“I love men, I hail men. I celebrate American male culture — beer and muscle cars. But that’s not what you asked me. You asked me if my music is distracted by my sexuality. And it’s not.” — Lady Gaga
"Maybe we can be each other’s soul mates. And then we can let men be just these great, nice guys to have fun with." — Charlotte York, Sex and the City
“I’m looking for a man to make me say ‘God!’” — Trina, One Minute Man
School is in session, and I am suddenly surrounded by men!
For the most part, my specific and temporary position as an unemployed gay vagrant has permitted me a summer of minimal male interaction. Most of my engagements with men were charmingly short, entanglements of my own choosing, situations I entered and exited of my own accord, on my own terms. But now, no longer! Yesterday I walked into a classroom that was literally full of men. More precisely, it was 14 men, one woman, and me.
I grew up with a lot of male friends and maintained a pretty masculine cohort until about four years ago, when I dropped nearly all of them abruptly like a bag of rocks. This is because, at a certain point, the gulf between the kind of people they wanted to be around each other, and the kind of person I wanted to be for myself, became too wide to bridge. I grew tired of hiding things from them, and of not trusting them to be there when I needed it.
But this is even a misrepresentation. Because I didn’t just drop them — I tried, sometimes desperately, to keep them around. I wanted them to understand me, to care about me, to be invested in my world in the way I was in theirs. If I was being truthful, men let me down before I dropped them. But I did eventually drop them.
I continue to struggle with this dynamic, played out across myriad interactions. Men worm their way into my life in big ways but seem entirely unwilling to play by my rules. They will not listen, learn, or grow. Men are like a stubborn houseplant; I water them endlessly, adjust their placements, turn them towards the light. Nevertheless, I am rewarded only with silence and shadows.
I know I’m exaggerating, but it is only because men keep proving me right. My limited interactions with men are overwhelmingly draining and ugly, and their short-sightedness and naked self-interest has a habit of emerging at the most inconvenient moments, often with the goal of their own self-aggrandizement. Among men, no act of kindness seems to go unpunished.
Of course, when I say “men,” I’m usually thinking of straight men, a demographic that I have little desire to appeal to or impress, in large part because I can’t fuck them. And so part of my distaste for them may stem from their incompatibility with my social world — “queer community” of course being a euphemism for the people you want to sleep with and their roommates. And so I try to ignore them entirely, a habit that is easier said than done when you’re in a department and on a campus that is largely structured by and (to some extent, intentionally) for straight white men.
And yet… I love men! I hail men! I think about men all the time. I want to please men, and I want to educate and attract them. I adore men. Most embarrassingly, I am in love with a man right now, as we speak, and I have been for nearly three years (which is an awfully long time to do anything). I love this man so much that I often think of his needs and wants before my own, and make decisions with them in mind (a fact that I both love and hate). And what’s most frustrating is that, when I think of this man in this way — as a man — and expect him to act accordingly, he always does the opposite. He is endlessly thoughtful, funny, open, and self-reflective — he is, in short, nothing like the men of my imagination. It is maddening to be proven wrong like this, let alone by a man.
The Alex of three years ago would insist that this pattern points to a hidden kernel of gender variance — the woman trapped, as it were, inside a man’s body. If men are bad in all of the ways that my boyfriend is good, perhaps his status as a man should be up for further investigation! The Alex of the past was committed enough to shoring up their distance from the category of “man” that they would be willing to conduct these kinds of jumps and manoeuvres. I’m glad to have moved on from this way of thinking, at least for the impact it has on an intimate relationship. In the same way that seeing one’s partner as always-good opens one up for hurt and disappointment, so does the inverse: to tie all failings and missteps to masculinity risks essentializing individual behaviour and robbing it of complexity. It prevents me from looking internally and communicating effectively, of seeing a partner as a partner. Realizing this, I committed to changing it. But the initial de-gendering impulse persists, albeit in joke form; my boyfriend and I frequently joke that we’re actually a lesbian couple, and our lesbian friends have generally (even pre-emptively) played along.
I have been thinking of this lately because my academic work is focused on how gender operatives as a sort of handy political narrative. In many cases, gender provides political actors with a framework for making sense of and articulating difference, belonging, right, wrong, and the moral distribution of power and authority. My work focuses on nationalist movements and imperial projects, particularly American and Israeli, but this is a generalizable pattern (if you’re interested, I can provide some readings to flesh this out a bit more). In these cases, feminist legal theorist Catherine McKinnon is right to point out that the balance of power lands on the side of men, who have established the idea of objectivity in accordance with the interests of men as a class, understanding all good and wise things as being inherently masculine. Yet, without equivocating where equivocation is undue, I think that men also benefit in some way from the framing of masculinity as a collection of negative traits. For example, men are not stupid, though they act that way. They are not emotionally limited or uncomplex. They are capable of incredible imagination and complexity, so much so that they have no excuse to be as generally babied, excused, and cared for as they are in contemporary culture. Even people who “hate men” cater to men, under the assumption that if they don’t do it, men simply cannot get on without them. It is the emotional equivalent of a pattern that often emerges around domestic chores, where men manage to find themselves on the couch and out of the kitchen by feigning ignorance or incompetence. In this way, I pity straight women immensely. It would be (and is) easy to dunk on heterosexuality, but I don’t wonder that it’s the women who get hurt the most at the end of the day.
So I am trying to complexify my readings of men. I am trying to see them as open to reflection (or at least, capable of the job), and worth consideration rather than simple condemnation. I refuse to cater to them, but I will not allow them to the opportunity to opt-out of the difficult work of being human.
This is, I’m sure, an unsatisfying read, especially for the lesbians among my reader base. Imagine how I feel — it’s an unsatisfying train of thought, and a real waste of an hour to write. But I felt a need to get it out. Men occupy too much of my thoughts, and the Miranda that lives in my head couldn’t rest until I had both satisfied and banished her interlocutors. Now, maybe, I can move onto other things — and, perhaps, even do better by you next time.
Until then, I hope you have a wonderful weekend of limited male interactions and pleasant surprises. I hope that men prove you wrong in only the best ways. And I will continue to unpack my love and my hatred, until I have unpacked myself, and made something new with the constituent parts — something that is less bound up with the matter of men, less dependent upon them even in their absence, free from the long shadow of men’s imaginations. Full, complete, capable of everything, entirely myself.
All the best,