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We met each other over a decade ago through our work on transgender issues around the country. Though we rarely get to see each other in person because we don’t live near each other, we always enjoy each other’s company. Recently we got on the phone to discuss the trappings of masculinity. What follows is part of that conversation.
WW: Describe yourself for me.
KB: I am a black man whose journey has been through the lens of a female-to-male transsexual, from the Midwest. I am a kind, compassionate gentleman. I’m also a professor, a lawyer, a son and I do a lot of LGBT, but particularly trans, work. How would you describe yourself?
WW: I am one of very few new AARP members who is also in puberty.
KB: (Much laughter) That is true. There are very few who are in puberty that get an AARP card.
WW: I’m sure I’m not the only one.
KB: No you’re not brother, no you’re not.
WW: I am a mixed heritage guy — a new guy. I’m a husband and father. I have three little kids and I support my family. I am a writer and public health consultant, and I do a high volume of LGBT and transgender-specific cultural competency training for health service providers and educators. So Kylar, what do you consider to be the everyday messages about masculinity in today’s world?
KB: That’s a very interesting question because things have changed greatly since I was a child. In those days masculinity meant you didn’t cry, you had to be hard, you had to be tough. Today, it’s much more forgiving to be however one wishes to be masculine . It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be soft, and actually to express masculinity in a variety of forms. There’s not A certain way to be a man, in my opinion. Of course I travel a lot in queer spaces and nonqueer space.
Queerness and metrosexuality have helped to broaden the spectrum of masculinity in our culture and society. Even though people might be less conscious of the changes in masculinity, it has significantly changed. There is no one way to look or be like in past generations. For example, the cowboy or Marlboro man in the 1970s or the sweater and tie wearing man of the 1950s and 60s were stereotypical icons of masculinity in those days –in the same way that racial expressions were limited. There are some negative messages about being male or masculine that come across in today’s world. Denigration of others that are not male or masculine enough and, of course, those that are too masculine. Fighting, hostility, and violence are considered to be positive portrayals of masculinity, but really each creates tensions between individuals. Yet, in society and media this type of masculinity is considered positive. Macho-ness doesn’t have to be negative. I’m a guy who likes the macho-ness, but I like the good parts of it. One can be strong and masculine without being harmful to others. That’s how I see masculinity today. What about you, Willy?
WW: Yeah, thank you. When you look at how these messages about masculinity have changed since we were young, like you said, there was a pressure for men to be tough and have it together, but there was also an upright politeness in terms of the way that men were expected to behave. It’s an interesting thing because in some ways there really is a lot more room for men or masculine people to be themselves, including being able to emote and talk about their feelings, and an expectation that men should really fight for the issues of women and girls, and stand up for women in various ways. At the same time, I think there’s more license for people to subjugate women, in order to uphold their sense of masculinity, at least in terms of the way that plays out in popular culture. And one thing that I see that also bugs me is the way that men or masculine people may denigrate other masculine individuals to feel more powerful or more masculine themselves. That’s another thing that I see happening which I don’t think is new. It’s something that has probably always existed, but it’s another thing that I don’t want to be associated with in terms of denigrating or subjugating anyone in order to be recognized for my maleness or masculinity.
KB: Hear, hear, brother. You said that very eloquently and it’s so true because there is still that license to denigrate and subject others. We still see that every day. We don’t want women to lead in the home or workplace. Women still make three quarters on the dollar less than men. Over twenty to thirty years ago women were paid at this same rate. Women are still relegated to what are called pink collar or lower paying jobs. The only jobs women were considered for when allowed to enter the workforce were the secretarial/administrative and teaching jobs. In our capitalistic society, which is very corporatized, by the way, if you look at the leadership of these institutions, it’s mostly all male and all white. Also, look at how Hilary Clinton was treated as Secretary of State, even though we’ve already had female Secretary of States before, and ironically the last a black female. But because Hilary had been First Lady and people considered her “too masculine” in some ways, they had to denigrate her, for example, when she was running for president. Even her pants suits caused outrage! How dare she wear pants? Only men wear pants seemed to be the public outcry, as if it was a hundred years ago. This criticism in particular was centered around the idea that she was too masculine. These critiques are still out there. People are too concerned with what she’s is wearing. We never worried about what any of her male counterparts wore. What’s that about? Really, we see masculinity in males and we also see it in females. But you’re right, I do agree with you that females are denigrated for having any “masculine” ways of being whatsoever, and this is in addition to what they experience just for being female.
