Guest contributor Max R. asks if teaching boys to be ‘real men’ means teaching them sexism and homophobia.
His name was Peter, and he was a friend of my father’s. I had no real sense of their relationship, being too young to understand or particularly care about the bonds between adult men; nor was he all that present a figure in our lives. He stood out to me, however, and compelled me, for a reason I’ve only recently come to understand: Peter was what you might once have called a dandy, a fop, a boulevardier. He wasn’t much of one, it has to be said, not being a man of great means, but in my likely unreliable recollection he remains someone who took an unusual amount of care about his appearance compared to your average mid-80’s Kentish bloke.
His hair was always impeccably coiffed, he wore tailored clothes, and a bracing aura of bespoke cologne wafted about him. He had a panoply of interesting habits. For instance, where people of his age had narrowed smoking down to twenty Players from the corner shop, he smoked both a Dunhill billiard pipe and cigarettes hand-rolled from fragrant oriental tobaccos. He had a dedicated monogrammed lighter for each; when he couldn’t light up, he would take medicated snuff from a small silver box. For his every little daily act there was a small gadget, a little ritual. Straight-razors and shaving soaps; shirt stays and sherry glasses. But these were not the inherited behaviours of some faded aristocrat; he had adopted them because he enjoyed them. He was, essentially, a hipster.
I was dimly aware, as a young English boy growing up in the eighties, of what my fellow boys thought of such affectations. This was the decade of Section 28, Thatcher’s ‘Family Values’ moral crusade and the “gay plague”. I never discovered Peter’s sexual orientation, but I have a reasonable idea of what my schoolmates would have concluded about this dainty aspiring posho with his special brown handkerchief and his Attar of Roses.
If there’s any credit to be given for my own lack of prejudice it should go to my parents for having omitted to teach me any.
As it was, I would have been ill-equipped to agree with my young peers, whose obsession with dull sports and giving each other dead arms had already put paid to any aspiration I might have had of getting on with them. I have a memory of a gaggle of dinner ladies remarking that they would have to put me in a skirt, seeing as I so preferred the company of girls. They then attempted to shoo me towards the permanent, boys-only kick-about that went on at the other side of the playground. I didn’t join it.
I remember even then having a keen aversion to football. The game itself, like all team sports, merely bored me but I was also repelled by the kind of anti-culture that united its fans- the idiotic chauvinism of team loyalties, the shallow banality of the commentary, the chasmal discrepancy between how little was actually being achieved and the gigantic bellowing fuss made over it. It struck my seven-year-old self as charmless, sterile and above all vulgar. A boy in my class once showed me his Panini trading stickers: a wad of mugshots of grimacing jug-eared men in garish PE kits that bore adverts for beer and white goods. Before I could wonder why that would be an appropriate thing for a child to carry around, he told me to get my own stickers out so we could swap. I replied that I didn’t have any because I don’t like football. He informed me matter-of-factly that, in that case, I must be a queer.
Homophobia is inextricable from misogyny: male homosexuals are seen as guilty of exhibiting what sexists consider to be female traits.
Homophobia remains an intractable constant of the male experience. A broad core of men are still afraid of and disgusted by gay men for a plethora of complex and sad reasons. In the closed circle of masculinity, gay is shorthand for weak, submissive, effete. In that sense, homophobia is inextricable from misogyny: male homosexuals are seen as guilty of exhibiting what sexists consider to be female traits. The primary male concern is therefore not just to appear masculine, but also to avoid any behaviour that could be construed as feminine. It’s the essence of toxic masculinity: the refusal to communicate sincere emotion; the need to be dominant and strong and in control; the aversion to anyone or anything deemed insufficiently manly.
Homophobia isn’t the hatred of people who are romantically attracted to their own gender, although that is its defining trait; it’s men’s self-hatred for what they believe to be their own weaknesses, and the self-denial of anything they believe proves or encourages those weaknesses. Boys don’t play with dolls. Boys don’t wear pink. Boys don’t cry.
And it is boys that we’re discussing, here. To be crude for a moment, it’s no particular secret that boys and men, no matter how homophobic, don’t tend to have much of a problem with lesbianism provided both women are feminine, preferably attractive and ideally willing to let them watch, if not join in. Any adult website will substantiate this: content featuring women with women is more or less undifferentiated from heterosexual content; indeed, it’s well-known that non-bisexual female pornographic actors are in the minority. Pictures and videos of men with men, meanwhile, are carefully walled off in some other area where they can’t be accidentally glimpsed by the straight onanist. It’s not same-sex relationships in general that are the problem; specifically, it’s the spectacle of men being orally and anally penetrated.
