Toxic Masculinity and Suicide

I’m not a man but I am well-placed to write about toxic masculinity.

I know what it feels like to be surrounded by people expecting you to live up to their expectations of what a man ought to be. To be repeatedly shamed, teased, or bullied for allowing the mask to slip, revealing the person behind the act.

Forty-odd years ago in a hospital in Manchester I was born. I’m guessing some doctor took one look and decided I was male: that’s what went on my birth certificate. I’m still living with the consequences of their decision.

I might have been given the label but that’s all. It didn’t mean anything to a baby–why would it? But it influenced the way everybody around me interacted with me. How they spoke to me, how they dressed me, what toys they gave me, what future they imagined for me.

I wasn’t given a choice, not even made aware that alternatives existed. So as I grew older and became more self-aware I felt more and more that there was a gap between what was expected of me and how I felt inside.

I’m autistic: there are certain behaviors like hand flapping and toe walking that are natural expressions for me. An autistic body language. I was teased and bullied for them in school and worked hard to suppress them.

But not all the behaviors I had to suppress were related to autism. Others–mannerisms, speech patterns, responses–were shamed as being “girly” or “sissy”. I had to learn the rules to be seen as acceptably male, to conform.

That’s the essence of toxic masculinity: conform or be punished. You will be bullied. You will be abused. Until you fit in. Or you die.

You see, it doesn’t take long before you feel you’re being watched every minute of every day. You watch yourself, alert to every slip. The pressure to conform instills a deep and abiding fear and anxiety.

Living with that day in, day out wears you down. You learn to hate yourself, hate the fact that you must conceal your desires and feelings, that you must hide yourself. You go through every minute of every hour pulling levers behind the curtain of this fake persona to keep yourself from harm.

You become depressed. You wonder why you make the effort when you will never be free. You might self harm just to feel something real, to do something to reach down through all the layers of deadening armor between you and the world.

It’s easy to feel suicidal. It’s understandable. It takes away the crushing pressure of the trap you are caught in. I tried to kill myself a couple of times. It wasn’t like TV and the movies try to show it. There was no note, no plea to the world for understanding. Just utter, wordless despair on a lonely, dark night with a handful of pills and a load of alcohol.

Most of the people who made me feel this way had no malicious intent at all. They just projected their expectations onto me, expectations of masculinity. I’m not male, but even if I were I would have been subjected to the same pressure to conform.

That’s why it’s toxic: it poisons you, poisons your mind with its relentless drip, drip, drip. “Man up!” “Grow a pair!” “Sissy!” “You’ve got no balls!” “You talk like a girl!” “Poof!”

There is no single, right way to be male (or female). There is not a single characteristic that all people of a particular gender share except one: their own identity. Expecting people to conform to your idea of their gender is immoral, coercing them by shaming or violence is abuse.

Trying to prevent people from expressing who they are, even unconsciously by perpetuating gender stereotypes, harms them. It really is a matter of life and death. I’ve lived it, I nearly died. I know.

Looking Beyond The Binary

Like the overwhelming majority of people I was immersed from my earliest days in a world divided into two. It is so pervasive that it doesn’t seem at all strange; most people never have cause to even think about it.

In the blue corner we have everything male. Boys, men, anything electronic or mechanical, big or loud. Football. Beer.

And in the pink corner we have the supposed polar opposite, female. Soft, delicate, dainty, quiet. Embroidered cushions and flowers. Ballet. Prosecco.

Take a moment to think about how much of the world is seen in terms of masculine or feminine. It’s even ingrained in many languages such as Spanish, French, German, Russian.

Who do you see when you imagine people in various jobs? Flight attendant, nurse, engineer, bricklayer, plumber, mechanic, secretary, truck driver. Are the examples you think of primarily male or female?

How about when you see a person at the mall or in the street? Do you find yourself automatically thinking of them as she or he? Making an unconscious decision about their gender simply based on a quick glance, a fleeting impression?

It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture and society that it’s hard not to. And when somebody doesn’t seem to fit into either category we can find ourselves wondering, “Are they…?” Does that make you uncomfortable? How would you address them?

