Man Down

What if to man up, us men actually had to man down? What if we had to step outside the heavily guarded and barbed wire bordered fortress of manness and take a look at the sites beyond the walls? So far, so vague? Well, let’s start with some definitions. Manness (which is actually a word!) means “the distinctive or differential characteristics of man.” Meanwhile, man has many definitions including a catchall for the entire human race (eye roll) and someone who expresses their brave, courageous manhood. But the one I’m interested in is “adult human male”, which brings me to the definition of male. This means both a male person: man or boy (seems the definitions are getting quite circular) and, crucially, “an individual of the sex that is typically capable of producing small, usually motile gametes (such as sperm or spermatozoa) which fertilize the eggs of a female.” OK! Being a man means being able to make sperm, got it!

It turns out the secret that us men are guarding at the heart of our manly fortresses is a splodge of small motile gametes. The definition doesn’t even have anything to say about willies and balls (but they’re implied), it’s just sperm. Naturally, it follows that a man, capable of issuing fertile ejaculate, should be virile, like his sperm, and strong, because I’m guessing those little gametes are tough? Given this, a man should not emote or display his feelings in public. He should appear tough at all times. He should play manly sports like rugby and football and get manly jobs like building and banking. He should be heterosexual, marry a woman, buy a house and have children, while being the breadwinner and letting his wife undertake the emotional labour for the entire family because folks with sperm don’t do emotions, am I right? He should put sentries at every corner of his castle and blast anyone who questions his manliness. That gay guy who’s just so darn camp: blast him. That woman who calls him weak: blast her. That trans man who calls into question his whole identity: blast ’em. That photograph of a hot male model on the tube: aahh, internal blast. Those feelings of sadness within: another internal blast. Those tears at night: internal blast! And so on and so on until this so-called man snaps.

An article in GQ written by Matt Haig states that 84 British men take their lives every week. It’s a shocking figure but it’s thanks to folks like Haig that male suicide is actually being talked about more. He goes on to say that “we need to change and broaden the idea of being a man.” He lists a few ideas including talking more about and not stigmatising mental health, and undoing the alpha male archetype of manliness. And what if he went further and questioned the very nature of man himself – this organism capable of producing motile spermatoza? What if we just knocked the walls down and let men be people, people capable of all sorts – compassion, strength, love, same-sex attraction, anger, football, creativity, kindness, ballet, sadness, loneliness, anxiety and beyond. What if being a man had nothing to do with sperm or gonads, something which trans men are reminding us of on a regular basis. What if to man up us men actually had to man down? Because a lot of cis men are going down and while there are so many factors to consider I think one of them is the fortress of manness – an empty, lonely sort of place that so often crushes the soul. To clarify, I’m not saying men need to stop being men if they don’t want to – it’s their identity after all – but I do think the man-conditioned is a being so often worth unconditioning.

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Some People Are Trans. Celebrate It.

I’ve just filled out the government’s online consultation form regarding the Gender Recognition Act. The reality is saddening but the reform could be inspirational. At heart it’s about the right to one’s identity and the power of self-determination. So many of us get to take our identities for granted. We are assigned male or female at birth and that’s that but for trans, intersex and non-binary folks this is still a struggle that often entails discrimination, humiliation and isolation. We can change this and the epic LGBT+ charity Stonewall has a page on their website which guides you through answering some of the most important questions on the consultation. The deadline is soon, 19th October, and the process only takes about ten minutes.

I learned some pretty shocking things while filling out the form. For a trans person to have their gender legally recognised they have to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. Not only is this process long and costly it also requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Yup. Being trans is regarded as a mental illness. But what of the many people who are trans and not suffering from gender dysphoria – how on earth do they have their true identity legally recognised? And what about intersex folk who were assigned the wrong gender at birth and want to change this in law? There’s also the requirement for a trans person to provide evidence of living in their ‘acquired gender’ for two years. What sort of evidence might this entail – wearing enough blue or pink, preferring rugby or cooking, being loud or quiet? And who on earth gets to decide if there is sufficient evidence? We’re talking about people’s identities and their right to self-determination within and without the eyes of the law. It’s as simple and fundamental as that, which is why the intrusive and dehumanising process we currently have in place for applying for a GRC needs to change.