Men are hard-wired to measure themselves and each other against a yardstick of maleness. Every man has a slightly different yardstick, with a slightly different emphasis on how tall and strong you are, the money you earn, the car you drive, how many women you’ve bedded, how many children you have and so on, but all are based on some combination of virility and status. This defines the male self-image as fundamentally competitive. A substantial part of male interaction involves trying to outdo one another: to drink more, to run faster, to pick the winning team; and a component of that is an attempt to depict the other as inferior. Men test each other for weakness, for vulnerability. Even between friends, this manifests as “banter” which generally consists of openly doubting the other’s masculinity, his potency, his heterosexuality.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a gay man. Only a gay man can know that, and I encourage you to find one who is prepared to tell you, and listen to him. I do however know what its like to be a man who rejects the prevailing paradigm of masculinity. I’m a feminist not because I have female relatives or some other such platitude, but because I recognise that some of the best parts of myself have come from my experience of women. I don’t care about being called gay because not only is being gay an entirely normal thing to be, but the implication that I’m effeminate (literally: having feminine qualities untypical of a man) is no kind of insult. My own masculinity isn’t contingent on conforming to some arbitrary construct of maleness, nor does it rely on distinguishing my behaviour from that of other genders.
It’s a huge problem thatthe things I have just written are rarely said by men, and are still all but unrepeatable in an all-male context, and it’s a huge problem that I can only write them confidently now because none of this is a problem for me: I’m thick-necked, broad-shouldered, bearded and tattooed; I run a furniture workshop; I live in logger boots and overalls; I’m married to a pretty, petite blonde lady. It requires zero bravery for me to declare that I like poetry and interior design and talking about feelings, or that I make my own perfume, or that I became a vegetarian because I love my cat, or indeed that soccer offends my delicate sense of aesthetics. It’s no risk for me to disclose my “feminine” side when my primary social signifiers (my appearance, my job, my marital status) so firmly tick the “man” box. It’s easy for me to claim that I have no interest in defending my masculinity, because I don’t have to.
Show me a homophobe and I’ll show you a man who’s been taught to fear femininity, and for whom life is accordingly a grim, colourless slog of abstinence from anything deemed unmanly by whatever puritanical code he’s chosen to follow.
Peter had to, though: in addition to being soft-handed and twee, he was a chronically unwell bachelor who lived with his elderly mother. He was a schoolteacher at a Catholic all-boys grammar, so if he was gay he certainly wasn’t out- homophobia rarely requires factual confirmation before it kicks into gear. I don’t have any hard evidence that he was persecuted for what he was and what he chose to be; I only know enough about how Englishmen treat each other to be certain that there’s no chance he wasn’t. It’s why I’ve chosen to write about him, rather than any of my friends who I know are gay, although they of course have their own heartbreaking stories to tell of what the toxic male paradigm has personally cost them: it doesn’t matter whether he was gay or not, because homophobia isn’t caused by homosexuality.
Show me a homophobe and I’ll show you a man who’s been taught to fear femininity, and for whom life is accordingly a grim, colourless slog of abstinence from anything deemed unmanly by the puritanical code he’s chosen to follow.
Fear of femininity doesn’t only manifest in cellar-dwelling “men’s rights” keyboard warriors, ultra-right-wing pastors or Donald Trump. Because our culture continues to follow the aribtrary convention that men should not be feminine, every man is forced to reckon with his own attitude to that rule; for most men, the answer is still okay, I won’t. Some men wear it, literally, on their sleeve: they wear ugly old clothes because fashion is for girls and queers; they have bad skin and dead hair and shaving rash and they smell like a gym bag because good cosmetics are for girls and queers; they’re flabby and sallow and dyspeptic because healthy food is for – you get the idea. In the main, however, it’s more subtle, more covert. You will meet a man who at first seems kind, fair, open-minded; only in time will you find that he doesn’t read anything written by women, or that he wouldn’t be caught dead at the ballet, or that he feigns retching if two men share an on-screen kiss.
I’m not suggesting that we ought to feel sorry for these men because they can’t have nice things, but to understand their behaviour we should understand that the nice things they can’t have include self-knowledge, emotional closeness and inner peace. Indeed, a central tenet of male chauvinism is resistance to self-examination, self-analysis or any other form of self-doubt. Such men have been taught their whole lives that they must suppress and suspect their own feelings, and are left with the ill-founded assumption that their thoughts must be based on some kind of instinctive rationale. I have spoken to men who believe that their aversion to the feminine is natural, biological. These men should be pitied, yes, but only because they did not choose this; it has been done to them.
That we nonetheless continue to fight daily for those rights, however big or small, however important or trivial, should be a source of pride for all of us.
I considered reaching out to Peter before I wrote this, but ultimately decided that what it might bring to the article wasn’t worth the risk of upsetting him. He’s now in his late sixties and I assume retired; I know he’s still alive or my father would have mentioned otherwise. ‘Peter’ is, of course, not his real name. I’m now roughly the age he was when I knew him, and straight male dullards the world over continue to dominate the discourse, sometimes more than ever. There has been the odd chink of light (the most generous way I can think of to describe the fact that we’re only now just beginning to accept that heterosexual men aren’t necessarily better than everyone else), but unanimous respect for universal human and civil rights isn’t something we’ll see in any of our lifetimes.
That we nonetheless continue to fight daily for those rights, however big or small, however important or trivial, should be a source of pride for all of us who disbelieve and oppose the paradigms of hatred and bigotry, of sexism and homophobia which still permeate the fabric of our culture from the lowliest schoolyards to the highest offices of power.
Top photo Panini football stickers, second photo vintage Dunhill ad.