Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Velvet Rage

I picked up this book that Heidi was reading as research for her current work-in-progress. It's called The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World. And while I realize that I was not the target audience of the book - being a married, straight male - I feel that many straight men could benefit from reading this book. Because while a lot of the issues the author discusses and addresses in the book are specific to gay men, there are lessons to be learned for all men in reading what is said quite eloquently here.

The author argues that much of how a gay man acts in society is a product of years of "toxic shame." Shame that comes from being different from other boys, from having an emotionally distant father, from the fear that everyone was about to find out their deep, dark secret. And after that, they spend years hiding from that shame, overcompensating in the work place, in the bedroom and wherever else they can. Only by coming to terms with that shame and facing it head on is there hope for closure and healing. And while I'm fully aware that this is a gross oversimplification or what is almost certainly a more complicated issue, I think it's a pretty good distilling down of what gay men must go through in our society.

But I think, speaking as a straight man, I learned a lot about myself from the book as well. Not having ever been what anyone can call a "typical guy," there's an element of shame that comes from that. While I think things are changing now, the worst possible thing you could ever be when I was a teenager was gay, or thought to be gay. Heaven help you if you weren't athletic and didn't fit the predetermined mold that defined being male in American society because it immediately put your sexuality into question. If you were shy and didn't date a lot of girls (like me), well, the reason must be because you didn't like girls. And society, at that time, taught teenage boys that in many ways, you were better off dead than gay.

I think this is a terrible reflection of our society. And I think it's one of the reasons I'm so supportive of gay causes. So many things in my experience growing up taught me that being thought to be gay was equivalent to you might as well be gay. For the longest time, it bothered me immensely whenever anyone looked at me and saw the copious amounts of Madonna in my CD collection (or Cher or Kylie or Dolly or *insert gay musical icon here*.) I looked for the littlest innuendo - be it in the tone of their voice or body language or whatever. It was incredibly threatening to me - so much so that I even felt that way after I was married and a father. That's how much that kind of adolescent experience affected me. And while I wasn't gay, I carried that "toxic shame" with me as well - figuring that there must be something fundamentally wrong with me as well - never able to relate to other men in the predefined way. So it wasn't surprising when I read this book and a lot of it seemed to strike a chord. And I know that there are other men out there that have had similar experiences.

Anymore, I don't rightly give a shit what people think and if they question my sexuality based on the type of music I listen to or the amount of professional sports I don't watch or play, I mostly think it's hilarious because I know what I am. And I'm so much happier, so much more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been before. Part of that is the result of the path that I had to travel to get to this point, but mostly, it's just been about accepting myself part and parcel. It's also been about having wonderful friends that accept me completely and utterly, flaws and all. I am who I am, I am my own special creation.

What I would love to see in the world is a broader definition of masculinity - something that I think is difficult to achieve in what is a pretty conservative America. Just because I'd rather spend the afternoon watching Madonna videos than the football game makes me no less of a man than those watching the football game. The ones who can do both are the ones that are really cool - because not even I can do that!

1 comment:

Heidi Cullinan said...

One of the things that has struck me during all the reading I've done on this subject over the years is how there is no man who can live up to the standard society sets for men, and if one comes close, it must be hell trying to maintain that position. It makes me suspect that most men, no matter how traditionally or "acceptably" masculine, are always staring at an unattainable pinnacle and probably hiding a huge portion of their true selves.

Which sucks, really.