Alchemizing the Lead of Masculinity
Prayer for Becoming a Whole Man
Today, I begin:
To find the strength to be my gentlest self.
To speak honestly and truly what I know.
To listen curiously to what I do not know.
To hold the strongest necessary boundary.
To care for myself and the people I love.
To release the urge to control those around me.
To commit courageously to living my values.
To claim responsibility for my wants and needs.
To accept the help of those who would meet them.
To seek to know my innate, undeniable worthiness.
To seek to know what I do not know of myself.
To seek to become my most holy and sacred self.
To commit myself to the work of my humanity.
My shoulders release the burdens of isolation.
My legs draw up the powers of the earth.
Today, I begin.
Dissolving the Dross: Privilege, Patriarchy, and Toxicity
As a feminist, Leftist, queer psychotherapist working with men on issues of emotional intimacy and connection, 2018 was a fascinating year. Its subtitle seemed to be: “Men are trash.” A very bright spotlight shone on the long-minimized rage of the feminine and queer against patriarchy, men, and sexual coercion and assault, compelling many men to do a moral reckoning of their own behaviors. Other men resisted this introspection, instead complaining about feeling on edge and worrying about other people taking behaviors the wrong way.
I’ve seen people suggest that this introspection and reckoning is oppressive toward men—either saying we are instinctively coercive, dominating beings and somehow those instincts should be respected; or alternately saying that all men are being unfairly drawn with the same colors and our difference is ignored, particularly those of us who need to be “the good men” and want to be validated as different from “the bad men.” Neither of these approaches allow us our full humanity.
I’ve always felt in a strange position with regard to masculinity and maleness. I was assigned male at birth, and on the most fundamental level of embodiment this maleness has felt right to me. My gender expression—my way of carrying myself, dressing, my mannerisms, and my speech largely tends to be interpreted as straight cis male for those who don’t know me. Once, in college, I bought a date with a man at a queer date auction and midway through dinner he asked, “So are you just really charitable?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“A straight guy buying a date at a gay auction—I mean, it’s very generous.”
In those ancient days of the early 2000s, the term going around was “straight-acting” for those gay men who, like me, had gender expressions that more or less matched the norm. There were many gay men who wanted to be straight-acting, to distance themselves from femininity and gay stereotypes to minimize their internalized homophobia and be respectable. There were also gay men who, like me, acted congruently with what felt right for them. I didn’t feel I was “acting.” I was gay. But a gay who frequently had my “gay card” questioned.
“Passing privilege” is the state of social capital that is given to folks who do not fully experience a form of oppression because they are typically read as someone in a privileged identity unless they make the effort to disabuse the people around them of that notion. I’ve seen memes suggesting “passing privilege” is not a thing because of the psychic cost of being made invisible and living with the fear of being outed. I do not completely agree.
My passing privilege has meant that I’ve never been physically assaulted. I’ve never been discriminated against by employers who think I’m gay when they’re hiring me. I can walk through most spaces in the country and feel I can keep myself safe. I can even talk to people who know I’m gay but feel like I’m a “good” or safe gay person. The psychic cost of that privilege is real—the feelings of invisibility, alienation, and the incongruence of being constantly invited to choose between short-term safety and living with integrity—but that psychic cost does not invalidate the privilege.
All privilege has a psychic cost. One of the qualities of privilege is that it is a series of benefits allowed to those willing to sacrifice their full humanity to participate in the power structure. Privilege is not full agency. It is not the birdcage of oppression, but it is akin to the “golden handcuffs” experienced by folks working for very high-paying jobs that they realize are destroying the rest of their lives.
One of the psychic costs of patriarchal male privilege is the ongoing feelings of inadequacy and threats that at any moment one could challenge and destroy that privilege. A hallmark of being a man in patriarchy is the constant underlying question of whether one is actually a man—a feeling like one has something to prove. As though manhood is a title granted by others and any evidence that throws manhood into question threatens that title.
This tension fuels competition, emotional distance, and violence between men—but also factors into the violence men commit against women and queer people. Patriarchal male violence and domination both mitigates threats to masculinity and secures another temporary sense of belonging between patriarchal men.
