Given my interest in the whole subject of gender, and how often I’ve written about it here, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I picked up a copy of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man : One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back almost as soon as it was published. It caught my eye in Borders one day, before Vincent started hitting the talk show circuit and before I’d read any other reviews. So when I got a Borders gift certificate, I used it to pick up a copy. I was curious because I had the feeling that Vincent — with the help of a make-up artist, a voice coach, and a personal trainer — had ventured further into the company of men than I had, despite being born with the necessary equipment.
Maybe that’s because Vincent ventured into the world of heterosexual men. To be honest, my closest relationships have mostly been with women (heterosexual and lesbian) and other gay men, as have most of my social experiences. That’s true about most of my experiences in the workplace too. A glimpse at my resume reveals that — with the exception of the last few years — most of my work experience took place in places that were predominantly gay-oriented.
To tell the truth, I’ve never really had any close male friends who weren’t gay. So, I was curious about what Vincent discovered when she gained entry in the persona of “Ned.” What I found, though, was the Ned’s experiences — while he got further on his foray into masculinity than I did — weren’t that different from my own.
It didn’t take long to stumble into familiar territory. Just a few pages in, three to be exact, Vincent relates how going out in male drag, with a drag king friend of hers, taught her important lesson no. 1 about being a guy — one that many gay men learn the hard way growing up: guys don’t look at other guys.
For them, to look away was to decline a challenge, to adhere to a code of behavior that kept the peace among human males in certain spheres just as surely as it kept the peace and the pecking order among male animals. To look another male in the eye and hold his gaze is to invite conflict, either that or a homosexual encounter. To look away is to accept the status quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him.
Or, as Ned puts it during a men’s group therapy session, to look another man in the eye means “I want to fuck you or I want to kill you.” (I suspect there are some straight guys for whom that isn’t true, most of the men in Ned’s Iron-John-inspired therapy group seem to agree with his assessment.)
And even for me, as a gay man, it doesn’t quite mean that. But it does mean that as I gay man I look at other men maybe because I want in to that “tiny sphere of influence,” that “small buffer of pride and poise” that surrounds some men.
• I see you. I acknowledge you as my fellow man.
• I see right into you. I recognize you as my brother.
• Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to bite you, unless you’d like that.
You can read the rest at the link. I don’t need to quote much more than that to understand how being the object of a gaze interpreted as “I want to fuck you or I want to kill you” might make some guys nervous because, while they might be prepared to handle the former, they often have no idea how to handle the latter. I learned as much in the locker room of my middle school. I was around 12 or 13, puberty had set in and brought with it a lot of feelings I suspected were quite different than the ones other guys in my class were feeling. And there I was, after P.E., in close very close quarters with a lot of other adolescent boys in various stages of undress. Having not learned that cardinal rule of being a guy, I did what any burgeoning teenage gay boy would do.
I looked. No. I stared. I got caught.
See, it was already clear I wasn’t a member of the club. I was a skinny, effeminate boy who always had his nose in a book, folded sheets of paper into fans when his attention drifted during classes in non-air-conditioned Georgia classrooms, couldn’t throw or catch a ball if his life depended on it. Even then, I didn’t have any male friends my age. There may have been one or two who attempted to strike up a friendship, but by then the fascination I felt for other guys as early as my kindergarten years (my real first crush may have been on Thomas, who slept a couple of mats away from me at naptime and whose big-for-a-kid-his-age afro was so fascinating that I wanted to touch it) had started to seep out by then.
A handsome Latino boy named Alex, shielded me from bullies in the fourth grade and helped bring those feelings closer to the surface. By middle school they were apparent to most of my male peers, even if they weren’t entirely sure what it meant themselves. The few who tried to befriend me, while they were in the midst of staking out their own territory on the landscape of masculinity, probably figured I was too weird and thus too much of a liability as a friend.