Good news: there’s a solution. It’s not easy because you have to make an effort and learn to see things differently. But you can teach yourself to look at people without the need to put them in a box labeled M or F.

Go on, try it. Watch the TV, scroll through Facebook, whatever, and deliberately keep an open mind about the gender of everyone you see there. Avoid “he” and “she” in your thoughts; use the neutral “they” by default.

After a while you find that it becomes easier, the conscious effort becomes an unconscious reflex. And you discover something unexpected: you still see aspects that suggest male or female, but your overall impression is a blend of the two. You see both simultaneously!

And it strikes you that the whole dyadic division is an illusion, a pernicious lie.

Children Don’t Need Gendering

There was a child who grew up with two brothers. This child would knock about in denim dungarees, build karts from old fruit boxes and pram wheels, climb trees. Closer to their father than their mother, they would watch avidly while he tinkered under the hood of his car, eager to get involved and often ending up covered in grease.

And there was another child, painfully shy, who would spend hours with only their toys as company in their bedroom while their brother and his friends would pretend to be cowboys, or Tarzan swinging on ropes from trees. This child hated to get dirty; would borrow their mother’s clothes and play dress-up, loved to help mother in the kitchen.

That first child was Anne, my wife, and the second was me. So much for gender stereotypes.

There is an argument used to invalidate the experiences of trans people which says that we are somehow not authentic because we didn’t experience growing up as our real gender. But there are as many different childhood experiences as there are different people. Sure, we are the product of our upbringing to a degree but playing with dolls as opposed to a football does not define one’s gender experience one way or another.

The real myth is that there is such a thing as a definitive childhood experience that all girls (or boys) go through, and that their gendered experiences are completely separate and unrelated. At the end of the lane where I grew up was a farm; there were four children: two girls, two boys. Apart from the boys having their hair cut short they were almost indistinguishable. Dressed alike in jeans and shirts they all helped with jobs on the farm: driving tractors, hand-feeding new-born lambs, rounding up the cattle for milking, shooting rats in the barns. Only a few hundred yards but a whole world away from my own experience.

What I have learned is that my childhood experiences have more in common with those of other autistic people than they do with any arbitrary collection of women or men. I can’t even see any relevance or practical use to gendering children, and yet Western society in particular is moving more and more towards a total binary division: just look at children’s clothing and toys. There is this prevalent meme that colors, styles, activities and more are gendered: that everything in a child’s environment is either masculine or feminine and the two sets must remain disjoint.

Even where there is an overlap society plays tricks with language, Nineteen Eighty-Four style, so that girls have dolls while boys have action figures; kilts are not referred to as skirts. It all reinforces the notion that there is but a single “correct” way to be a particular gender, and also that each one of us must be identifiable as either one or the other. Individuality is out, conformity is in.

But conformity is death to self-expression, death to the personal freedom to look and act naturally. Enforced through bullying and oppression, conformity harms. Instead we need to promote acceptance, to allow each person to be themselves, to let their personality be shown however they want, to let them enhance our world with their individual creativity. I believe we would all be richer for it.

Celebrating Difference

Warning: This post contains frank references to sex and sexual organs. If you don’t want to encounter such words then I suggest you don’t read on.

It makes me angry when I hear people make disparaging comments about somebody based on their appearance or mannerisms. The unspoken assumption that those people are somehow inferior because they do not fit into a neat little box in a neat little life.

There’s denial of a person’s self: “You can’t be disabled. You don’t look disabled.” Deliberately using the pronouns of their previous gender to refer to a trans person. Suggesting that a woman is only lesbian because she’s not had sex with a “real” man (whatever that means).

There’s the imposition of one’s own standards on another: of a sexually-provocative woman, “She looks like a tart. She’s all over those men, whoring herself.”

Guess what? There are a host of disabilities that don’t affect a person’s physical appearance: that man with Tourette’s didn’t get issued with a badge along with his diagnosis. And somebody who does have a physical sign of disability? Odds are they are aware of this themselves and don’t actually need your help in pointing it out.

A trans person who transitions knows who they are. Your crass attempts to suggest that you know better than they do only serve to paint you as ignorant, narrow-minded and prejudiced. Yes, I used to present as a man: I know this only too well, after all I was there. But I’m a woman. I don’t need or want to be reminded of who I appeared to be before. That life is in the past.

