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Column We can be the healthy masculinity we wish to see

The “rules” and maschismo that so many boys learn early in life has created a stifling idea of what it means to be a man. But we don’t need to be bound by these narrow ideas, writes Carlos Andrés Gómez.

DURING MY SHOWS I will often ask the audience: Raise your hand if you’re a teacher.

After only a few hands go up, I ask: Why isn’t everyone’s hand raised?

The most important teachers in life have no idea they are teaching – the jerk at the bus stop catcalling a passing woman, the guy at the soccer game loudly cursing out a referee, or my friend’s dad who told me in kindergarten to stop crying. We learn by watching others. As kids especially, anyone we encounter becomes a teacher. They show us what is appropriate, allowed, and, even, expected. It through those actions that culture is either reinforced or eschewed.

This is why I believe that toxic masculinity is most powerfully affirmed or challenged by the way we live our lives. Each behaviour we choose communicates to everyone around us the culture we subscribe to. What are your actions communicating?

When you are angry and tired, do you become abusive? And I don’t just mean physically, I mean with words or the power you have (of body or otherwise)? Just because you can, do you intimidate others to get what you want? Do you accept it as a given that your gender gives you greater value or purpose?

I wanted to be the alpha male at all costs

For much of my life, I was a banner of toxic masculinity. I was emotionally shut down, ready to fight, and trying to hook up with as many women as possible. I wanted to be the alpha male at all costs. I wanted to win. That’s what I believed – what many of us are taught as boys – that being the dominant male means you “win.” Then I realised what I’d become: I was unfulfilled, aimless, and depressed. I wanted to share who I was with the world, but I was dying inside, quietly and alone.

That’s when poetry saved my life. It gave me a venue to express everything that had been forbidden to me. It connected me with men who didn’t strive to be the toughest guy. They gave me permission to embrace my full range of humanness – something that, especially at that point in my life, I had never known was possible. Most important of all, this new cultural space introduced me to men that were living and breathing challenges to the machismo and toxic masculinity that I had been inundated by my entire life. Just watching these men so unapologetically defy the status quo gave me permission and room to write my own narrative of masculinity.

Sometimes it was just the small or seemingly silly actions that emboldened me: seeing a young male poet with eyeliner or painted nails. Other times it was their raw poems that explored intense vulnerability, grief, confusion, and weakness. I would sit there with my jaw on the floor thinking, Is this dude allowed to do this?

And, of course, he was.  We are allowed to do whatever we give ourselves permission to do.  Unfortunately though, the “guy code” and gendered laws that so many of us men learn through osmosis and watching other men around us has created a narrow and stifling idea of what we are even capable of doing.  Much less allowed to do.

Showing all of who I am

Years ago, I remember sitting and talking with my best friend – now one of the most emotionally literate and open human beings I have ever met – who at the time told me he wasn’t able to cry.  He wanted to, he would try to, but no tears would come. The learning is so profound that it actually impedes the inherent physiology of our bodies! Not able to cry? How is that possible? He is just one example though of many men I have spoken to who struggle with something similar.

We will only free each other, as Gandhi once said, by being the change we wish to see. Which is to say, we need to be real-life examples of the kind of masculinity we wish to see in the world. We need to be walking billboards of what we have chosen to unlearn, who we truly are and what we want to teach the next generation of men.

During my performances I unapologetically show all of who I am – the silliness, the vulnerability, sarcasm, tears, goofy laughter, insecurity, fear, the full scope of my well-intentioned, conflicted heart that has guided me through it all. I watch men sit rigid and sometimes stunned in their chairs. Then, frequently, I watch tears and laughter and compassion and tenderness mirrored in their faces. As my great director Tamilla Woodard once said:

You can only expect your audience to be as brave, open, and alive as you are.

We can only expect the men and boys around us to live as fully, beautifully, authentically – as humanly – as we do.

Carlos Andrés Gómez is an award-winning writer and performer from New York City. He is the author of the book Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood, released by Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin. He has appeared on NPR, MSNBC, HBO’s “Def Poetry,” and in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man.”

Carlos will appear, in a European exclusive, at axis:Ballymun on 13 & 14 December

Follow him on Twitter @CarlosAGLive or visit his website:

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