There is always a tension between social reputation and our inner sense of self. I do not know a person who got through their teenage years unscathed, without becoming keenly aware of the possibility or painful reality of social exclusion, a sense that there is something unacceptable about one’s self that must be hidden or compromised to fit in. What that looks like varies for all of us depending upon our unique confluence of social position, privilege, and the historical moment. “Fitting in” is always a devil’s bargain in which we maintain awareness, on some level, about a tenuous sense of belonging and how quickly it could be revoked. It is not true belonging, where I can be my full self and know I am worthy of love. It is a belonging that demands I have something to prove.
In my mind, “toxic” masculinity is a masculinity of fitting in, status seeking, being the kind of person one imagines one is “supposed to be” in a white supremacist patriarchal capitalist culture. What is most toxic about that way of being is how the virtues gendered masculine are unbalanced by their intrinsic opposites. This kind of masculinity is strong without vulnerability; powerful without compassion; and tough without gentleness. This kind of masculinity values striving and improving without acceptance and nurturing; social status without spiritual humility; domination without recognizing the innate worth of others. Such a masculinity toxifies the person it possesses and leaks that poison into their relationships and communities. It is a masculinity with something to prove at all times, one that always has to stand on the edge of control because a moment of wholeness will undermine the entire ego story.
We learn this masculinity from friends, fathers, mothers, teachers, coaches, boyfriends, girlfriends, movies, books, advertising, teammates, co-workers—anyone participating in white supremacist patriarchal capitalism.
What is natural about masculinity versus what is socialized? Scientific exploration has long moved past “nature versus nurture” and into the far more intriguing exploration of how the two co-create each other, but our popular discourse has yet to fully digest this. In “#MeToo and the Taboo Topic of Nature,” Andrew Sullivan writes of his experience taking testosterone:
It was a fascinating experience to witness maleness literally being injected into me, giving me in a sudden jump what had been there all along, and what I now saw and felt more vividly. You get a real sense of what being a man is from an experience like that, as the rush of energy, strength, clarity, ambition, drive, impatience and, above all, horniness overcame me every two weeks in the wake of my shot. It was intoxicating.
Sullivan’s subjective experience is valid and interesting, but his framing is incorrect and misleading, beginning with his assertion that testosterone is “literal maleness.” Testosterone is found in higher proportions in sexually masculinized people, but it’s a hormone that all people have and need for healthy functioning. Feminized bodies need testosterone for maintaining and repairing reproductive tissue and bone mass.
Sullivan also identifies his subjective personality shift but generalizes those qualities as innately male. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst reviews a number of studies on the effects of increasing testosterone in the body. Sapolsky indicates that increased testosterone does not make every body more aggressive, impatient, or driven. What it does, as Sullivan reports, is turns up the intensity and level of confidence in whatever socialized personality traits one already possesses. Those who tend toward peacemaking will be more confident in their diplomacy and respect for others. Those who tend toward domination will become more dominating. Either of these traits exist in a social context—which one does your culture value? What work does the culture offer people in those traits? A young one who dreams of being a hero could grow up and be a firefighter, a soldier, a revolutionary, a financier who proudly decimates poor communities, an activist who blockades oil pipelines.
Cultivating more testosterone is as easy as taking time to exercise and focusing on the one muscle group often skipped at the gym—leg day. Middle to upper class folks in modern white collar jobs who spend most of their days sitting or relatively immobile need to supplement with leg exercises to build the musculature that supports posture and back wellness, and the leg muscles being the largest also result in increased testosterone production for the whole body. Ironically, perhaps, bodies with less testosterone tend to more easily develop strength in the legs than the upper torso, so often it seems that the “glory muscles” of the pecs, abs, upper back, and biceps are the more masculine muscles.
The upper-body seems like the site of male strength, but all of us have more capacity for power and strength that starts in the legs. What I’ve learned in Aikido practice is how much a subtle movement of the hips adds strength that all the forcing with my shoulders could not accomplish. Several athletic movements draw upon our groundedness and the movement of hip, thigh, and leg to maximize power.
