Being Boys

Make masculinity and its traces quake at the impending danger creeping up on it

still from Fox Sports commercial by Motion Theory, 2003

They have taken to praising me, not knowing the harm they do. They — those well-intentioned friends and acquaintances who encounter a lack of “wokeness” from cis men — note my feminist enactments. They, those liberal white women, those gay black men, those trans and nonbinary folks of color — my people, my social circle — often lionize how I inhabit the world. They laud my “How are we still gendering razors?”; my “I got 99 problems and society’s attitude towards sexual orientation & gender identity covers like 98 of them” T-shirt (they ask a bonus question: “What’s the 99th one?” to which I respond, “white supremacy”); my bookshelf saturated with titles by Janet Mock, Jessica Valenti, and Rebecca Solnit. I take it, albeit reluctantly sometimes, as a compliment. I take it all as an expression of a kind of, “Keep up the good work, my boy.”

Yet this commendatory habit has grown chafing. It wears on me, landing askew. In response to my partner accenting my cheeks with foundation, or the pink and yellow and orange socks I wear, or my penchant for crying at a rom-com (which has become more frequent as of late, as I increasingly grow into a big tattooed softy), they say, “He’s secure in his masculinity.” It is an attempt to reassure, careful not to slight the burly gendered architecture they’ve inscribed onto bodies like mine — those they read as men. They have curtailed my ability to be something, anything, else. “He’s secure in his masculinity” is to tell me and others not to fear, for all in due time I will get back on track, doing what it is that men must do. Do not worry your feminist-but-still-very-masculine head, my dear, they console. Your masculinity is secure, strapped in, unable to be unmoored from its gendered lodgings. And with that, the possibility that one is not secure in that masculinity is extinguished.

But I don’t want this orchestrated ensemble of domination called masculinity, a conglomerate of things that have been mired in a historical trajectory intended to subordinate and devalue any trace of femininity. Masculinity passes through the gateway of the hegemon and bolsters patriarchal relations, shifting over time and place to mark the expression of a naturalized hierarchy with people read as men near the top (closer to this apogee when accompanied, of course, by other goodies: whiteness, wealth, an attraction to demure ladies).

To cast “masculinity” onto someone is not mere description; it is a hailing: Hey, you! You are to exist by making sense as someone who demonstrates certain qualities. Masculinity is an address; it is thus a demand to make the hailing true. To deem someone masculine, and secure in their masculinity, is to require of them the wearing of those behaviors — they must be and do the jock with his letterman jacket, the belching homophobic rapey assailant, the hard-hat-wearing catcaller — in order to be legible to the world. Please, do not tell me I’m secure in my masculinity. Don’t you dare. I have been around, and unfortunately have been edified by, too many who secure this masculinity by any means utterly unnecessary.

It was 2009. I was a junior in high school, a place I loathed. My relationship to those withering walls and hallways lined with rusting lockers is a fraught one. There was a difficulty to fitting in, a troublesome stubbornness to how I was made to be situated in the constellation of limited roles and even more limited room to move within those roles. Chief among those roles was to be, to do, to idolize what boys are meant to be and do and idolize.

It felt nearly impermissible to be understood as a man (or at least someone who would grow up to be a man) and fail to adequately perform the necessary dance of posturing by threatening other boys who had encroached on your territory, or ceasing all conversation to gaze at a passing woman. Sometimes, even these were not enough, the requirement to showcase one’s manhood demanding more violence, more physical assault, more bodily conquest. In these ways I, implicitly and explicitly, was coerced, over and over, terrifyingly. And what else is someone perpetually coerced into this masculine demand to do but play football, a space that glorifies corporeal assault and valorizes emotional erasure (save for one: rage), all of which is quantified by points and stats, a metric that allows you to see the value of violence, the assets of assault. Our head coach, whom we called “Vo,” fancied gendered slights. He often sought to engender what he thought was a necessary rage in us by calling us names associated with women. (Note: there are no “women’s names.” No name is inherently embedded in a binaristic understanding of gender; no gender is inherently tied to a culturally and linguistically specific string of graphemes and phonemes. Just sayin’.) “Susan” was his favorite name to call us, and when that failed to rile us up sufficiently, his backup was accusing us of lacking “testicular fortitude.” Condescendingly, he’d clarify: “You know what that means? It means you don’t have the balls.”

