Growing up, there were parts of my childhood that were unique in ways that I would not realize until later in life. Some of the hallmarks of raising a young black boy on the south-side of Chicago these days were absent from my world. Today, I’m especially thinking about the role of my father in shaping how I exist in the world.
“Boys will be boys” and the now popular “man up” were not the kind of phrases I heard as a kid. I was never encouraged to fight with my fists. When my parents disciplined me, it never involved physical punishment like spankings or punches. Life was not always easy but on the days when I felt overwhelmed, they never shamed for crying in response. As I look back, I am profoundly grateful that my father was different.
Before he passed away, my father stood six feet tall and weighed well over 200 pounds. He always wore a goatee and while he was generally a gentle giant, one would not presume that from looking at him. His voice had a certain rasp to it from when he was a smoker, but he didn’t say much. He was also a bit of a geek: a Star Trek fanatic and computer nerd long before home computers were ubiquitous. He was married to my mom, a woman I would grow to understand as a feminist and someone who stands up for what she believes. I saw them disagree plenty of times but I never saw my dad place his status as a man over her as a woman. As a kid, I had no reference for why women would be treated any differently than men, but if I saw it, I knew it was wrong.
What I have come to realize is that I grew up somewhat sheltered from our culture of toxic masculinity—the idea that being a man means we have to carry ourselves in ways that are harmful to others and ourselves for the sake of living out some unrealistic ideal of what “being a man” is all about.
My father was different and raised me differently, as a result. As I grew into an adult, I slowly had my eyes opened to the various ways I experience injustice and discrimination, first as a black man, then as a gay man. I am thankful that I never felt undue pressure about who I am at home. I came out as gay at 18 years old and I remember telling my parents last, in part because I was least worried about them accepting me. I was always loved, always encouraged — even as an artsy/creative kid who sometimes did lip-synch performances to Patti LaBelle in the living room on the stage that I built for such entertainment. My parents supported me to freely play, create, build, perform, and explore in ways that were safe.
Out of Orlando Florida, we are slowly receiving details about a man who took the lives of 49 others in a LGBTQ nightclub on June 12, 2016. The media was quick to share details of his life, including ways that he might be described as homophobic. We have heard that his father was very strict and he has been accused of beating his ex-wife. Later we found out that he attended this nightclub regularly for as long as three years before his killing spree and that he has used a gay dating app to talk to at least one person. As the narrative expands, there are speculations that he may have been gay or bisexual himself and struggling with deeply internalized homophobia. On social media and in the news this tragedy sparks heated debates about gun control, the role of religion and its impact on LGBTQ people, Islamophobia, and who should be scrutinized in this country.
One particular theme that surfaces in the debate is about men, specifically, “men are dangerous.” Is it white men who have committed the majority of mass shootings in the country or is it Muslim men who we are told have pledged themselves to ISIS? Just weeks ago, the debate was about predatory men pretending to be transgender to gain access to women’s bathrooms so that they can attack women. We’ve also queried what should happen to men who have sex when the person cannot consent—which is rape—and what should happen to the perpetrator. Many people defending this kind of assault with the phrase “that’s just the way men are.” These issues are the fruit of toxic masculinity. The idea that men are instinctively predatory and violent and that the burden of resisting that nature rests on the abused is enshrined in our culture.
These issues are the fruit of toxic masculinity. The idea that men are instinctively predatory and violent and that the burden of resisting that nature rests on the abused is enshrined in our culture.
We may never fully know all the details of what made the killer at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando choose to commit such a devastating act or why some men rape. We can look critically at how we participate in our culture and make changes for the better. This call is not to say that everyone needs to be raised the same way as me. This is a call to action, for us to ask hard questions about how we raise our boys and make sure that we are not participating in a culture that creates violent, abusive killers.
Toxic masculinity affects us all from how we raise boys to the culture that created the shooter at Pulse Orlando. This is a call for us to change our culture and to make space for every man to be a good man.
As a society, we need to make space for men who are different: men who live differently, who follow a different religion or none at all, who dress differently, who speak differently, who come from different countries or speak different languages. We need to make space for men who create and perform, men who play a sport, men whose bodies are large or small, men who like heels and a blouse and men who like fitted baseball caps and hoodies. We need to include men who are in the gender and sexual minorities and majority. We need to make space for men to have a full range of emotions and expressions: to cry and to laugh, to sing and to shout, to be silent and to speak, to live and to love fully.
In the wake of this tragedy and as I consider how best to honor the memory of my father this Father’s Day, I’m digging deeper into being the man who made my father proud before he died. I have invested the last 16 years of my life working against injustice by speaking up and taking action to make our world better for everyone. We don’t have to be the kind of men who lead by intimidation and brute force. We can be men that lead with love and compassion, men who treat others the way we want to be treated. We can be men who do good, who own our failures and make amends. Men who dismantle abusive cycles and make the world better with love. Let us do the hard work of learning and living out what it means to be good men.