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.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why I’m asking about gender now

This post is third in the series, following "Why I Identify as Male, part one" and "Why I Identify as Male, the prequel

              I joined my first Jewish men’s group about four years ago. At the time I had been living for two years in (what felt like) female-dominated spaces, and had not had a male social circle in about seven years. When I was invited to join the group, I jumped at the opportunity, excited to enjoy certain things that I associated with male socializing (assumptions ahoy!): measured conversation, good-natured joking, and an ease that comes with shared experience. The group met several times, and then lost momentum, and that was that.
             About two years ago, there was an attempt to start up a men’s group in my local community, the Moishe Kavod House in Brookline. By this point I had acquired my own regular group of guy friends, and had moved in with my female partner, no longer in a female-dominated communal living situation. I did not feel any personal need for the group, but attended gatherings anyway just to show my support. This time around, I found the group especially tedious, as all of our conversations kept getting tripped up on gender essentializing—any discussion of male role models, male challenges, or male relationships all begged the question of what it meant to be a man, and for the most part we fell back on patriarchal stereotypes, ones which I experienced as irrelevant. This group also eventually lost momentum and disbanded.
             So I was pretty cynical earlier this year when the Moishe Kavod Men’s Group was revived. Wary of joining another group that would fail to engage gender critically, I declared to the leaders that I was only interested in joining if there would be an effort to create an inclusive men’s group, that is, one that was welcoming and beneficial to any male-identified person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender history.

             In the spirit of this goal, I initiated and facilitated a discussion with the men’s group, revolving around two questions: (1) What are the positive benefits for us as men to having a specific gathering that excludes women?” (2) What would it mean to create an inclusive men’s group? The resulting conversation was heated, and the tension between my two framing questions became very clear.
             In response to #1, many of the members (including myself) talked about a desire for a ‘safe’ space in which to explore masculinity and its modern challenges, and how this process of enlightenment was going to involve working through a lot of difficult and offensive beliefs we currently held. We needed a space in order to make mistakes, around people who would not feel hurt or unsafe when we expressed our unenlightened opinions (much thanks to Stephanie Gauchel at Tufts for pointing out how this assumes a lack of diversity within a heterosexual, cisgendered men’s group).
              Clearly this response made the subsequent conversation on inclusivity more difficult. An inclusive men’s group would bring together groups of men who would not necessarily want to focus on the same topics (ex: sex/gender of our sexual partners), and whose diverse experiences of male embodiment and male privilege would bring societal imbalances and tensions into an (earlier assumed) equal space. Members expressed concern that they did not know enough about these other kinds of men to be able to ensure a safe space for them. Others remarked that the move to be inclusive would actually exclude their particular interests as heterosexual cis-men, and their desire for a place where they could grow without worrying about offending others.
             I came away from this conversation reeling, and since then have been thinking and talking a lot about the complexities of creating an inclusive men’s group, and the many issues surrounding male identity. I could say a lot more about the men’s group discussion, but this post is getting long, and there is one crucial piece left:

Why do I want an inclusive men’s group?
             First of all, it’s more helpful to express it as a desire for a diverse men’s group. What it means to be a man is something that varies man-to-man, depending on personal experience, social environment, and other factors. I want to be part of a group that respects this diversity, even if it is only diversity within a heterosexual, cisgendered (from now on: “het/cis”) men’s group. By placing respect for this diversity at the center of our group, we can begin to avoid dangerous (and tedious) stereotypes.
             Second of all, if we’re calling it a men’s group, let’s make it one for all men! If not, let’s call it what it is: a het/cis men’s group. It’s possible that the MKH group will be solely het/cis for a while, as people within that corner of masculinity may have specific issues to work out before feeling ready to handle diversity.

             Now just the plain truth: I find the mainstream het/cis/white image of masculinity that I’ve received to be personally unsatisfying and socially limiting. I don’t think we can truly understand masculinity until we begin to listen to the multiple voices of diverse men, until we encounter and understand the broad range of male experience in the world, and until we as men begin to take responsibility for the violence done in our name by those enforcing patriarchal masculinity. Perhaps a diverse men’s group can be a vehicle for healing among men.

             And for me to play a role in this diversity and that healing, I need to have a better sense of why I identify as a male.

Coming soon: "Why I Identify as Male, part two" (hopefully the conclusion of the series!!!)