Essay from Jacques Fleury

Smiling young Black man with short shaved hair, a black suit, and a purple tie.
Jacques Fleury

“Black men struggle with masculinity so much. The idea that we must always be strong really presses us all down – it keeps us from growing.” –Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover

TOUGH: Exploring the Contentious Issue of Masculinity in Contemporary Society

[Originally published in Spare Change News & Fleury’s book You Are Enough: The Journey to Accepting Your Authentic Self]

As a child, my mother often painted my fingernails and sent me to school with glossy lips and lavishly perfumed hands. So began my confusing journey in discovering my gender identity and tipping along the jagged edges of sexual non-conformity.

Gender, as defined in Down to Earth Sociology, is “The social expectations attached to a person on account of that person’s sex. Sex is biological while gender is social.”

It has occurred to me that sexual and gender identity has been a hot-tempered issue most recently. People are quick to use labels like Gay, Straight, and Bisexual, Queer, Transgender, Feminine, Masculine, Macho, Tough Guy and Snowflake. Essentially, if you’re labeled gay then, you’re thought of as feminine and if considered straight, then you’re thought of as masculine. Well, if only it was all that simple.

Eli Coleman, in his book Integrated Identities for Gay Men and Lesbians states that “The dichotomous or trichotomous categories of sexual orientation (homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual) are a massive over simplification of our current understanding of sexual orientation.”

He goes on to day that “…conflicts within or between individuals over sexual orientation are quite commonly seen in many cases of individual psychopathology. These conflicts contribute to psychosexual dysfunctions, relational problems, career indecision …existential crisis and so forth.”

I remember the anxiety I experienced when I decided to become a male nurse; I worried about the implications of working in a field typically dominated by women. But as we know today, there are many male nurses whose sexual identities are exclusively heterosexual, even though they have taken on a mostly feminine role and ignored the gender (masculine or feminine) role expectations of society.

Coleman also quoted Alfred Kinsey—a pioneer in the area of human sexuality research, whose 1948 publication Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was one of the first recorded works that saw science address sexual behavior and who invented the “Kinsey Scale” that rates levels of sexual preference from 1 (absolutely straight) to 6 (absolutely gay)—as saying “The world is not divided into sheep and goats. Not all are black nor all are white. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sounder understanding of the realities of sex.”

“Masculinity is what you believe it to be. I think masculinity and femininity is something that’s very old-fashioned. There’s a whole new generation of people who aren’t defined by their sex or race or who they like to sleep with.” Asserted gay Olympic Gold Medalist Johnny Weir and rightfully so…. In the grand scheme of things, I think that new age sexuality borders on being more contextual than it is biological.

There have been times when one can feel attracted to someone based on the situation of which they find themselves and the feelings that develop during that time; taking into consideration that they may still have more feelings of physical attract toward one sex over the other. Attraction can be more than just wanting to have intercourse with someone. It can be a combination of things that one deems valuable when it comes to finding the right mate. Things like karma, aura, emotional chemistry, intellectual and spiritual compatibility and socioeconomic components; all can affect attraction among individuals.

As a matter of fact, when I was growing up with my male cousin Bob in Haiti, definitive distinctions were made between us in relation to our disparate levels of gender role conformity.

Growing up, I was extremely close to my mother and had limited contact with my father being that he was a traveling businessman who lived in the second floor living quarters of his retail store in the middle of the city of Port-au-Prince. I was seen as the soft spoken, non-aggressive, overly sensitive and not terribly athletic mama’s boy. Whereas my cousin Bob was perceived to be the more tough talking, boisterous, athletic, and insensitive man’s man.

So they invented names to “label” us. I was “Temou” (Creole for soft core) and he was “Tedi” (Creole for hard core). Those labels began to shape how I perceived myself in the early stages of my psychological development. The idea that to be masculine you must be boisterous, not soft spoken is part of the pathology behind the idea of masculinity. “Violence has always been unfortunately embedded in masculinity, this alpha thing.” Said Captain America star Sebastian Stan.

Robert J. Stoller, M.D., in his book Presentations of Gender talks about the issue of femininity and masculinity in boys and girls within the context of family dynamics. He states that “One might hypothesize that if an excessively close mother child symbiosis and a distant and passive father produce extreme femininity in males, [then] too little symbiosis with the mother and too much symbiosis with the father would produce very masculine females.”

Which brings me to pose this question: Why are we as men so afraid to be associated with acting or thinking “like a girl”? What’s wrong with acting or thinking like a girl? We are all made of both male and female chromosomes, right? Sometimes the female chromosomes (a female karyotype is 46 XX) can be more dominant in males and the male chromosomes (a male karyotype is 46 XY) can be more dominant in females and vice versa.

Speaking from the point of view of someone who grew up with about five dominant women who exhibited both feminine and masculine characteristics in Haiti, I’ve grown to have immense respect for women and their abilities to communicate, empathize, endure and thrive over hardships. Why are those qualities recognized as a source of weakness if exhibited in males?

Women tend to allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable, whereas men tend to perceive vulnerability as a weakness. But why is that? It seems to me that it takes courage and strength to be vulnerable whereas it takes fear and weakness to be invulnerable. In Haiti, women are objectified and are made to be subservient to men.

So the strong women I grew up with, had to mask their strengths or what was perceived to be masculine traits in order to appease the men, or risked being labeled a lesbian and lose their breadwinner. As for me, at times I had to act like the typically stoic masculine male when I really felt like sobbing uncontrollably, in order to avoid being labeled a sissy.

