What does it mean to be a man? It’s one of those questions that has comparable philosophical depth to questions about the meaning of life or true happiness. I have always found it unsettling when someone is told to “be a man” or to “man up.” The presumption is that manhood is an impermanent state, one that can be denied or undermined at any time. I believe the status of being a man is one of gender identity, a social construct, how one perceives themselves. One can be born male, but society makes judgments about how much of a man one truly is. Others — specifically other men — can play a grand role in the validation of a man’s masculinity. The societal expectation to “be a man” persists as a recurring psychological pressure for all men. However, for many gay and bisexual men in particular, the internal struggle with masculinity is often more pronounced and unique.
As proud as many LGBTQIA people are to be themselves, overcoming social pressure to conform to the norm is an ongoing battle. For many years, I struggled to reconcile my desire to be open about my sexuality with social expectations to “be a man.” The reality was that my own experience as a man diverged from the gender role I was expected to perform: I was a guy who liked other guys, and the culture of my all-boys school gave me the impression that being gay undermined my claims to masculinity.
During my first year at Amherst, as a new member of Pride Alliance, the College’s LGBTQIA student organization, I sometimes hesitated to table for the group in the campus center, fearing the judgments of fellow students, especially other men, who would pass by the table. Back then, having never been involved in a LGBTQIA group before college, I felt very uncomfortable tabling in Keefe with a giant rainbow flag in front of me while the whole student body passed by. For so long, I also had trouble asking guys if they were interested in me, not only out of a fear of rejection, but also out of a fear of how I would be perceived and judged. I wanted to become proud of who I was and become a leader in the queer community. At the time though, I just didn’t want to be judged based on the stereotypes often associated with gay men. I definitely didn’t want to feel like being gay meant that I was some how less of a man.
Fortunately, as I’ve grown older, I believe I have become increasingly more confident in defining masculinity on my own terms. I’d like to think I’ve made a great deal of individual progress in the past couple years: I’ve gone from being completely closeted and conforming at an all-boys private school to being openly gay at Amherst College where I don’t think twice about publishing a personal article like this about sexuality and gender. I’m glad I mustered enough courage to join Pride Alliance as an anxious first-year student. Now, as a co-chair of Pride Alliance this semester, I have found the confidence to appreciate how masculinity and queerness can co-exist and thrive within one person. I no longer trick myself into thinking that these identities have to be seen as mutually exclusive. Through my leadership of the student organization, I’ve been able to surround myself with a supportive, inclusive community that has reinforced my self-confidence in who I am.
A large part of my growth was learning not to let others define how I felt about myself. The other part was letting go of all of the false expectations I had placed upon myself about what being a man meant. Today, I definitely still have room to grow: a gay man’s quest for self-appreciation in a rigid heteronormative society is likely a life-long journey.
My own ideal of twenty-first century manhood prioritizes personal values and character rather than sexuality. I have so much respect for other gay men who have also fought against expectations to conform and have managed to develop their own sense of masculinity. I look up to the gay male faculty and staff members whose values, self-confidence, and altruism make them an inspiration to LGBTQ students and the Amherst community more generally. However, I also have much patience and understanding for those gay and bisexual men on campus who still have barriers to coming out in the Amherst community. If I can do anything, I hope that my writing can serve as a resource for all men who struggle with expectations for masculinity and manhood within our campus community and beyond.
This week, Pride and Allies Week, I encourage all students in our community to think critically about what it means to be a man. On Thursday at 6:00 p.m. in the McCaffrey Room in Keefe Campus Center, Pride Alliance will be hosting a “Queer Masculinity Panel” featuring Amherst College’s own Professor Polk and two other amazing visiting writers. The panelists will present their contributions from the anthology “Why are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform,” edited by Mattilda Bernstein. The panel serves as an incredible opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the intersection of masculinity and queer identity, and to learn how queer men still grapple with the same societal expectations that straight men do. I hope such conversations continue beyond Pride and Allies Week, and that men at Amherst can work collaboratively and constructively to imagine a more inclusive ideal of manhood.
Queeriosity is a bi-weekly column dedicated to discussing LGBTQ student life at Amherst College. If you are interested in contributing to the Queeriosity column, contact the Amherst College Pride Alliance at [email protected].