Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Opening the Conversation

Dan Tillapaugh, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow in Higher Education, University of Maine
Chair, Standing Committee on Men & Masculinities 
Connect with Dan on Twitter: @dtillapaugh

“What comes to mind for you when you hear the word ‘masculinity?’”

This is a question I ask in my line of research on gay males and how they make meaning of their multiple identities, specifically their sexual identity and their sense of gender.  The responses I get are always varied, and I constantly am intrigued by the participants’ thoughts on the question.

Some of the gay males have had quick responses; these include: “traditional male gender roles,” “beer and football,” “the straightest straight guy, and aspects that aren’t gay,” “a typical buff male,” “it’s hard to describe, but you can really tell if someone is masculine or not just by their mannerisms, their actions, their interests.”  Some of the males struggle with the question.  At times, there are long pauses or an answer that discusses sexuality instead of gender. 

One of the findings of my study is that the answers around masculinity – or masculinities, rather – is that they are often steeped in hegemonic masculinity.  Often, the participants elaborate and suggest that characteristics of masculinity involve a preoccupation with sports, a sort of toughness, and power.  Almost all of the gay males viewed masculinity as something negative: a sort of confining, restrictive notion on gender.  Yet, in the same breath, they also wanted to be seen as fall into those notions as they were very aware that failure to be seen as masculine equated to being less than by other men.

Admittedly, these findings aren’t anything brand new.  O’Neil’s work on gender role conflict has long described the tensions males experience in the perceptions of others on their sense of masculinity (O’Neil & Crapser, 2011; O’Neil, Helms, Gable, David, & Wrightsman, 2010).  Likewise, the concept of hegemonic masculinity itself is seen as “an unattainable ideal, rather than a biological reality” (Kiesling, 2007, p. 657).  Additionally, the scholarship on homosociality, or the nonsexual attractions of men to others of their same-sex (Bird, 1996, Lipman-Bluman, 1976), provide additional information about the ways in which males’ connections with others are intertwined with the desire to be perceived in ways that will affirm their sense of masculinity.  Certainly, there are many lived anecdotes by my participants, many others, and myself that can also be used to illuminate what happens due to the consequences of not being perceived as following traditionally-held gender norms or expectations.

Learning how hegemonic masculinity is reified and rejected by gay males in college as it relates to their own meaning making of their holistic selves has been an interesting – and at times, fascinating – journey.  Many of the young males with whom I’ve spoken share their narratives about times in which they’ve struggled for feeling included by straight peers, but also gay ones.  One participant told me that he’s never made gay friends because they’ve always told him he’s “too feminine.”  Other males have learned how to perform their gender and fit the societal norms of masculinity almost as master crafters; in other words, they are keenly aware that they are typically perceived to be “straight” by others.  But that comes at a cost as well because of the restrictions they – and others – place on them in terms of their mannerisms, behaviors, and self-concept. 

Engaging in conversations with these young adults, I constantly am struck by the conversations they have with me around their sexuality and gender performance.  When I hear a young gay male talk to me about gender as a social construction, I always get a little bit giddy.  I know that they’re becoming thoughtful about how social constructions of race, gender, and sexuality influence their lives.  The conversations are also equally rich with those who are just beginning to explore aspects of their social identities because for many of these young males, they have never before articulated what masculinity or being male means to them.  At times, they stumble over their words, have long, awkward pauses, or make apologies for not having a “good answer.”  But the dialogue itself is what is worth it.  In all of those moments, I’m asking them – or giving them an opportunity – to think critically about an aspect of their identity, which is bounded up in privilege.  And that’s a real treat for me, personally and professionally.

I say that because it has taken me years to get to a place where I can articulate my own sense of gender, my own definitions of what masculinity (or masculinities) are, and how I see my sense of gender performance playing out in my life.  It’s an ongoing process to reflect on those concepts, and my research has allowed me the space and time to do that work.  I empathize with my participants, and I know that I’m asking them questions that are difficult for most people to answer.  But these are important questions to consider. 

Through my work with the Standing Committee on Men and Masculinities, I have been fortunate to engage in rich dialogues that have transformed the way that I see working on issues pertaining to male-identified college students and the development of masculinities.  The start of this blog serves as a means to continue those dialogues and expand the discourse in our virtual community outside the boundaries of a national convention or a professional development institute.  It is our hope that the contributions that we post here from our colleagues will serve as a spark for a larger conversation that can happen between friends, students, peers, colleagues, and family members.  We hope that this blog will become a place that you engage and take away some important lessons that can influence your own thinking, personally and/or professionally. 

The conversations I have with my participants continue in my mind well after we’ve ended them.  I play them over and over again.  I read their transcripts from time to time as I’m writing, and I’m always struck by something new.  But I’m also left feeling the same feeling that they, as well, are growing, reflecting, and expanding their own sense of self – to be able to answer the questions discussed here in a more personal, articulate way.  Whether they be gay, bisexual, fluid, or straight, cisgender or trans*, it’s important that we continue to open up the spans of our discourse about the notions of masculinities and what that term means to us, personally but also systemically.  That is a conversation that is necessary for mutual understand, critical self-reflection, but also a proactive step in eradicating the harm from patriarchy, heterosexism, and genderism.  I welcome your feedback; let our conversation begin.

<!--[if !supportLineBreakNewLine]-->
Bird, S. R. (1996).  Welcome to the men’s club: Homosociality and the maintenance of hegemonic masculinity.  Gender and Society, 10(2), 120-132.

Kiesling, S. (2007).  Men, masculinities, and language.  Language and Linguistics Compass, 1(6), 653-673, doi: 10.1111/j.1749-818x.2007.00035.x

Lipman-Bluman, J. (1976).  Toward a homosocial theory of sex roles: An explanation of the sex segregation of social institutions.  Signs: Journal of Women and Culture and Society, 1, 15-31.

O’Neil, J. M. & Crapser, B. (2011).  Using the psychology of men and gender role conflict theory to promote comprehensive service delivery for college men: A call to action.  In J. A. Laker & T. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations (pp. 16-49).  New York, NY: Routledge.

O’Neil, J. M., Helms, B. J., Gable, R. K., David, L., & Wrightsman, L. S. (2010).  Gender-role conflict scale: College men’s fear of femininity.  In S. R. Harper & F. Harris III (Eds.), College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice (pp. 32-48).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

No comments: