TW: Sexual assault, death, suicide, substance abuse
Masculine, as an adjective, is defined as being “marked by or having qualities, features, etc. traditionally associated with men.”
At 5’7 with teal Toms, a cuffed t-shirt, and 5-inch seam shorts (also cuffed), I am likely not the first picture that comes to mind with this definition. Despite this, most of my life has been marked by my proximity to masculinity. Everywhere I turned, there was a gleaming portrayal of what a man should look like: my grandpa, who’d always have a glass Coca-Cola handy for removing car rust whilst working an engine, or my rock-climbing dad who’d catch and scale bass on the weekend (and have fun doing it). But looking into a mirror, I’ve never seen that energy in my reflection.
This deviation from the traditional masculine script led to my peers labeling me as “weak” all throughout middle and high school . Desperate attempts at early childhood intervention, which generally looked like my dad waking me at the crack of dawn to fish, failed miserably. I was the antithesis of strength, of courage, and of conviction expected of the masculine artform. However, I must admit it was a seemingly low price to pay to get out of hooking bait.
If we are to hold onto that traditional definition of masculinity, then it’s fair to say that my dad lived as he died: a masculine man. Toward the end, his depression took hold and his addiction to drugs took off. His strength became his weapon, and for years my mother, sisters, and I suffered in silence, cautiously tip-toeing around a man we could set off at the drop of a hat. There is truth in the idea that silence breeds shame, and I lived a childhood awash with the guilt of feeling I could have changed the outcome. If I had been a more masculine son in his eyes, would he have had less of a reason to do these things?
But ultimately, I know it was not because of me that he fell into the wrong crowd. It was not me that caused him to self medicate. And it was not because of me that he ultimately took his own life 14 years ago.
For a long time, my dad’s life was a constant reminder of my weakness and of my inability to protect myself and my family. There was a tidal wave of pain and horror that came with his death.. But I believe I lost my dad well before he lost his life.
After my classmates’ initial sympathy passed,it soon became a factor in how they perceived my masculinity. If I was too feminine, it was because I didn’t have a male role model. If I didn’t like hanging with the boys, it was because I had been scared of my dad.
By high school, my inability to do the most basic things – such as changing my car’s oil or shaving – became monumental tasks that I felt embarrassed to ask for help for. Though I now know the power in asking for help, the fear of being laughed out or denigrated loomed over my slow and steady progression through puberty,and I felt wholly unprepared to catch up.
College became a clear turning point. I came out as gay, first to myself (which was the hardest step, personally), and then to the world. I entered undergrad with a brand new identity and path set for my life. Eventually, I became an alum at my dad’s alma mater, but beyond that similarity the differences between us couldn’t be more exaggerated.
I immersed myself in the world of politics. I was pretty good at it, and I met people who seemed to believe in the same things I did.
I met my friend Ethan, who was similarly passionate about politics and lived right down the interstate in Birmingham. When he came to visit me after an election cycle, the course of my life changed.
During this visit, I became a statistic. I was sexually assaulted. I couldn’t sit on my bed because it, like me, felt ruined. Once again, I had to come out to myself about who I was, but this time, it wasn’t my sexuality, it was my survivorhood.
Several months and an investigation later, he was suspended from his university. But after a few more months he was let off due to a jurisdiction technicality the university created right after my assault. When the university learned about my assault, they changed their Title IX policies to not accommodate off-campus assaults and to keep their hands clean.
With traditional notions of masculinity as society’s goal. if wearing penny-loafers in 8th grade hadn’t been enough, becoming a male sexual assault survivor felt like the crux of my weakness. I was a survivor twofold: first to the assault and second to all the repercussions that followed: people’s beliefs and responses that a man unable to defend himself, or unwilling to engage in his natural proclivity for sex.
I now know that survivorhood is strength. My reflection in the mirror now represents this strength. To look at myself in the mirror – cuffed sleeves and all – and proudly acknowledge that I’ve braved through the unthinkable became my healing mantra.
If we are to return to that initial definition of masculinity and conject that strength is a quality traditionally associated with it, then I don’t only think I qualify – I know I do. It’s an internal trait that doesn’t necessarily match the external appearance, but this is my masculinity. And I will have the courage to live in it and through it. I’m proud of this version of masculinity and strength because I am the most masculine gay survivor with a teal Coach bag and rainbow Tevas you’ll ever meet.
Want to learn more about male survivorship? See our exhibit featuring creative art products created by male survivors to represent their healing journeys: Healing Through Self-Expression: An Journey Through Male Survivorship ~ Our Wave Discover