Filling out the form was an educational and empowering process, I feel I’m contributing to the potential for positive change in this country. It got me thinking as well. What if we just stopped assigning gender at birth? What if children are raised as children and there is an opt-in process for gender, with parental/guardian/carer consent prior to the age of 16 and then self-determination from 16+? What if we stopped obsessively gendering children from such a young age and pushing them down pink or blue paths, submission or aggression, compassion or callousness? What if we educated children to be good people – to treat one another with love and respect, to try the things they’re interested in and to never assault or harm? And while we’re doing this of course we can recognise the importance of gonads, hormones and the effect puberty has on different bodies, and maybe the key thing here is to talk about it and to stop shying away from conversations about sex, gender, sexuality, attraction, consent, romance and love. The GRA consultation is about stepping up for trans, intersex and non-binary folks and it’s also an opportunity for everyone else to explore their own genders and identities, emerging from the process with a stronger and more nuanced understanding of themselves. The times are changing and there really is a future in which we all win. Or maybe just a future in which identity and self-determination are no longer competitions rife with discrimination and prejudice but a chance for all of us to be ourselves brilliantly. And here’s the Stonewall link again (it only takes ten minutes!).

Queer Warriors & Fierce Allies

A group of thirty had gathered at Hawkwood College in Stroud, Gloucestershire, for two days of storytelling, workshops and community building. As part of this I offered to run my first ever Queer Warriors and Fierce Allies workshop. So, picture the scene: a sunny Monday afternoon in the library where ten of us had gathered; a mix of ages, genders, sexualities and nationalities. Some of the folks I knew well, friends of mine, and others I had only met that day. So I was nervous but I was ready.

For the next hour and a half we unpacked the various and varying definitions of the LGBTQIA+ acronym and I created a space for questions and, for want of a better word, ignorance. Because a lot of people want to be allies to/within the queer community but often lack the right education. And learning requires being able to ask questions, sometimes “silly” questions but important nevertheless. So a lot of questions were asked and I, with the group as a whole, tried to answer them. After this we met the Gender Unicorn and explored the differences between gender identity & expression, the sex we are assigned at birth, and physical & romantic attraction. Then we got to some writing and crafted our own Queer Warrior or Fierce Ally characters. We gave them names, genders, sexualities, gifts and fears. We confronted them with those fears and, when all seemed lost and they were on the verge of being overwhelmed by that which scared them, we gave them some help. Maybe in the form of another person or an animal or something else entirely, the point is that our characters could overcome their fears because they had help.

And that’s what I want. Help. If you’ve ready some of my previous posts you’ll know that, as a gay and queer man, I sometimes struggle with living in a heteronormative world. Sometimes I get angry or depressed and at other times I get defeated. But, to date, I have always got through these difficult times because I’m still here. I’ve done this because, yes, I am strong but also, and always, I have had help. Having been raised male and internalising a lot of those lessons I often struggled to ask for help, seeing it as weak and shameful. Even the notion of “admitting” defeat implies some sort of failure. And even the notion of being defeated implies life is a competition. But over the years I have challenged that shame and, slowly, become much better at asking for help. And that evening, empowered by my experience of the workshop, I announced to the whole group that I was gay, not something I’ve ever done before, and I read them a poem. Then later, a friend of mine did an amazing performance of a theatrical piece of hers and included a blessing for the queer community. The next day a new friend sat and talked with me about my experiences and told me about so many of the things he’s learned as a straight person keen to be an ally of the queer community. Then two more of my friends, who told a story of Jumping Mouse, finished the tale by calling the mouse he, she and they. And I came to realise that sometimes when I speak as a gay man people do listen and sometimes when I ask for help it arrives. And, for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Link and his trusty steed, Epona, from the Legend of Zelda