And they were right. Because I got caught. And I soon discovered that in some settings, guys are on constant lookout for un-guy-like behavior, in order to avoid both contagion and guilt-by-association. And when they find it, they move to stamp it out one way or another. So, that was the year that I failed P.E. because I refused to go into the locker room — because once detected I found out that the initial verbal responses turned into physical responses, when it was impossible for me to straighten up. That was also the year I came out, and learned to keep my eyes downcast.
Ironically, it was Ned’s experience during his stay in a monastery that reminded me of my own in the middle school locker room, because Ned’s close relationship came under close scrutiny in an all-male environment where the community was constantly on the lookout for hints of homosexuality, and moved to correct or eliminate it once found. It was amusing in some ways that a bunch of cloistered monks weren’t that much different than a bunch of adolescent boys in the locker room.
But Vincent got a closer, deeper look than I ever have into the lives of the men who lived their lives in the territories of masculinity that she was just visiting. Maybe that’s because I pretty much stopped at the borders. I guess a lesbian masquerading as a man has a better chance of slipping under the wire than a gay man incapable of masquerading as anything else. She has a better chance of learning what goes on under the skin of the guys who live inside those borders, and what she finds — surprise, surprise — is that the masculine ideal so extreme that even most straight guys struggle to measure of, fall short, and then struggle to live with that.
I though of it several times while reading the book; when the guys in his bowling group griped about the “pencil necks” in management; when the guys in Ned’s sales job went to extremes to prove or exaggerate their virility; and on and on. They all felt dis empowered somehow, put upon by a system in which being male (particularly a white, heterosexual, male with some wealth) still carries more than a few privileges. By the time Ned ended up in a retreat with the male therapy group, I found myself going back to Michael Kimmel’s essay “Masculinity as Homophobia,” because I remembered how he summed up why that is.
…we’ve constructed the rules of manhood so that only the tiniest fraction of men come to believe that they are the biggest wheels, the sturdiest of oaks, the most virulent repudiators of femininity, the most daring and aggressive. We’ve managed to disempower the overwhelming majority of American men by other means — such as discrimination on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, age, or sexual preference.
I have to admit, though I might have guessed I didn’t know how guys on the other end of the Kinsey scale dealt with it all. I’ve commiserated with other gay men who’ve experienced varying degrees of success and failure on that front. (I’m remember being on a gay softball league one summer that was evenly divided between guys who clearly enjoyed the chance to bring two parts of their identity together on the field, and guys like me for whom the whole experience was a reminder of the terror of being back in eight grade and back on the athletic field. That the more athletic guys were cheering us on this time made it only slightly easier to bear.) And I found myself looking somewhat more compassionately at they guys Vincent wrote about, as she did herself, when I realized they were as wounded by the absurdity of the masculine ideal as I had been. I even started to feel kind of sorry for the guys that expelled me from the locker room in the eight grade, and the men they’d probably grown into.
Yet I kept going back to Kimmel’s essay and his assessment of men’s therapy groups and male retreats like the one Ned attended.
…at the very moment they work to break down the isolation that governs men’s lives, as they are able to express those fears and that shame, they ignore the social power that men continue to exert over women and the privilege from which they (as middle-aged, middle-class white men who largely make up these retreats) continue to benefit — regardless of their experiences as wounded victims of male socialization.
I guess I needed it as a counterpoint to Vincent’s more sympathetic closing look at these guys, in which she reminds us “If men are really still in power, then it benefits us all considerably to heal the dyspeptic at the wheel.”
Yeah, maybe. But I can’t help questioning why they still get to drive, and objecting to where they’re steering, noisy back-seat driver that I am. If the whole thing is car is being driven into a ditch, I do hope whoever’s at the wheel can set things right, but I’m a bit less disinclined to think merely making encouraging noises from the back seat — essentially cheering the guys on from the sidelines — is going to be enough to do the trick. It may be necessary to just grab the wheel, and steer in a different direction, rather than speeding further into the treacherous territory that Vincent explores.
But then, what do I know? I haven’t been there. I’ve merely read the map.