I’ve been surprised to see the conversation on how we raise boys taken to the mainstream by Michael Ian Black, care of the New York Times. It’s a critique of masculinity I’m extremely familiar with—and it’s been going on for longer than I’ve been a card-carrying member of the queer community.
I remember, just after coming out, returning to the church I grew up in for my grandfather’s funeral. Smack on the door, as I was grieving and walking into the building, I was treated to a poster advertising a brand new class on teaching boy children to be “real boys” so that they don’t grow up to be gay. That was ten years ago. Just after Elliot Rodger shot students at Isla Vista and his misogynistic manifesto came under public scrutiny, I spent a week on a mountain with about three hundred queer people; women, non binary folks, trans men. (Basically every sort of person except cis men.) We were certainly talking about toxic masculinity then, but it didn’t seem like anyone else was. That was four years ago.
Of our 99 problems, strict adherence to the gender binary is involved in most of them. As many as 43 percent of homeless youth identify as queer and are ejected from their homes because of their rejection of these rules. The average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is said to be 35 years—largely because they live at a precarious, often dangerous intersection of racism, misogyny and bearing the brunt of the toxic masculinity those around them wield, literally, as a weapon.
As a result, queers have been working to provide alternative models of masculinity for as long as I have known queers. And in our current cultural moment, the queer community has attained a level of representation in pop culture that challenges and remakes this toxic outlook in spaces where children are present. Which is why it is shocking that, as the conversation on masculinity moves into the mouths of straight, cis men in the wake of the Parkland shooting, I hear confusion, powerlessness and handwringing. As I read and hear published critique from men outside gender studies departments and queer clubs, there is a profound sense of being oppressed by masculinity, and a deep sadness that men have been required to adhere to it. I also hear the undertones of hopelessness—straight, cis men don’t seem to know what to do about fixing what it means to be masculine in this country.
And that’s frustrating. Because queer folks have not been stingy with examples. We have been, for decades, demonstrating what it is to unmake violent masculinity. And right now, young queers and creators alike are bringing new masculinities to life.
Look at Steven Universe, an animated show created by Rebecca Sugar, a bisexual woman. It features an empathetic pre-teen and teen male protagonist in Steven, and when he uses his powers and “fuses” with his best friend, Connie, they together become a genderless “experience” of a person. This is a show that has an entire episode dedicated to teaching children of all genders how to deal with emotions after trauma; it unmakes the masculinity of emotional repression regularly. Look at Lumberjanes, a comic with the character of Barney who doesn’t want to be a Scouting Lad and jumps ship to the camp for “Hardcore Lady Types.” Look at Moonstruck, which features Chet, a genderqueer centaur who uses neutral pronouns.
Queer Eye rebooted on Netflix this month, and the updated Fab Five represent a group of men heading into Georgia to fix masculinity. They don’t even commit to “for the straight guy,” as they did years ago; I wonder if and hope that it is because masculinity needs interrogating no matter where one falls on the Kinsey scale. I watched Queer Eye when I was a kid—it was one of the first family-friendly representations of subversive masculinity that I remember, and it’s even more subversive now. The group tackles race, Christianity, conservatism and what it means to take care of oneself and others as a man. Whether or not this show is intended for the younger set, I can near about guarantee that they are watching. I was.
We can already see the effects of that expansive gender outlook, that work women and queers have been up to for decades. Less than half of teens today identify as straight. Fifty-six percent of them know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns. Seventy percent want to see ubiquitous gender neutral bathrooms.
A rise in queers, women and young folks making media has provided Generation Z with a lot more possibility models than we ever had. We built those possibility models for ourselves, and they exist for generations older to partake in as well—should they choose to look. So why, then, are middle-aged men so ready to throw up their hands and mourn the restrictive childhoods that led to their restrictive genders? Why, when Michael Ian Black’s teenager stomps up the stairs, does he not feel empowered to model different choices about what masculinity can become?
I can only guess it’s because it’s easier. Men have learned helplessness. Blaming masculinity itself seeks to absolve grown men of their agency in actively creating masculinity; it’s not an entity that lives without the decisions of people. Cis men have always had the power to expand the definition of what it means to be masculine. Men can actively make different choices about what masculinity means. I say this as a queer person who creates their own masculinity with active choices every day, who believes in the expansive constellation of masculinity; that there is so much more space in there than cis men believe there to be.
If adult cis men are now chafing in an ill-fitting gender, perhaps instead of sounding the lament and shrugging their shoulders at the insurmountability of a society they created, they can follow the younger generations into new territory. They can engage with the narratives that Millennials and Generation Z are insisting on—and have been for quite some time.
And most importantly, they can legislate gun control in the way the youth are asking them to instead of staring frightened and helpless into the masculinity of their own making.
A.E. Osworth is Part-Time Faculty at The New School, Managing Editor of Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard College and has spent the last half a decade as Geekery Editor at Autostraddle. Keep in touch @AEOsworth on Twitter and at aeosworth.com.