 

Every Gay Needs An SBF – Straight Best Friend

You’re walking down the street and someone calls you a faggot. You’re hanging out with friends and someone says how butch all lesbians are. You’ve just been misgendered again. You really want to say something, to challenge this rubbish, but you’re exhausted from doing this on a day-to-day basis. So you decide to stay quiet and let it slide. You expect an awkward silence but much to your surprise someone else speaks up. They yell “homophobe” at the person that just called you a faggot. They tell your friends that lesbian women are not reducible to their appearance and can look however the hell they want to. They correct the misgendering. You’re smiling now because what you might have said has been said by someone else. And who is this mysterious super hero? Why, they’re your SBF – Straight Best Friend.

I have an SBF and they’re just fab. While they do have quite an average dress sense and aren’t particularly funny (typical SBF, right!?) I know they’ve got my back. I know they’ll listen to me on my off days (and my on days) and make space for my unique lived experience as a gay man (and queer genderqueer). They’ll listen to my joy or pain and acknowledge them, so I know I’ve been heard. They celebrate my successes and hug me when I cry. Sure, their favourite colour is beige and they eat too much bread but around them I feel safe, supported and understood. But my SBF is even better than this because they’ve realised that all these things are basically just what friends do for one another, whoever they are, and they know I’ll do all these things for them too. Instead, my SBF has done even more.

My SBF has googled how to be a Straight Ally and gone to the Stonewall website to read up on how to Come Out For LGBT. They’ve even downloaded and printed the Amnesty International Ally Toolkit and shared it with their colleagues at work (they used the work printer for this). They’ve done their research and recognise that things aren’t “fine” just because gay people can get married and there are gay characters in Hollyoaks. They can see the queer community is being overburdened with the task of having to look after itself – providing ad-hoc therapy, social support and care for those who have suffered from austerity, the cuts to vital support services and continuing prejudice. They know that nine-year-old Jamel Myles from Colorado recently took his own life four days after having come out as gay at school and being bullied for it. They know that Jamel was one of the heroes of the LGBT+ community who was never allowed to live his whole life. So they sign All Out petitions, promote inclusion for LGBT+ folks and make visible their allyship. If there’s something they’re confused about they ask me questions and they give me space to answer or not because they know it’s not just the task of queer people to educate on queer issues. Furthermore, my SBF knows that when I do talk about queer issues I don’t do it to exclude other issues because I know, as does my SBF, that the future is intersectional. They liked my previous post on my experiences of loneliness as a gay man and shared it with other gay men they know. Except they didn’t leave it at that, they checked in with those gay friends and offered some emotional support. They even invited them round for dinner and are now planning a lunch with a bunch of other queer and out ally friends. Because my SBF is a bit of a community builder and knows that the just, equal future of our dreams requires straights and the LGBT+ community coming together.

Now, I can’t lie, my SBF and I have had a fair few rows and bust ups. And sometimes it’s because they got it wrong and said or did something that was just really stupid. Other times it was me, expecting too much from them and getting angry as a result. But we’ve worked through these times, sharing our vulnerabilities, exploring our stories and rising strong (yup, we’ve read a lot of Brené Brown). We have learned how to support one another and our friendship is so much the stronger for it. We know it can be hard but we know it’s worth it. Because in a world of such prejudice it’s not easy being out – as a queer person or as an ally – but we’ve decided to do it to ensure it’s not just the loud and violent voices that get heard and in the hope that kids like Jamel Myles will be able to live full and happy lives. Together, my SBF and I have proved that just as men have a vital role to play in feminism so straight people are crucial to LGBTQIA+ empowerment. I don’t expect the world of my SBF and I don’t want them to burn out. I just want them to be themselves brilliantly and I know that’s what they want for me too. And when it comes down to it I’m so proud of my SBF, just so overwhelmingly proud.

