen my understanding, rather than repulse them from a totally vague set of boundaries.

Cismale Biology, Heterosexual Orientation (Cis/Het)
            My male identity is not generic—it is specifically a cisgendered, heterosexual male identity. My genitalia are crucial to my male identity. My daily life as a heterosexual male living with a femme female plays a prominent role in my experience of being gendered as male.
            I believe my responsibility here is to recognize that cis/het male identity is simply one corner of male space. My particularity as cis/het means that, on many levels, I will find more kinship with other cis/het men. But by recognizing this particular male space as particular, I stop conflating all of masculinity with being cis/het, and open myself (and others) to a wider understanding of maleness.

I act like a guy.
            Yes, it’s constructed, and yes it’s essentializing, but still—I feel like a guy when I fulfill male stereotypes. Acting strong, unemotional, protective—these performances make me feel manly, especially when I do them instinctively (AKA I don’t call them performances). As a Jewish male, study, introspection, and the intellectual life is part of my masculinity. When I was religious, praying was part of my masculinity. As a male with the specific male role models I’ve had, making snappy jokes, knowing trivia, and shopping for groceries are all part of my masculinity.
            On the other hand, I have occasionally been told (to little avail) to “act like a man,” by people who clearly did not understand or accept my version of masculinity. What I call “acting like a guy” is wrong/unrecognizable to many men. Once again, I find that what I call being a male is actually just my corner of male identity. I find more kinship with people whose traits and behaviors overlap with mine,—but, as in the previous section, this train of thought once again teaches me to stop conflating my masculinity with all masculinity.

I have male privilege and power—and responsibility.
            At this point in my life, I am starting to identify more specifically as male but, as an extremely privileged person, I have previously identified simply as human. Lack of oppression has enabled me to avoid feeling like a target based on a specific identity, and so I have (as only a class-privileged, straight, white cismale can) felt one with all humanity. But I’m not. By identifying as male, I recognize my particularity, and can recognize that of others. By identifying as something specific, I allow for Others to emerge, and I become able to acknowledge and respect differences.
I am a specific kind of person with specific privileges in society. I can walk around calling myself “human,” but I benefit from ‘rich’, straight, white, cis, male privileges all the same. I may not oppress anyone directly, but I benefit from an oppressive society—and recognizing that fact motivates me to fight against that inequity. I did not create this system, but I can still take responsibility for it.
This brings me to my last point: I identify as male because, as a feminist, I am specifically a male feminist. In life and within the feminist movement, this has two implications: (1) I have to check my privilege and be receptive to having it checked for me—as a male I have both a unique perspective but also important blind spots; (2) I play a key role in promoting a culture of enthusiastic consent and fighting rape culture, because I can reach out to other men as a man. Ultimately, this is the most inspiring reason I have to identify as a male—by identifying as a male, I can work from within masculinity to fight misogyny, homophobia, and other perversions of human identity/society that hold men (and all people) back.


  1. I'm especially struck by the distinction you draw here between the time when you identified simply as human (something you explain you could do because of your privilege) and how you are now identifying as something more particular, as male. How does this particularity inform your understanding of humanism?

  2. Hi Anonymous-- Great question! This is a point that I was somewhat trying to make in my "Humanism is for everyone" post last year. For myself as a Humanist (Humanism conflated with Existentialism and Feminism, of course), it's important to keep in mind both universal and particular aspects of the human experience. "What it means to be human" is not the same for everyone... except insofar as differentiation is also a human-wide phenomenon. When I think of myself and others on the human level, I do a disservice all around if I just melt everyone into one category.

  3. Great posts Mr. Lowe. This series has prompted me and my wife to think about why we identify as male and female respectively. In your earlier posts you said one of the reasons you wanted to figure this out is because people tend to question transgendered people as to why they identify the way they do. I have never knowingly meet a transgendered person but when thinking about this issue, I imagine they would respond like I would; because I feel that way. What, if any, has your experience been when talking about this question (or asking it directly) with a trans-gendered person?
    Also, your comment on identifying as human made me wonder if that assertion can be questioned in a similar light? Why do you identify as human? Is it because you have certain genes? Is it because most of your friends are human? Or does the very fact that you CAN identify as anything mean your at least human?

  4. Hi J-- (1) I have had little to no opportunity to discuss these questions with a transmale or transfemale, although I drew the idea of "expanding my sense of gender" from a lot of conversations while developing these posts. (2) Interesting question! This has not been on my mind, nor have I experienced much social pressure to work through it. Hmmm.... Think you stumped me here. Tell you what, I'll answer a question with a question-- what might be at stake if I tried to figure out "Why I Identify as Human"?

  5. What is really at stake is that once you declare why you identify as human, you necessarily have to separate your humanness from non-humanness. Judging from the delicacy with which you attempt to draw gender lines, this could be tough.

    Would you start with some biology? Say, your bacterial composition? I read an article recently that described a person not as one living thing but as a kind of super organism made up mostly of bacteria. But really, you don't FEEL like bacteria, so despite the truth of that statement you probably wouldn't use that as a foundation for your human identity. Plus, lots of other nonhuman entities are probably also made up of bacteria, so there goes that. So what else? Chromosomes? Not only does that not feel right because I have no emotional connection to my chromosomes, I also wouldn't want to alienate people who have different chromosomal makes-ups that some might call "abnormalities." I'm no scientist but I assume that would be a tricky line to draw.

    What about having human emotions? My wife would say my emotional capacity is limited at best and again, I don't want to alienate people who seem to have an inability to express/identify/feel emotions due to some kind of behavioral "disorders" or differences. Or animals. There are plenty of people who would say cats and dogs and chimps have emotions and I don't think I'll ever be able to say what differentiates those (if they exist) from mine.

    How about the old "I think therefore I am" school of thought? Perhaps I identify as human because I CAN. To be any other thing I would not have the capacity for self identification. But again, how do I know I'm the only thing out there that can identify self? Animals may; any higher beings out there certainly must; and who knows just when our computers will self actualize and take their place alongside (or as the diabolical overlords of) humanity.

    I'm stumped. But anyway your question wasn't "How would you identify as human" but rather "What is at stake if I try?" And that brings me back to my original point. People have tried in the past to draw the line between human and non human, to disastrous consequences. For an obvious but painful example, consider racially motivated definitions that left out people of different skin color or religion from the group; that led to no good. And the persistent question of when human life begins for purposes of the abortion debate are also complicated when one tries to identify their humanness.

    I think a lot is at stake with that question. Why I identify as human is the same question as what makes me different from non humans, and it seems to be as tricky and dangerous a line to draw as any.

    ideas by j. edits by z. bubbles by x.

  6. Hi J (and Z And X!)-- I agree with your assessment of the often-evil consequences of parsing the "what is human" question. It is largely used to reduce some humans to sub-human, or to justify inhumane treatment of animals. If there's an alien invasion someday, then it may be an important question. But, for the most part, I like to think that most living things deserve dignity, and whether or not they are human is a bit less important.