White collar work offers a life of daily seatedness and depletion of the muscles of the lower body, leading to chronic back pain and underdeveloped legs. A sterile and confined existence of upholding the status quo and working long hours to guarantee some kind of short-term profit while justifying that comfort and ease is worth the suffering of others. In one of my first jobs after graduating college, I sat in a meeting where the president of the bank told us that the bank’s entire mission was making money, and all of our efforts were supporting the goal of making money, and we should be proud of how much money we made.
What he didn’t discuss was to whom the money went, and from whom the money was made, and whether our making money had any spiritual meaning. We didn’t discuss the people who lost their housing when they couldn’t pay their loans, or the unequal distribution of wealth depending on whom received loans and who did not. I spent hours standing at a photocopier listening to the repetitive clacking churning out pages of risk management reports that would be distributed to people who would sit in boring meetings. Nothing about this work felt teeming with testosterone, estrogen, or any other human hormone. There was no adventure, no human connection, nothing of value fought for, no love won. It is an empty vision of success lacking in any intrinsic meaning, but for those who do not comply the threat is to be treated with contempt and inferiority, to be looked down upon by those who have, to be deprived of resources that could easily be available.
Transmuting the Gold: Resilience, Integrity, Strength
Though I was considered and treated as a boy, I’d spent my entire childhood feeling inadequate in the world of boys, men, and masculinity. I had no interest in sports in a state where the religion was basketball, which meant I had very few ways to socialize with other boys.
I was terrible at basketball. Very uncoordinated and so anxious about simply trying to catch the ball and throw it at the basket that trying to do all that and run around competing with other boys felt overwhelming. One of the last times I tried to play, I kept missing the shots by a wide margin. One of the boys on the opposing team stopped all his teammates from trying to block my shot to let me try to shoot on my own. I missed that shot too. This moment burned in me as a moment of shame, a moment that confirmed my inadequacy and unfitness to hang out with boys. I imagined I was ridiculed by all those boys—and I probably was, but looking back I see that they were being kind, hoping I could sink at least one basket.
I felt far more comfortable hanging out with girls and engaging in the kind of play the girls did, but quickly became aware that it was unacceptable. So mostly I was a lonely, overweight bookworm who came alive with fantasies of heroes and wizards but in practice would not have had any physical exertion if my parents hadn’t signed me up for Boy Scouts. There, I started to learn a form of masculinity I could inhabit. Though I utterly hated physical exertion, my troop did lots of long-distance hiking and pressured me into going with them.
The first few hikes were excruciating and the adult leaders half-carried me to the end, but what they also did was not allow me to quit. If I set out with them, I was finishing the hike. I could whine about it, get sulky, be in pain, but we were finishing the hike. And once I finished the hike, the story that, “I can’t do this, it’s too hard” suddenly had evidence that forced me to re-evaluate. With more and more practice hiking, I learned the bad habits that were making things harder on myself and started to feel stronger and less oppressed by the journey. I’d still have internalized meltdowns in the middle of a long, tough hike, but by the time I was seventeen I signed up to do an intensive 21-day backpacking trip in New Mexico, and went on to work at the camp for two summers as a hiking instructor.
Those lessons about perseverance, endurance, and realizing that my stories of limitation were not unquestionable truth continued to serve me throughout my life. Others in my life assured me that I was fine the way I was and needed to be protected from danger, and while I learned valuable lessons from those folk as well, I am glad that I had people to push and challenge me.
When I think of “healthy” masculinity, I think more about flexible and resilient identity. Such a masculinity knows that striving to become stronger and better is supported by taking time to rest—the way that taking rest days between days of heavy lifting at the gym allows our muscles to recover and become stronger. Such a masculinity knows that we become more self-possessed and courageous when we’ve learned to tend and nurture our needs. Such a masculinity knows the people valued in life and makes the effort to extend care to them. Such a masculinity experiences sex as an opportunity for intimate connection, fun, self-revelation, that is enriched when one’s partners chose sex freely and passionately, without coercion. Such a masculinity knows that we cannot purchase our self-worth. Such a masculinity knows that we need neither serve nor dominate to earn the worthiness we already possess.
Such a masculinity is confident enough to speak personal truth and entertain disagreement without needing to dominate the room. And a flexible, resilient masculinity recognizes the times when one must dominate and use one’s strength to prevent a greater harm. This lesson has been harder for me to learn, as a person who shies from conflict, but practicing martial arts and learning to fight has helped me to understand that at times we must be strong enough to bring a halt to damaging behavior. We need the strength to hold a boundary around what behavior is unacceptable and to stand with those who need support.
The virtues of strength, courage, striving, and self-possession are ones anyone could embody, regardless of sex or gender. The myth of the gender binary was one that divided our wholeness and cordoned our parts into socially acceptable and socially shameful corners. The virtues of beauty, rest, nurturing, compassion, and tending our emotional relationships are also genderless virtues that tend to be roped into gender categories. None of these virtues depend on wearing a dress or pants, what pronoun one uses, how conventionally or unconventionally one is perceived in gender. We can draw strength and inspiration from myths of all kinds of beings, all kinds of gods and heroes.
I am non-binary in the sense that I believe the gender binary is a myth whose time is ended, but I feel the fiction of manhood has taught me qualities that I dearly love. Indeed, I feel there is a place for men of all kinds in Leftist movements.
There is a place for the men, boys, and masculine people and men who taught me that perseverance is a form of magic—that simply by enduring and not giving up, we eventually reach our goal.
There is a place for the men, boys, and masculine people taught me the power of my body and the joys of physical exertion.
There is a place for the men, boys, and masculine people who taught me how to set aside my interests and feelings in service to the needs of others.
There is a place for the men, boys, and masculine people who want to hold the boundaries of their communities, to use their strength to protect and provide.
There is also a place for the men, boys, and masculine people who tend the needs of self and others, who take rest days, who step outside of domination and submission and embrace solidarity.
There is a place for the men, boys, and masculine people who work hard to succeed, and those who know their worthiness is separate from their productivity and competence.
There is room for all of us to continue growing and integrating more of our wholeness—both the strengths and the places of shame. Those who say that calling men to reflect on our capacity to cause harm gives us an unhealthy vision of humanity are those who want men to be emotionally fragile and isolated. If we have power, we are capable of causing harm. Period. If we are unable to be accountable in our relationships, then we cannot have relationships.
To be unwilling to face our shadows and question whether we’ve indirectly caused harm is not a sign of pride but rather a sign of fragility. There is not a person on this planet fully conscious of their full impact on others. Every day, we live in our faces, but we only see our faces for brief moments in the mirror or on the screen of a phone. We do not know what our faces communicate as we walk through the day, as we talk to our colleagues and friends. We do not know what our faces look like in our most unguarded moments. It is not weakness to accept this reality. We can never fully know ourselves without others to help us see what we cannot. Neither do we need to fully surrender our inner knowing to others’ stories.
Of all the pop culture models of masculinity I’ve encountered over the years, my favorite story of transmuted masculinity is Uncle Iroh of Avatar: The Last Airbender. In this cartoon series, there are four nations who each center around a particular element and include a magical martial art that channels and manipulates the element. Aang, the current incarnation of a being called The Avatar, needs to master each element to become the quintessence that helps bring balance to the nations. But in the time of the series, the Fire Nation has aggressively worked to become an empire and dominate the other nations. Prince Zuko, the disgraced child of the ruler of the Fire Nation, is on his own quest of masculinity, traveling the world hoping to find and defeat the Avatar and prove himself to his father. His Uncle Iroh travels with him, presenting as a rather goofy and nonviolent man who occasionally reveals that his prowess in fighting and firebending are fearsome and perhaps greater than that of his brother. He bears the wounds of having used these powers for domination and empire, finding instead the discipline of making tea and being of service far more meaningful and life-affirming.
Avatar further illustrates the healing of male anger and aggression when a contrite and questioning Zuko decides to align himself with his former enemy and teach Aang firebending. In my favorite episode ever, Zuko comes to realize that without the anger he was feeling toward his father, or before that the anger of identifying with the dominating empire, his firebending skills have begun to grow weak and lacking in potency. The two seek to learn their powers from the mythical origin city of firebenders. There, they encounter a solar cult whose firebending draws from the sun and their inner aliveness. From drawing our fire from aggression to cultivating the aliveness of our inner suns—that is the work of the healing masculine in our culture. To move from domination to passion, from waging war to cultivating being, from aggression to joy.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School and a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix. Anthony has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.