A Single (Gay) Man

As a single, gay male looking for love I often find myself caught between a rock and a hard place or, to reference ancient Greek mythology, between Scylla and Charybdis, one a many-headed sea monster and the other a giant whirlpool. On the one hand, I’m dating in a straight world which makes it so much harder to find men. On the other hand, a lot of straight people just don’t seem to care that much about the plight of the gay man. For them, gay guys are either sexually promiscuous Grindr-using tropes or decorative, GBF types who have great fashion sense and are good at listening. So to find love I have to navigate a most tricky crossing, being both vulnerable and bullet proof at the same time – vulnerable because to get a guy I have to be open about the pain I feel due to my loneliness, and bullet proof, because the likelihood of wider, straight society actually understanding this pain and doing something about it is pretty slim.

I guess for much of my life I have been told that my love is secondary to that of heterosexual people. Hets get their childhood sweethearts, sex education, cultural traditions and ceremonies. Hets get the chance to bump into their next date at work, church, climbing club, bingo or even the f*cking supermarket. Hets get to muck up their relationships and then make the same mistakes all over again, often with multiple people in one year. Hets get to feel like they win when they lose, I just feel like a loser. I have also been told that my pain is secondary to that of heterosexual people because hets are allowed to feel all sorts of pain – big and little, whereas I’m supposed to be the shoulder heterosexuals get to cry on or just be a cute, sassy and funny trope. My pain is often a punchline. Heaven forefend that behind my cutting wit and fleek fashion sense there might be such a depth of pain: one comprised of all the usual human trials and tribulations, and queerphobia, and the legacies of the AIDS crisis, and the unique gay experience of toxic masculinity, and internalised homophobia, and having loved ones who are HIV positive because our education system is failing us, and discrimination, and being the butt of so many jokes. One also born of the loneliness and sadness of not truly belonging in the world into which I was born. And, no, the odd gay bar (probably about to get shut down and converted into luxury apartments) and a once-a-year Pride event is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

As a great friend of mine says: “Queerness is either funny and light and joyous and palatable to straight people. Or it’s tragic and awful in a way that makes straight people glad they’re not one of us. We’re not allowed our own unique pain. We’re not allowed to just struggle day-to-day in  a way that isn’t funny or glittery or tragic or newsworthy.” Well, consider this blog post a piece of my pain and I share it with you freely.  If you are straight it might change, a little, the way you see the world and maybe even inspire you to take action to support a queer person you know, or maybe even one/s you don’t  (and, yes, I know I have essentialised you based on your sexuality…it’s not very nice is it). If you are queer, you might hear an echo of your own pain. Perhaps. In the meantime, until Queertopia is built here on earth I will keep on sailing between a many-headed sea monster and a giant whirlpool, honouring and suffering a pain that is often ignored but is no longer a joke. Maybe somewhere on this voyage I will meet another man to journey with and if you are him, come find me on the high seas.

Mama Mia: The Trouble With Cher

Firstly, I want to make clear that there is no trouble with Cher, she is blooming fabulous. I fondly remember turning back time as a kid and wondering if I was strong enough, and the Cher challenge in the latest season of Ru Paul’s was almost everything. No, my problem is not with Cher (unless she’s done something awful that is yet to come to light) but with the latest Mama Mia film’s ruthless exploitation of her. Here we go again (spoilers).

The original Mama Mia heavily implied that Meryl Streep’s mother was dead (I’m going to use their real names given their fictitious names aren’t very memorable and we didn’t really watch this for the characterisation). So it was quite a surprise when Streep’s mother turns up at the end of the second movie in the guise of Cher. Of course, she doesn’t just arrive, she arrives. In a helicopter, looking a million dollars and stealing the show with a marvellous rendition of Fernando. On top of that the other characters are pretty forgiving of the fact that Cher has been a largely absent character from both her daughter and grand daughter’s lives. She missed Meryl graduate, set up a hotel on a small Greek island, have and raise a child on said Greek island, get married, die and have a funeral. She missed all of her grand daughter’s life as well until she flew in at the last-minute. Now, I can’t know what Cher’s character was going through and what her struggles were and I do not want to pass judgement but, still, people seemed really forgiving at the end of Mama Mia 2 and I can’t help but wonder that it’s because the producers were more interested in shoe-horning Cher into the story by any means possible than they were developing her back story. And why might that be?

To get the gays in. Cher is a gay and queer icon of epic proportions. The LGBTQIA+ community love her for many reasons: her wondrous songs, brilliant dress sense, fierce support of her transgender son Chaz Bono and equality for transgender folks in general, her Oscar-nominated starring role as a lesbian in the film Silkwood, her joy at the recent Australian marriage equality vote and even her desire to emulate gay men from the age of 12 because she thought they were so much more fun than “regular men“. So, you can be pretty sure, that if you’ve got Cher cropping up at the end of your movie for a couple of minutes and singing a famous ABBA song then her queer fan base will be throwing their pink pounds away to get a front row seat at the cinema. I did, although I sat further back because I didn’t want to crane my neck. Of course, as far as the Mama Mia makers were concerned having a gay icon in their film equates to representing the LGBTQIA+ community. But it doesn’t, does it. Representation would mean actually having a lesbian, a transgender person, a bi-sexual or anyone from the LGBTQIA+ community adequately characterised in the film with a story arc of their own and despite the slightest of nods being sent in Colin Firth’s direction this didn’t happen. So just to recap, we’ve got a film based on ABBA songs with Cher in it and the queer representation is next to nil. Let’s just take a moment to let that one settle in.

Bertie Did Burlesque!

Back in the autumn of ’16 I had the privilege of watching the fierce, fabulous, queer, Canadian, Burlesque wunderkind that is Rubyyy Jones perform at Ku Bar’s first ever Kindness Kabaret. They stripped to sparkly underwear, they sang and they stuck two fingers up at the God awful patriarchy. Suffice to say it was love at first sight and a year and a half later I found myself in a small dance studio in East London being coached by Rubyyy in the art of Queerlesque.

I signed up to the course for two reasons: one, I do actually love Rubyyy and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend more time with them and, two, I wanted to turn my overly-intellectualised dissatisfaction with mainstream beauty norms into something practical (put my money where my sparkly jock strap is, sort of thing). The Queerlesque classes themselves were a wondrous adventure – I learned about classic burlesque, neo-burlesque, lip sync, choreography and costume. I also got to do the course with five other epic folk, all there for different reasons and all of whom taught me lots about dancing, stripping, living and being queer. The course culminated in a graduation show at the Hackney Showrooms (just last week actually) and, given I had never done anything like this before (discounting singing and dancing in front of the mirror), I had to come up with an act. It came in the form of Bertie. He cropped up as an idea early on in the course and gradually took shape: a former public schoolboy and Oxford University graduate conditioned into toxic masculinity and poshness but yearning to reveal his inner queerness (sound familiar!?). Cue chinos, loafers and a tie being stripped away to reveal tights, jock-strap and mesh. And then I had to perform the thing in front of an actual, live audience!

Rubyyy led the way and one by one we did our acts until my name was called. Pushing my need to pee aside I stepped up onto the stage and, basically, had fun. I wasn’t there to prove myself to others or try and be sexy for them, I was there for me and for Bertie. Besides, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t control that, but I can bare my body and own it. I can occupy space and queer it. I can be me and have fun. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of nerves, but I did what my acting friends do – I acted confidence until I felt it. And it felt great to rip off the layers of posh programming and show the real(er) me beneath and it felt great to get applauded for it. So, for one night, myself and six others (we had a bonus guest appearance from a previous Queerlesque course), led by the fantastic Rubyyy, kittened by the fab Lydia, shared a bit of our souls and varying amounts of our skin. Together we created the world we long for – queer, fabulous, inclusive, just and joyous. At least that’s what it felt like to me. Now, here’s Rubyyy…