My partner and I were having a discussion about masculinity one afternoon. We begin to talk about the ways in which we have been influenced my the societal expectations of masculinity in general and the ways in which we conform or defy it as two gay men. We ping ponged our thoughts back and forth as we discussed the ways in which masculinity norms of today, and of old, have often been rooted in ideas related to sexism, homophobia, and patriarchy. From this conversation I began to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned about masculinity from my father and the lessons I gathered from him on how men act and respond in the world.
The images of masculinity were clear from when I was very young. My father was the first one to show me this. He walked around our house in a way that let everyone know that he was in charge. Even when he said nothing at all, he still exerted this presence of power, control, and dominance. No one challenged him and everyone walked on eggshells around him. When he needed to demonstrate that he was in charge, at least to me and my older sister, he did so via beatings, fear, intimidation. When you did wrong, you were beaten. If he thought what you did was wrong, you were beaten. If he sniffed that you were about to do something wrong, he’d let you know that were very well could also be beaten. I wasn’t just beaten with anything, he accomplished this task with a belt– and not with just any regular ol’ belt. There was one particular belt he used. It was a thick leather belt that had to be able 2 inches wide and about an eighth of an inch thick. It had the buckle removed. Maybe this was an old belt that he kept around just for these purposes. Or maybe it was a belt he bought for just these special beating occasions. I don’t know. I never asked.
Sometimes, even when you were on the verge of doing wrong, you were threatened of a beating–and he trusted that you remembered exactly how painful that last one was. If he thought that you forgot, and if he suspected that you were up to no good (doing typical kid shit), he made a point to walk through the house with this one particular belt perch on his shoulder. He would walk through the house very slowly (like a really slow pimp walk or something) with this belt perched on his shoulder and while staring menacingly at me. Somehow he always knew. When I tried climbing our 8 foot tall wall unit/entertainment center, HE KNEW. When I was watching cartoons but felt like switching over to MTV for some music videos on the lowest possible volume (these were forbidden in my house), HE KNEW. I often thought he had some weird parental spidey sense for these types of things. However, I also remember thinking countless times, “wait, what did I do? I didn’t do anything” as he walked through the house with my next ass whooping perched on his shoulder.
This only made me think and feeling that it wasn’t about spidey sense at all but rather that he was on patrol and watching me in particular. I remember being so terrified. Even if I was sitting still for 3 hours straight reading a book and I saw him walk through, I would be convinced that I did something wrong during those 3 hours. I don’t know when but I can imagine it only took a few times of this before my thinking about myself started to shift. This is one of the ways in which I believe my thinking about myself began to shift from “I must have done something wrong” to “I must be wrong”.
These were the ways in which I felt him exert his power and authority. I associated this to be the example of how men express themselves. My father was the only prominent male in my life and he showed me that one of the ways to assert yourself as a man is through violence, fear, and intimidation. This association was something that I did not personally identify with however. In reality, I was more often the target of the violence, fear tactics, and intimidation of male peers I came in contact with throughout my formal years of education. Nonetheless, because I did not identify with this way of being, I often felt less masculine. Consequently, in safer spaces with people I trusted, I would put on a farce of what I believed to be a masculine presence. I would buff myself up when with my closest friends. I would also get into verbal and sometimes physical altercations with my older sister. As with many other areas of my life, I was a frightened mess who knew nothing of how to properly communicate my thoughts, feelings, emotions, dissatisfactions, etc.. I knew nothing of what it meant to be a man.
Either way, I took more lessons from my father and learned to think that masculinity involved silence. My father taught me this as well. He showed that masculinity involved never talking about your feelings, your motives, your true thoughts, yourself. My father had two very predictable modes. There was his “Beating Mode” and there was “Silent Mode”. In reality, while the Beating Mode has created some of the very long lasting memories of fear and sore ass, it was the Silent Mode that occurred most often and was probably most feared. From him I thought that a silent man was one who is feared. You never know what a silent man is thinking or what his next move is. Well that was the supposed logic. And “logically” if there is preexisting fear, this silence could leave others paralyzed with terror and gripped by the hope of you just saying something, anything. At least that’s how it left me feeling most of the time when my father did it to me.
My father’s silence often felt targeted towards me, the only other male in the house. I saw that he spoke with my mother and he would also talk to my aunt here and there. However, in all my youth, I have no memory whatsoever of having a casual conversation with my father about who I am as a person, what I want in life, my goals or interests, my thoughts, feelings, or reactions to anything. I don’t remember speaking to him about any of those things either. When his Silent Mode was broken, specifically with me, our interactions were superficial at best. When they were serious or had meaning, they were related to some particular event like parent-teacher night at school. I think I learned from this that men keep their feelings and thoughts away from other men. To communicate to other men, you would need to use other forms of interaction such as aggression, violence, fear, intimidation. When that was unnecessary, silence was all that was needed. This was pretty much reinforced with my peers in school. It is odd though because as an adult I still believe I think my father’s unintentional lessons that silence could be more powerful than words, however I believe it for different reasons now. Rather than using my silence as a fear tactic or as a means to keep my thoughts and feelings obscure, silence can be a method where I can gather my thoughts and feelings to then be transparent about them. That’s still a work in progress though.
In reflection, these lessons from my father regarding masculinity have taught me much about myself. I think I have learned even more by rejecting these ideas and creating my own meaning of them. While I have long realized that violence, fear, and intimidation are not necessary in my life as proof of my masculinity, I wonder in what ways I still allow my father’s version of silence penetrate my day-to-day life. I continually wonder the ways in which the messages of “you are wrong” have been embedded into my every thought, action, and decisions and how this then promotes silence. I recognize that as a therapist, my thoughts and feelings are not always transparent and silence can be very easy to maintain. While silence can be very useful and extremely impactful to the therapeutic process with my clients, I wonder if there are moments that my silence may contain some type of power within my interactions with clients that feels too threatening for me relinquish. It may also provide a level of familiarity and comfort. While I attempt to be very open and transparent with my clients, I think about those moments where I am most silent and how I am relying on my father’s methods of asserting power and also male dominance in spaces that are intended to be therapeutic.
As previously stated, sorting through and making meaning of my experiences is a work in progress and will be continually shifting as my life also progresses forward.