Vo is not isolated, nor is he the villain in an otherwise angelic athletic geography at good ol’ Academy Park High School. We all, mostly, succumbed to the toxic allure of masculinity. Long before I had loved ones in my life who praised my perceived masculine security, my ability to commune with femininity and have my gendered identity unthreatened, I socialized with the very people those liberal white women and gay black men so adamantly distinguish me from.

We engaged, ironically, in that purportedly feminized practice — gossip — chitchatting about which “girls” (even grown women were subjected to perpetual infancy) we fucked, who had a threesome, who was a freak, who ain’t give us head (yet). Indeed, above compassion, intellect, or emotional breadth, that was one of our sole purposes for living: to be — through and through — masculine. And to be men required a constant striving and proving. We were addicted to its high and chased its gendered dragon in each and every aspect of our waking and dreaming life. We bonded through a coercive adhesive predicated on tenets of masculinity. We signed, without reading, the Terms and Agreements. And it was forged incessantly through constant refrains of “Man, I don’t give a fuck”; “My dick bigger than yours”; “See me in the streets. I’ll drop you, my nigga”; and “She bad as shit, yo.” We became understood exclusively and properly as men.

All of this locker-room talk the 45th President and his cronies excuse as us boys just being boys is in fact quite close to his description. Boys being boys, which is to say those children coaxed into an arena that stanches every bit of femininity — nay, nonmasculinity. Boys being boys demands that your wrists stay firm, your voice stay deep, your tears stay invisible, your ego stay impenetrable, your visage stay stern, your ability to love stay shackled, your fullness stay dismally narrow. We boys, though surely it is not our fault, are taught these things, do not get to carry a childhood innocence with us to our graves (or, more accurately, the graves of those who meet our masculine ire); we do not get to be and remain innocent, especially since some of us of a darker hue do not get to reap the privileges of youthful innocence to begin with. I get it, yes I do, yes I do: Children are not to be held responsible for the violences done to them by those older; children are not to be subject to scrutiny to such an extent, because they have not authored these behaviors. I get it, yes I do, yes I do.

But these children — who I want to believe are smarter than we deem, more insightful than we wish them to be — do not leave the violences done to them on their own skins. That violence is often doled out to others too. Children learn quite well. They’ve learned to demand the security that even well-meaning others reify by implicitly validating masculine security in the first place. “He’s secure in his masculinity,” and that is a good thing, be nothing but secure in it, the subtext reads. These boys who will be boys are being boys around other boys and around other non-boys, around girls and tomboys and sissies and punks and queers and all those who imagine an embodied expression that the boys who will be boys have been told they must scorch from the earth if they are to continue being the boys who will be boys who better not be anything but those boys. When these boys are being boys around others who are or are not boys, they need to ensure that everyone knows they are boys. And their boyness comes into being on the verbally assaulted, physically pummeled, sexually exploited, emotionally ridiculed backs of those who stray from the imperative of being boys.

In other words, these boys, though some are innocent, also do not allow others who are not boys who will be boys, or boys who will not be boys, to be innocent.

I do not feel, nor do I wish to feel, secure in my masculinity. To affirm the reassurance that so many have imposed upon me when an effete air huddles in close proximity would be to affirm that which I so desperately wish to jettison. “He’s secure in his masculinity” unwittingly sutures a perceived cis male identity to the purported naturalness of masculine behavior. Of course he’ll be secure in his masculinity when he is accosted with something other than masculinity, because surely masculinity is his natural state, and this specter of femininity or nonbinariness a mere temporary lapse. Surely one would never tell him, a man, that he is secure in any kind of femininity, because his baseline can only be masculine. He must only express masculinity because he is to be, obviously, masculine.

The phrase “He’s secure in his masculinity” happily places a stamp of approval onto masculinity’s expression. Through validation, masculinity gets fixed into stability, unable to move or be different. I do not want security, then; I want insecurity. Insecurity is descriptive of a vulnerability, an exposure to an impending danger. Perhaps, then, it is insecurity that moves us toward detonating the ills of masculinity. In the moments when my masculinity is insecure, it might be a courageous act to allow it to remain so, encouraging its further insecurity, untying and unlatching it from my person. When the gendered car crashes, it careens through the windshield and plummets to its death. Expose masculinity to danger, for to “be a man” rests on a repertoire of violence and conquest and power we ought not abide. It has shown up and caused a disturbance, staying long after its welcome, so we have to kindly ask you to leave, sir. Removing the man from one’s subjectivity is the fundamental move we must strive for. Make masculinity and its traces quake at the impending danger creeping up on it.