In The Homosexualities: Reality, Fantasy, and the Arts, Shirley Panken, Ph.D. writes “In Virginia Woolf’s celebrated essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Woolf …[discredits] the usual definition of masculinity and femininity, and synchronizes the two into an androgynous (genderless) vision.” She goes on to say that in Wolf’s other work Orlando, she “depicts Orlando’s profound confusion about the diversity of his/her different selves.” Woolf writes that the indecision “from one sex to another is universal, that clothing may depict male or female likeness, but that underneath the sex, is opposite of what is above. She also dwells on the multiplicity of the self…”

Consequently, I want all the “feminine” or non-stereotypically “masculine” men out there to unite and claim their gender bending rights! Roy Simmons, a former offensive lineman with the New York Giants and with the Super Bowl winning Washington Redskins in the 1980s and the second NFL player to come out as gay, in a book about him called Out of Bounds had this to say: “To me, I am and always have been Roy Simmons. Labels are for people trying to define me—that’s their problem. The only insight I can offer into my sexuality is that I did exactly what everybody else around me did when I was growing up: when I came into my sexual maturity, I went with the flow, and for me the flow moved naturally to boys and girls. I found out soon that I like dick and pussy in almost equal measure—you don’t need a label to enjoy either one. A label is for the outside trying to look in.”

Recently, a large number of stereotypically “masculine” men have come out as Gay, Bisexual or Transgender, like former Gold Medal Winning decathlete Caitlyn Jenner, born Bruce Jenner. During his last 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer back on April 24th, 2015 before he transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner, Sawyer asked him about his sexuality and to which he replied, “Sexuality is who you go to bed with, gender is who you go to bed as…”

Among other high profile “masculine” athletes who have come out as gay or bisexual to challenge the contentious ideologies of masculinity are:

Carl Nassib, who became the first active National Football League (NFL) player to come out as gay. Luke Prokop, who became the first NHL player to come out as gay. Michael Sam was the first openly gay man drafted into the NFL. Ryan Russell became the first openly bisexual person in the NFL and in any major professional league. Ryan O’Callaghan who came out as gay after retiring from the NFL. John Amaechi who came out as gay in 2007, four years after retiring from the National Basketball Association (NBA). Glenn Burke became the first gay man in the Major League Baseball (MLB). Robbie Rogers was the first openly gay soccer player in a professional league. Jason Collins was the NBA’s first openly gay player. Meanwhile, Orlando Cruz became the first openly gay man in boxing and Darren Young in wrestling.

The list goes on and on…see it in full with this link:

In contemporary society, it is becoming increasingly unacceptable for men to objectify women. The days of “cat calling” (e.g. Wolf whistle, “Hey baby, can I get your number?”, “Nice ass!” etc…) is becoming passé. In addition, when it comes to having sexual freedom, the double standard of toadying men and shaming women has also been exposed and reassessed.

All of this and more are part of the concepts of masculinity: what it means to be a “real man.”

Today, a plethora of men are redefining their own manhood and not simply acquiescing to pre- established and progressively antiquated prototypes of masculinity. Terminologies like “house husbands” and “stay-at-home dads” are part of newfangled lexicon. Today’s men tend to be more expressive about their feelings and famous men like the comedian and actor Chris Rock have admitted to going to therapy.

In a People Magazine article by Eric Todisco titled: “Chris Rock Reveals He Does Seven Hours of Therapy a Week Since Onset of COVID-19 Pandemic” published on Dec. 10, 2020. Todesco writes that Rock unbosomed himself to the Hollywood Reporter about his therapy, revealing that he has been focusing on rectifying “childhood traumas”.

“I thought I was actually dealing with it, and the reality is I never dealt with it…” Rock stated. 

Hence as you can see, it is becoming incrementally acceptable for men to find ways to cope with their feelings, which most of them (me included) were told they should not have or must not show. Alternatively, it is no longer acceptable to use coping patterns like drinking, drugging, physical violence and abusing women and children. To do so now will result in official consequences due to new and better-implemented domestic violence laws.

Today, you need not behave like a galoot with a “cave man” mentality to affirm your masculinity. Violence and intimidation—both archetypally associated with masculinity—are not “strengths”; they are personal weaknesses. As Argentinian revolutionary writer George Louis Borges once said, “Violence is the last resort of the weak.”

Some of the strongest men in history did not use force and fear to exert their masculinity. Iconoclasts like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed the world through non-violent means. It is easier to react violently like an unruly toddler than it is to respond thoughtfully like a mature man.

Therefore, for those of you who are questioning your gender identity (masculinity, femininity) and sexuality (lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersexed, asexual and questioning), know that the only one who can define you is you. Do not allow external forces keep you from experiencing internal freedom, whether you identify as masculine, feminine or both! After all, what is more divine than knowing both masculine and feminine energies?

Book cover for You Are Enough: The Journey To Accepting Your Authentic Self. A clip art-style figure leaps into the distance, fist upraised and his or her other hand carrying a bag. A tree with spiky needles is to his left and a flowering bush to his right and mountains in the distance. Book is yellow, green, and black.

Jacques Fleury is a Boston Globe featured Haitian-American Poet, Author, Educator and literary arts student at Harvard University online. His latest book “You Are Enough: The Journey to Accepting Your Authentic Self”  & other titles are available at all Boston Public Libraries, the University of Massachusetts Healey Library, University of  Wyoming , The Harvard Book Store, The Grolier Poetry Bookshop, Amazon etc…  He has been published in prestigious  publications such as Muddy River Poetry Review, the Cornell University Press anthology Class Lives: Stories from Our Economic Divide, Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene among others…Visit him here: