This is a guest blog post by Matthew Moon, a writer and musician from Brighton. With Xandice Armah, Matthew co-founded Health Bar, who create pop-up video game events for women, PoC, and LGBTQIA+ folk. Matthew is also one half of queer art pop duo Kissing.
I remember the first time I wore my school uniform: my sack silhouette, the gold and navy tie, the too-big blazer I’d grow in to. The sleeves swallowed my hands. I liked how it made me feel small. Even though I was starting at the big school there was still time to be a kid.
My mother, who’d just finished taking in my trousers, held up a pair of scissors. She’d made a decision. She wanted a fresh start for me — a chance I could fit in or at least fly under the radar.
For most of my childhood, we’d let my hair grow out. On holiday in the country, while my sister and I played inside a church, a friendly old couple told my mother what lovely daughters she had. Family friends quipped that I was the prettier one (it was the cheekbones). The question, “Are you a boy or a girl?” was a refrain that followed me.
If I cared, I didn’t care enough to want a haircut. What’s wrong with being like a girl? There were no men I wanted to grow up to be. Older boys were like my father: angry, loud, obsessed with sports.
Thinking back on it now, a few inches of hair isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. (Though considering all the split ends it would take to get to that length again, hey, maybe it is.) What I wasn’t prepared for was how much further it would go. How much I would lose in the end, once the sacrifices to compulsive heterosexuality and gender essentialism that our normal childhoods demanded were over.
Patriarchal masculinity is a crisis
In August 2018, the American Psychological Association published a report stating, “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.” The report drew on 40 years of research and 13 years of analysis.
Predictably, some men felt attacked by this well-meaning attempt to help them and entrenched themselves further. However, we must continue to address this crisis, for the sake of men and everyone else. Writer Clementine Ford in her book Boys Will Be Boys says that, “The status quo might revere men as a class, but it destroys them as individuals. And it teaches them to destroy others in return.”
While my sister was taught to make herself small, to comply, to avoid men when walking alone at night, I was taught to replace intimacy with physicality. I was taught to rely only on myself and kill my empathy. A man is an island. No one told me to cross to the other side of the road, that my body is a weapon, an implicit threat. I learned that for myself, years later, using that empathy I should’ve abandoned.
It’s been a long journey to get to the point where I can articulate the ways in which I caved to the pressure of male socialisation, and the ways I resisted it. I’m a million miles from the most macho person you know. But it can still be difficult to ask for help or show emotion when inside I’m screaming.
I’m by nature a sensitive listener, but sometimes I feel ill-equipped to parse emotions, or empathise deeply with a friend who’s in pain. It’s like standing on a diving board and not being able to jump. Even when I make myself vulnerable it can backfire. (Almost every girlfriend I’ve been with was surprised to be nominated Big Spoon for a night.)
I wasn’t born this way. A million little expectations and daily interactions placed a wedge between me and these ‘feminine’ qualities. I’m working to get them back. Some people who were socialised male never lost them. Some never cared they were gone. It takes bravery to be soft in a world that wants you to be so unfeeling.
My relationship with masculinity: it’s complicated
The time I felt most manly, I was jumping up and down on a bed with a group of punks, all of us singing along to Bruce Springsteen. With flushed cheeks and thundering heart, I wanted to know if love is wild, I wanted to know if love is real . . . On reflection, that sounds a little too close to a scene from Bring It On to be an exemplar of manliness.
I’ve spent most of my life flitting between rejecting masculinity . . . to repressing myself and acting how people wanted me to . . . to salvaging the good from masculinity. At the moment I can honestly say each method has its pros and cons. If an inspirational coming out story is waiting in the wings, I’d ask it to hurry up before I get much older.
I’m no expert in gender — you could toss a stone at my friendship group and hit five people more qualified to write about it than me. But I can guarantee I’ve confronted masculinity more than men who, intoxicated by a patriarchal order, uncritically conform to its codes.
Men undermine and attack femininity every day, in everyone else and in themselves. I’ve seen it first-hand, as someone who went out in women’s clothes in a town where men wore either football shirts or fatigues.
In my twenties, I grew a big beard and wore suits. Suddenly people got out of my way when I walked down the street. In conversation, people treated the points I raised as authoritative, even when they were simplistic or meaningless. But over-expressiveness, uncertainty, or vulnerability were met with anything from bemusement to outright homophobia.
It’s not just men who keep other men in check. Mothers, friends, and partners can too. Suggesting a person in pain should ‘man up’. Telling a child to stop crying because boys don’t cry. Assuming bisexual men are secretly gay. Unquestioningly idolising dominance and antagonism in male lovers. Rewarding aggression, punishing sensitivity.
However, this doesn’t mean men can palm the blame off. Because the power structures that keep them in check are the same power structures they often willingly uphold. The same power structures that facilitate the rape and murder of women and LGBT+ people with impunity.
Many men can’t admit those power structures exist, or stop sabotaging people who question whether they should.
As a genderqueer person who was socialised male and is assumed male in many of my interactions, I’m still untangling my own experience of being complicit in patriarchy while suffering under it.
For any man who longs to be one of the ‘good ones’, I suggest reading the excellent Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee. When he asked NYU Professor of Applied Psychology Niobe Way how to be a ‘good man’, she suggested forgetting the question altogether and instead asking: “What are you doing in your life that’s actually keeping the status quo?” or “How are you keeping silent in terms of things you see?”
Over the past decade a wonderful thing has happened
Science and the experiences of trans and non-binary people have begun to replace in the public mind those twin monoliths of gender with a spectrum. The current conversation about whether we’re now ‘turning kids trans’ is backwards. We need to take a closer look at what we do to children to ensure they grow up cisgender and heterosexual regardless of their inner lives.
In the end the haircut didn’t help me. I was a nerd. I was gay. I was whatever excuse the other kids found on any given day. But this innocuous coming of age moment’s message, that presenting femininity was now something to hide, something that won’t be accepted, may have hurt more than the inevitable bullying ever could.
My mum truly loved me and wanted the best for me. She didn’t have the benefit of today’s queer discourse. I have several friends in the midst of bringing up sensitive boys and unshackled girls. Their parenting astounds me and gives me hope.
And for the men who feel it’s already too late: it never is. Ask questions of the women in your life who are willing to honestly answer you. Listen. Educate yourself. Believe women when they talk about abuse. Risk vulnerability even though you may be punished for it.
Don’t just be an ally, be a traitor. As researcher and writer Sidrah Ahmad said circa the appointment of a rapist to the US Supreme Court: “I want you to betray the silent pact that patriarchy makes with you to have your back so long as you don’t make waves. Revolt.”
I’m the founder of Brighton Digital Women and love being able to develop my knowledge by collaborating with other digital Brightonians. I’m a rare born and bred Brightonian and will NEVER leave!
I love to be an active part of Brightons wonderful culture, in particular The Great Escape, Brighton Digital Festival and enjoying a flat white in The Laines whilst listening to the melodic stylings of the birdy whistle man.