Some people are attracted to people of the same sex. For a man to suggest that a lesbian should prefer sex with a man, and that experiencing it would change her sexual orientation, demonstrates a staggering lack of understanding. If he thinks being penetrated by a penis is so wonderful perhaps he should try it. After all, speaking from personal experience would carry more weight!

And that woman wearing revealing clothes? Well, I guess she’s feeling confident and attractive. Getting attention from the opposite sex probably makes her feel empowered and can be a turn on. And maybe — shock, horror! — she enjoys sex?

There are a whole lot of people in this world of ours, and that means there’s a lot of scope for differences. Instead of feeling insecure or threatened by this I would hope that people can approach others with an open mind. We are all people and we are all different. Different does not mean less. It does not mean wrong. It’s time to accept and celebrate these differences as what make people unique and special, each in their own way.

These posts brought to you by:

Add your post now!

Click here to enter your link and view other participating blogs…

If It Looks Like A Duck…

Who am I?

That’s a question to which I struggle to find an answer that satisfies me. Oh, there are no shortage of answers: I’m Ben, I’m a husband, I’m a 40 year old, I’m a programmer, I’m an Aspie… But these are only labels. Some can conjure stereotypes: in the case of programmer that might well be of a pale-skinned, glasses-wearing, high-IQ social misfit with poor personal hygiene, no girl/boyfriend, the muscle tone of a blancmange and a diet of pizza, soda and Twinkies. As with most stereotypes there are elements that broadly fit and others that are way off. The imprecision nags at me like a label in the back of a shirt.

Tell me about yourself.

I won’t deny that I do describe myself as above — the labels, not the stereotype! But with limited time, space, or both, I can’t keep on supplying descriptive tags until I feel I’ve completed the picture. Where does that leave me? Well, people have to fill in the gaps from their own observations and that depends on how I appear to them.

I can tell you that I care very much for my wife but that obviously didn’t show to a group of doctors recently who were urgently treating her for an allergic reaction that caused her tongue and throat to swell. I think they were expecting me to appear agitated and fuss over her but I remained calm — fussing or panicking would not have helped either of us, so I sat there out of the way and let the doctors get on with treating her. That’s what I judged to be the most helpful course of action, and because I care I wanted to act in the way that I thought would benefit her the most. They asked my wife whether I cared about her because I appeared cold and unemotional.

But you don’t look <adjective>.

Some people set great store by their belief in their powers of observation: seeing is believing. And when they’re told something that is at odds with what their own eyes have seen they are inclined to disbelieve it. In this case of the doctors — maxilla-facial surgeons and registrars — even with a passing knowledge of autistic behavior they didn’t believe my wife when she told them I do care about her but I’m not expressive: I didn’t look like I cared. You just can’t win sometimes.

It quacks like a duck, therefore…

If I tell you that I’m 5’11” and 210 lbs, stockily built, physically strong and bearded you will have a particular image of me. You might expect certain traits that correspond to that image: stereotypical masculine traits such as:

  • self-confident
  • independent
  • hard
  • thick-skinned
  • aggressive

You’d be in for a surprise: I’m none of those. So I present as male which matches my biological sex but I don’t necessarily think or behave in the corresponding way. Told you I was weird! 😉

It’s a platypus?

Conan-Doyle wrote  in Sherlock Holmes “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. And the truth here will have to wait until I have eliminated the impossible. You see, I can’t accurately answer the question with which I opened this essay. I don’t know how to describe who I really am: I’m as reliant on labels as everybody else. To myself I am just me — I know what that means but the collection of thoughts, feelings, behaviors and physical matter doesn’t have a name. Any words I or others use are an approximation, a simple sketch of the reality.

René Magritte in his famous painting La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images) captured this perfectly. As the caption on the picture states, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — “This is not a pipe”. The realization for me of the literal truth of that statement was profound.

And finally…

I hope I’ve not left you disappointed that I didn’t answer my own question. Instead I wanted to explore what identity means and how my perspective cannot be translated to anybody else without losing fidelity. All anybody else will ever see is an imperfect reflection through my words and their eyes.