WW: And being told that they’re too masculine if they’re doing something like fighting for equal pay. That may not have anything to do with their levels of masculinity, but that’s a way that women are policed around gender.
KB: You said it. Right on. We do a lot of policing of women around gender. There’s still that masculinity police thing out there even though we’ve expanded the boundaries. In the transgender community, for instance, people who decide to leave masculinity for femininity or femininity for masculinity are denigrated, or worse. Why leave masculinity? How dare one think they can be masculine?
WW: What do you think is expected of you in your performance of everyday masculinity and how do you achieve it?
KB: That’s interesting because honestly I don’t even think about it.
WW: (laughter) Yeah, right.
KB: I don’t, and that would be my answer because I’ve always been me, and I really dare anyone to question my masculinity. It’s like, who are you? And I really don’t care what you think, honestly. I’m not insecure about my masculinity, honestly. Never have been. Even though I took a lot more hate about it obviously pre-transition because I looked masculine most of the time. Most people perceived me as a man. But when people read me as feminine or were able to read some gender confusion, they were really hostile.
WW: I’m like you, I’m not listening to what’s expected of me. That’s not where I base my masculinity. I’m not responding to other people’s expectation. I’m responding to my own internal expectation for myself. And I’m very happy with the way I’m living in my gender and in my masculinity today. For me as a Chinese person, my sense of Chinese masculinity growing up was to be able to provide for my family and to be confident and warm and friendly. Pay for the banquet, even if you can’t. Those are the images I have of my Chinese uncles. And I am proud to take care of my family, to support my family, to have a home, and to have a rewarding, successful career doing what I love. That’s the masculinity I want for myself. I’m just really happy to be living in this life at this point in time, because it hasn’t always been this way.
I only started medical transition a year ago, although I was transgender-identified and circling around medical transition for decades. But I wasn’t ready to medically transition until I really felt that I was the man that I was meant to be. I got to a place of confidence prior to being really seen as male consistently. I’m happy that I took that route now because in some ways I didn’t feel I had the confidence to take on being male when I was struggling with survival. I was struggling with chronic health issues, I was struggling to just survive economically for so long. And now that I have arrived at a much better place in terms of my confidence, my sense of myself in the world as a masculine person, it’s really interesting to have people give me that respect for who I am. The fact that I am male means that I get that much more appreciation and respect and that’s really phenomenal. It’s amazing how much people respect men. Like when I travel I feel the power in the word “sir.” I feel like my ideas are smarter now and my money is greener because I’m male.
KB: (laughter) It’s so true.
WW: If we could just treat everyone, female-bodied and feminine gender expressions, with the same respect that men and boys get, we could all be much more confident in the world and feel much more appreciated. I feel that I’m getting that much more appreciation and that makes me feel that much more confident about myself. Those are some of the messages that I experience.
Here’s another question for us. In what ways do you miss the mark? How does that feel?
KB: I don’t think I miss the mark. I feel good about being me. I appear on the exterior to be stern and tough but, you know, I am a combination of both my parents, and my mother and father were both stern and tough and I never thought of my mother as masculine but other people may have because she was very self-assured. My mother and father were my role models and that has helped shape and make me. I’ve always been masculine but now am free to express it. Facial hair doesn’t make me masculine, nor does lack of facial hair make me. The way I walk doesn’t make me either, but other people describe me as a very macho guy that’s a sensitive guy. I try to be tuned in and respect others. But, it’s just about being me.
WW: I have to say that the question about missing the mark is a little annoying.
KB: (laughter) I have to agree with that.
WW: I find that annoying because I don’t focus on failure. Some people say that we are all failing at masculinity because the expectations upon masculinity are impossible to achieve. But my point of view is that we are all achieving it, however we feel we want to, just like what you’re saying. There is a lot of room for people to be so many different expressions of maleness or masculinity. Certainly there is so much policing that happens. People are perceived as failing at masculinity. It’s really sad, especially when we see so many young boys committing suicide because they’ve been harassed to such extremes around their masculinity. This is a very serious concern in our country. But to the question of how I miss the mark — I don’t feel that I’m missing the mark. I don’t feel that I’m unable to hold my head up high because I’m somehow not achieving some masculine ideal.
KB: I do think of masculinity as providing for my family, and being the major bread winner. In the past, I wouldn’t have wanted my wife to usurp me. When I was a married guy, being the major bread winner was very important to me and caused me great stress. But that has shifted for me. I have been single for a long time and my attitude has changed. I do take care of my mother like she’s a princess. Ironically, I’m the youngest child in my family. Still, this has been my role in my family, to make sure that everything is taken care of, since my father’s death. My career doesn’t come first. Taking care of my mother comes first. Family comes first. Being a good role model for my nephew, my daughter and other children that I have co-parented, come first. I realize that being a good role model is also important when it comes to my students, especially the young black men. Given the history of slavery and oppression and all the things that have gone on for black people in this country, I find it important to be a good male role model for all students but especially black male students. But I still don’t measure that on anything outside of just being me — strong and honest, and attentive to taking care of myself mentally, emotionally, financially and physically. It’s important to find balance in all of this and pay it forward.
WW: Oh yeah, I like that.
KB: That’s important to me, role modeling positive masculinity. And that would be my expectation as far as performance of masculinity on an everyday basis. The idea of missing the mark does annoy me though other people may feel differently about that. But it is annoying because I’m not trying to achieve any mark but the mark I’ve set. I’m sure society does influence that in some way, but I don’t go around thinking about it.
WW: Yeah, we’re on the same page with that, dude. I think the fact that we both object to that line of questioning is interesting. And maybe the next guy might have something to say about that, but we’re both saying that’s not how we measure ourselves. That’s a version of masculinity to look at. Why are so many folks measuring themselves by somebody else’s mark? That’s when people get into some of the behaviors that can be not as good about being masculine.
KB: My nephew used to do that. And it’s like…”Why? You’re fine the way you are.” He was trying to measure himself by what other boys were doing. I’ve seen others do it. You hit it on the head. That’s where you get into negative, risky behavior.
WW: The way that people might compete, or put each other down verbally or physically to demonstrate their power. It’s all about, I’m more masculine than you, so let me show you how I can treat you in a way that will show you that I’m more powerful than you, right?
KB: Put you in your place. Even my students will do that and I will check them. I’ll say to them, “Why you got to say ‘faggot’ or call a women ‘b@*#@es? I’m like what’s that about, dude?”
WW: What would you say is the best thing about being masculine?
KB: You actually answered it in the last question. It’s amazing the difference between when people perceived me as female versus male. When they perceive me as male, the attention is like “Yes, sir, what can I do for you, sir?” and it’s immediate. Before transition, and it was probably because I looked genderqueer, I got no attention. They didn’t want to serve me in a store or restaurant. A female can answer a question and not be heard in a meeting and I’ve watched this in corporate America, academia and just about every other space I’ve been in. Then I answer the question, and I’m a genius. I also always make sure to say, “That was not my idea, that was Sue’s idea. You just didn’t hear it.” Whereas other guys will just take credit for it and just own it as their idea. This happens a lot. This really annoys me. It’s the power and the respect that are important to me but they are important for all people. But for me, it’s just natural to be masculine. And of all things, for me personally, that’s the best thing about it. I always feel masculine.
The hardest thing is that I do think the expectations for men’s success are overwhelming and the message is for a man not to fail. There is a double-edged sword when we are expected to take care of everything. And, I also think some women do have an expectation that the man is going to take care of everything. I date women and so all of a sudden “I’m Sugar Daddy.” But it’s like, wait a minute, you got a job, a paycheck, what’s going on with that? I think it should be that partners should mutually care for each other. In the workplace men are expected to be the risers, or the achievers. So there’s a lot of competition, pushing and shoving, if you will, and so dealing with people that are disingenuous, and nefarious, and those who will stab you in the back, adds to these pressures. All people deal with these things, but I think men deal with these pressures more because of older concepts of masculinity. This makes life difficult. Men feel like failures when they don’t succeed financially or career wise. It’s like you’re “good for nothing, lazy, a scrub,” to borrow from TLC.
I feel strange sharing my private life, but as a trans man and a black man I’ve been unemployed and underemployed for years and that is probably the area I judge myself the most, that I’m an economic failure. I’m less likely to ask a woman out because I don’t feel financially secure. I can’t say, “Oh, will you go out with me? I am a financial failure. So, should the relationship develop, I cannot promise financial security.”
WW: I am fairly new in this experience of being consistently perceived as male. In the first year of transition, I started to be consistently perceived as male after just five or six months outside the Bay Area, and then at about eight months in the Bay Area. In the first six months I was so impatient because I wanted my body to catch up with my mind, but then the second six months of transition I felt impatient because my mind hadn’t caught up with my body. (laughter) I come from decades of feeling subjugated as an Asian woman, and that thing of being disregarded, denigrated, not listened to, like you described. Then all of a sudden I became that much more interesting and I got listened to that much more. Yes, there is that power dynamic. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed is that I can be as masculine as I want to be now. It’s freeing. It’s so liberating. It’s such a relief. That I’m not policed around my masculinity. That I can move in my body in a more masculine way and no one will judge me. That I can be light-hearted in my spirit and not need to worry about things as much because I’m just this guy. This guy who’s married to a woman with three little kids, perceived as a straight cisgender man. I don’t need to discuss my feelings as much although I’m perfectly capable of doing it if I need to, or people need me to. There’s such a freedom, that things can roll off my back more because I’m “just a guy.”
KB: Guys do have that privilege, just like “no big deal, I’m a guy, it’s not as big of a stressor.” And people allow that of men. However, there’s a double standard for women. They can’t just let things roll off of their backs. They’re held to a different standard.
WW: But then of course there are situations where it doesn’t roll off my back and I might be upset about something. But I also appreciate the opportunity to not need to process something. These are some of the things that are freeing about being masculine. You really hit it about the hardest or worse thing; the pressures. I’m happy about how I’m able to provide for my family now. I’m happy with my expression of masculinity now, but if that changes, then I might be feeling badly about myself for not achieving my own internalized sense of masculinity. There is a certain amount of pressure in supporting my family financially and caring for them. I’m enjoying it so much. Still, this same pressure can be a double-edged sword. Because it can be overwhelming.
I wanted to do this dialogue because I got to work with you. I loved that you talked about measuring yourself by your own yardstick.
KB: Yeah, so screw everybody else.
WW: Should we call it that? That’ll be a good title. All right. Take care, brother.
Willy Wilkinson, MPH is an award-winning writer and public health consultant who has worked extensively with health service providers, educational institutions, and social justice organizations to develop culturally competent service approaches for LGBT populations, with an emphasis on equal access for transgender individuals and families. For more info, visit www.willywilkinson.com.
Kylar W. Broadus is a professor, attorney, activist, and public speaker. He is an associate professor of business law at Lincoln University of Missouri and maintains a general law practice in Columbia, Missouri. Kylar is a Division Director of the American Bar Association’s Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities and co-chairs the ABA’s Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He founded the Trans People of Color Coalition and is a founding board member of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute. Kylar speaks and lobbies on the national, state, and local levels in the areas of transgender and sexual orientation law and advocacy.