There have been countless arguments lately regarding issues of what it means to be masculine, of toxic masculinity and of the idea of gender and its role in our queer identity. Also debated is how these constructs fit into our community and our community spaces.
A few months ago my friend DJ Mateo Segade and I created a flyer for a party called Tox-Masc. While it was mostly meant as a joke, we were also commenting on some of the attitudes we’d seen lately. We both work in nightlife, Mateo as a DJ, myself as a door guy at a local leather bar and in the afterhours scene.
We weren’t trying to call anyone specific out, or even zero in on specific parties. What we were trying to do was expose what we think is an inherent problem within our community — the idea that only certain types of masculinity are at a premium, and that anyone who doesn’t fall within the range of what it means to be masculine is somehow “less than,” undesirable or not equal to those who do fall into that spectrum.
What does toxic masculinity mean? I looked it up and found this definition:
“The concept of toxic masculinity as used in psychology refers to traditional cultural masculine norms in American and European society that can be harmful to men, women and society overall. Toxic masculinity is defined by adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express, including social expectations that men seek to be dominant (the “alpha male”) and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger. Contemporary expectations of masculinity can produce such “toxic” effects as violence (including sexual assault and domestic violence), “sexual excess” (promiscuity), excessively risky and/or socially irresponsible behaviors including substance abuse and dysfunction in relationships. The concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance and competition.”
What really stands out to me in this definition is the idea of conformity. Conforming to an idea about who we should be, how we should behave, what our limits are and how we are allowed to express ourselves. This idea of conformity goes against everything I think queerness should be about.
But what does any of this mean for my queer community?
I decided to engage two friends of mine, who take opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue, to uncover how they view toxic masculinity in our community, whether some spaces should be allocated as “men only,” and if so, what does that mean? How do we define that word? And is doing so inherently discriminatory?
Mike* (names have been changed) is a cisgender, self-identified man, and a well-known figure in the gay party scene of Los Angeles, involved with parties known for their “big beefy muscle bear” patrons. August* is a genderqueer performance artist, painter and sculptor who performs in queer nightlife venues around the country. August prefers nongender pronouns to describe themself, claiming neither male nor female identifiers.
“I was born female,” August says to me, sitting at La Colombe Café in Silver Lake. “But that never felt true to who I was. The idea of femininity and masculinity, the societal roles that come with both of those ideals, never felt genuine to who I was. I always felt like I fell somewhere in between the spectrum. Not male. Not female. Just me.”
“I don’t always understand the conversation,” Mike says to me while we eat lunch at The Brite Spot in Echo Park. “I’m a man. I feel that’s self-explanatory. What I also don’t fully understand is why my being a masculine guy has to negate how other people feel about themselves.”
August: “I think we have to separate the ideas of masculinity and toxic masculinity. Masculinity, like femininity, can be a beautiful thing. It can be sexy and loving and fun. I don’t think we have to limit either aspect of who we are. The concern is when we focus too much on one aspect. If our whole lives become about being masculine, and we ignore the sides of us that are feminine, we begin to enter into what I think of as toxic masculinity: aggression, territorial possessiveness, anger, violence, misogyny, abuse. I think the goal is balance. Allowing our opposing sides to soften and heal each other.”
Mike: “I grew up in a big family — four brothers and two sisters. My dad worked and my mom took care of the kids and the house. One of my sisters is married with three kids, and one of them is a lesbian. She’s more masculine than I am. I’m gay, and my youngest brother is also gay. He’s into drag and being feminine. My parents, they love us. They let us be who we are. I think we should all be allowed to be who we want to be. I guess if I were to say what I think this toxic masculinity thing is all about, I’d say it’s when we start telling others how they should be. When we start trying to use strength or dominance to control, or to hold down. Being gay, or queer, is like living in this really big tent with all these different kinds of people. I do believe that it’s the differences that are important. And we should respect those.”
August: “I was recently told I couldn’t enter an ‘all-male’ gay party in Brooklyn. Look at me. I’ve got this beard going, I’m growing more body hair. OK, I still have my tits, but I think I present more of my masculine side than my feminine side right now. But my ID still has my girl name. So even though my friends and I tried to explain to the guy at the door that while my ID says female, that wasn’t how I identified, he wouldn’t let me in. He kept saying it was for ‘men only.’ You have to have a dick to get into that party. Where do people like me fall into gender-specific parties? I’m not male enough or female enough. So does that mean I’m just excluded? My friends and I just left. We went out and we had fun, but I felt bad. Ashamed. I felt not welcome in my own community.”
Mike: “I don’t think it’s wrong to want to have a party that’s just for us. It’s not being exclusive to say that maybe sometimes I want to go out and be around guys only. I’m cool with girls and drag queens and trans people being included; I think that’s important. I want to go to a bar and feel like everyone is welcome, but I also want to go to a party where it’s just for us. Guys who identify as masculine and want to be around other guys. Everyone can have their own parties, and we can have parties that welcome everyone, also. Not everybody has to fit in everywhere. Does that make me anti-woman or transphobic? I don’t think so. I think we need to be careful when we start alienating each other. There needs to be more conversation and less finger-pointing.”
I showed August Mike’s last comments, asking what August thought about this idea that maybe a male-only party was OK. August laughs.
August: “Well, first, let’s be real. We don’t see other parts of our community doing this. We just see the men-only parties. For the most part. And I have to wonder why that is. Is having women or genderqueer people around a threat to them? Do they feel limited in how they can behave? I do agree all the finger-pointing and in-fighting isn’t helping. We need to come together and talk more and fight less. No one wins if we stay divided. My question for him would be, where does someone like me fit in? Does he think I should be included in a ‘male only’ party? Or am I not man enough?”
I asked Mike August’s question, sharing with him August’s story about being turned away at the door in Brooklyn.
Mike: “I don’t know what I think, to be honest. It all used to be clear cut. Now it’s not. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying, I don’t know the answers anymore. I don’t want to exclude someone just because they don’t fit my idea of what a guy is. But where do you draw the line? I guess fuck it, right? Maybe we have to stop drawing lines and re-figure out the game. I don’t know. I do think what is happening is good. I think that it’s important. I just don’t have any answers.”
As for me, I don’t think there are any clear answers yet. But I do agree that as long as we keep fighting with each other we are missing a real opportunity to come together and create something new. Something that allows space for all of us.
By coming together maybe we can heal the aspects of our community that have become toxic and alienated, and realize there is most definitely room for all of us. We are, after all, one community.