For a very long time, I hated that phrase. And growing up, I heard it a lot.
My father was an alpha male, ex-marine. In my house, there was no bullshit. There were rules to be followed, chores to be done, commands to be obeyed and manners to uphold. He had a confident, no-nonsense, presence wrapped in a thick, muscular frame that seemed to mirror the hyper-masculine stereotype the media put forth as the definitive ‘man.’
My parents only had two children. One son, and one daughter. Whatever dreams or plans my father had for his only male child rested on me. I remember feeling at an early age that I was not the son my father had hoped for. My father had expectations, and whenever I fell short of those expectations, he would say, “Be a man.”
But what did that mean? Millions of boys hear that phrase every day while growing up but it’s too vague a term to be helpful. As a result, many boys spend years, perhaps even a lifetime, trying to figure out what it means to be a ‘man’. I was one of those boys.
So, I set out on becoming a ‘man’. I threw myself into every ‘manly’ activity I could think of, hoping something would “click”. Becoming a ‘man’ would not be enough, however. I was not raised with the ‘every child gets a trophy’ mentality that seems to prevail today. No, I was raised with the mindset that coming in second, was being the first loser. Becoming a ‘man’ would not suffice, I had to become an exceptional one.
‘Men’ fished. So I went fishing. Every summer I would spend the weekends fishing with my grandfather, never coming home empty-handed and making sure I had a reasonable entry in the annual fishing rodeo. Fishing is fine, but sitting quietly in a boat, under the sun, out in the open for hours and hours on end, wasn’t this adolescent’s idea of a good time.
‘Men’ hunt. My father liked to hunt ducks. So I went hunting. I had my own shotgun and revolver since the age of twelve. As a kid I liked setting up targets and shooting things. What I didn’t like was getting up at four in the morning, freezing my ass off, sitting in the wet marshland, on upturned 5-gallon buckets waiting for these fcking birds to fly by. My disdain for the crude conditions was routinely met with, “Be a man, candy-ass.”
Growing up, my grandparents and I spent lots of time in the neighborhood bar while they were “babysitting”. My grandfather a.k.a. ‘Salty Dog’ was somewhat of a local pool shark. On a particularly slow night, as his empty beer glass hit the bar with a thud, he said, “Rack ‘em up.”
“What?” I replied.
“You want to be a man, don’t you? Men play pool. I’ll teach you.”
I wasn’t yet old enough to drink, but before long I could run a table playing 8-ball with my eyes closed. Salty liked to show me off to his bar buddies and I remember being surprised at how easily upset these fully grown, real men became when beaten by “a lucky kid”. A kid, but not a man.
Men play sports, so I joined both the local football and baseball teams. Much to the surprise of both my father and me was the discovery of a natural athleticism neither of us knew I possessed. I don’t know how, but athletics and agility came easily to me. Thanks to natural ability, I could run faster and hit harder than almost anyone else in my division, without breaking a sweat. I was told that I had a talent that wasn’t ordinary. During practice, when I really turned it on, I was a superstar. I could feel the eyes of my Dad and other parents widen, and the eyes of other coaches narrow, and focus on me. My father was excited about the new possibilities that sports offered.
It was during one particular practice when everything changed. I was amusing myself by showing off a bit and I noticed my father, in the bleachers, beaming with pride, pointing and exchanging small talk with those around him. Something in me snapped. When game day came, as easily as I turned it on, I turned it off. All of the fireworks I displayed during practice 24 hours earlier disappeared, and I became one big dud, which delighted me but only served to embarrass and infuriate my father.
I overheard one of my baseball coaches say, “I don’t know what happened. I can’t explain it. Your son is good, but he could be great if he tried a little bit.”
He was right, I didn’t try very much. I didn’t want to. Partly because my heart wasn’t in it, but part of it was much darker.
I felt an odd sense of empowerment in purposely underachieving. The resentment I had built up over the years of being told to “be a man”, when all I wanted to do was be myself, had taken over. I knew I could be an excellent athlete and I knew that doing so would get me my father’s respect. Only now, out of spite, I didn’t want it. I enjoyed a twisted sense of pleasure and gratification by deliberately NOT becoming the ‘man’ he wanted me to be because the ‘man’ he wanted me to be was not the man I was.
The tide had turned. I had grown tired of trying on ‘masculine’ costumes in an attempt to cram myself into the mold that our society says a ‘man’ should look like. I realized that in my attempt to achieve the hyper-masculine ideal, I was disconnecting myself from who I really was, and who I wanted to be.
Phrases like ‘be a man’ are absorbed by thousands of boys every day who are then left to deal with its effects. As boys, we are taught it’s not ok to cry. We are misguided to believe that stoicism will disguise weakness yet convey power and confidence. Within the term’s ambiguity and society’s misdirected intentions is where the danger in such phrases as ‘be a man’ lies. Many growing adolescent males are afraid of ridicule, so they repress their emotions, squelch their true interest, and may never reach their true potential or follow their dreams, in pursuit of a cliché. Maybe it’s different today. Maybe it’s different in bigger, more liberal cities. But that’s how it was when I was growing up here.
I was lucky. Eventually, I found my niche. I found a place where I was comfortable to express myself. My athleticism didn’t go to waste as I settled into a world of dance and theater. You can imagine how that went over in my household.
My expectations and ideals and those of my father could not have been further apart. He may have wanted a son who was an uber-masculine athlete, and had a way with the ladies; what he got was a son who danced in tights and preferred the company of men. So much for expectations.
Paradoxically, the relationship between my father and me improved after I came out. Admitting that I was gay seemed to absolve him of any wrongdoing he may have made, ridding him of blame. The fact that I did not turn out to be the macho, emotionless, stereotypical muscle-bound action figure type he’d hoped for, wasn’t his fault. I was genetically altered, defective, and therefore granted a God-given hall pass, excusing me from the ‘manly’ standards of normal boys. Whew!
To be clear, I loved my father, and I know he loved me. We were just different. Because I didn’t like the same things he did doesn’t make me wrong or make him right. Just different.
At the end of the day, playing sports doesn’t make you a man. Violence doesn’t make you a man. Muscles don’t, power doesn’t, money doesn’t. Even having a dick doesn’t make you a man.
Being a man is a choice. Being a man means having the courage to face your fears and acknowledge your responsibilities. A man isn’t afraid to show his emotions or confront his weaknesses. It’s about being a trusted friend and equal partner. A man isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong or admit when others are right. He stands up for himself as well as those unable to stand up for themselves. He does the right thing, even when no one is looking.
What is important now is to recognize that the world has shifted and the traditional family dynamic has changed. Women’s empowerment has been a long time coming and is finally getting some traction. But we can’t forget about our boys who still face mixed messages of masculinity and a historical lack of guidance at their disposal. They need our help.
Studies show that boys are more likely to get expelled from school and only 43 percent of young men enroll in secondary education. Boys are more likely to engage in violent crime, binge drinking, and drugs. Our jails are filled, overfilled, with men. And men commit 79 percent of all suicides in the United States. This is unacceptable.
What makes ‘be a man’ such a loaded phrase is that it is impossible to define what a ‘man’ is, or describe the steps necessary to become one. The journey that every boy embarks on is unique, as is the time it takes to get there. It is a treacherous hike to manhood, and it doesn’t get better. But through time and experience, YOU will get better and better, and when you arrive, you’ll know.
For me, I became a man the day I realized I no longer had to prove that I was one.