Thursday, August 27, 2009

Masculinity

After reading E. Lynn Harris's latest novel "Basketball Jones" recently--not the best book I've ever read, but not the worst either--I decided to read his memoir entitled, "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted."

Before Harris passed away of heart failure at the end of July in Los Angeles, he was a black, gay writer, whose personal story, I believed, would be compelling. I'm always in tune with the true stories of other gay men, always looking for tidbits that I can use to understand myself better and to feel a kinship with those who've gone through some of the same things I have.

I was also fascinated that Harris put most of the personal details of his life in a memoir, because I spent about ten months in 2008 writing my own as yet largely unedited and unpublished memoir about growing up gay. I've been stalled in working on my book because I've felt no one else would be interested in reading it.

But my interest in learning about Harris's life as a gay man tells me that if I have a curiosity about him, other gay men might have a curiosity about my life, which was the reason why I wrote it in the first place. My goal was to write something that might be helpful to other gay men, that might make their lives better or prove to them they aren't alone.

At any rate, I've been struck by the number of times in Harris's narrative that he mentioned the need to put himself in situations where he felt more masculine or manly. As he attended grade school and then university, he knew he was different from the other boys and young men. He knew he had gay, or, at least, bisexual, tendencies, but, for the most part, he didn't act on them. He knew some of his classmates thought he was gay--which was a double strike against him since he was also black--so he took deliberate measures to prove that he wasn't by exhibiting masculine or manly characteristics or habits like the other males.

This included being seen dating beautiful women, which he enjoyed doing, mostly for the resulting friendships, but which he knew would help quell the rumors about being gay.

It also included pledging to a fraternity. He describes in detail the physical torture that was inflicted on him when some of the men in the fraternity he wanted to belong to suspected he was gay. Harris writes, "I survived the weekend and many nights of torture and was initiated into the fraternity. In a lot of respects, my initiation was a big step in my search for manhood....The extra punishment I received since they believed I was gay proved to advance my status in the eyes of many of my [fraternity] brothers. Despite the humiliation, I had taken the extra ass-kicking like a man, and it made me feel stronger ["Brokenhearted," p. 108]."

Reading the references in Harris's book to needing to prove to himself and to others that he was a man, because of all the conflicted feelings he had around possibly being gay, was a relief for me. For years, I've struggled with seeing myself as a man because I'm gay, and knowing I wasn't alone in this really helped.

I wrote in a previous post here, I wrote about needing to look like a man, or how I feel a man should look, even if I didn't feel like one. In particular, I wrote that I've always identified physical masculinity with how hairy a man's body is. Thus, a man might be a complete wimp in terms of courage, and he may not be the least bit honorable or trustworthy--many of the characteristics used to define manliness, but if, for example, he has a heavy five o'clock shadow and can grow a thick beard, and if his chest and stomach are covered in thick fur, then at least he looks like a man, and society routinely accepts him as such. Or, at least, I do.

I also wrote that I think a lot of other gay men do to. I think plenty of gay men rely on their masculine appearance to deflect any negativity that may be directed toward them because of their sexual orientation. This may include growing facial hair, developing their pecs and biceps, and displaying an abundantly hairy body. A little research on the Internet proves that however ridiculous this may be, many people, men and women alike, perceive these physical characteristics to be symbols of masculinity. Right or wrong, that's just the way it is.

At any rate, wherever Harris is right now, he should be pleased with himself for writing about the insecurities he felt about his masculinity. His courage in admitting this helps me, and others like me, to know that we are not alone; that, if we feel it about ourselves, there's a good chance someone else feels it about himself too; and that it's all right to have these feelings.

Harris's courage also helps me to find the courage within myself to continue working on my own memoir, with the hope that someone might identify with what I went through and draw strength from that. We can't hope to have any greater an influence on another human being.

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