Why does it have to be like that?

My son came home and asked if I knew how to play football. Let me start out by saying, I don’t like football, I don’t play football, and I’m not too happy about the violence or view of masculinity that football promotes.  But hey, this is a teachable moment and an opportunity to spend some quality time with my son – I was definitely not going to pass this up. In the middle of conversations about passing, fumbles, and touch downs I asked him why he had never told me he was interested in football before.

His answer shook me to the core:       Because the other kids at P.E. said that I was a Faggot and an F-word idiot if I didn’t play football. They said I wasn’t a real boy and I should go play with the stupid girls because that’s where I belong.

As the tears streamed down his face, I gave him a hug. As I did that I overheard my misogynistic sexist neighbor say to his son: See that’s’ why that boy is turning out gay like that.

After all of these years trying to get people to live peacefully and for there to be equal rights between the genders,  I was right back to where I began; a snot nose kid with my masculinity in question and so was my son.

My mom made sure that respect for women and how you treat women was paramount in my raising. If I didn’t open the door for her or any other women for that matter, I felt her nails across my neck pulling me back to correct my mistake. If I even looked sideways or made a comment that suggested I had any disrespect for women, I was corrected immediately. I learned about the suffrage movement, the loss of feminine power, and the violence men dished out on a steady basis.  All that changed around 7 years old when my mother begins a relationship with a physically verbally abusive man. He was a man’s man: heavy equipment operator, cowboy, welder, hunter, beer drinking, testosterone drunk, male. What I call my “feminist education” immediately screeched to a halt.

Crying, whistling, skipping, caring for animals, feeling bad for people who got hurt, flowers, nature, and anything else that he saw was “like a girl” was eliminated immediately. If I didn’t want to eliminate it, a steady barrage of taunts, and phrases like “you’re a wous”, “little pussy”, bitch, faggot, sissy, and the one I got called the most – “momma’s boy”, flew at me with reckless abandonment. These phrases would follow me through the yard, through the doors, through the walls, and into the fights he would have with my mother about me. According to him, I was the worst kind of boy there was – “a girlie boy”.

After the taunts didn’t work to his satisfaction, the physical attacks began. It began simply enough, a smack on the back to say hello that almost dropped me to my knees. A punch in the arm that pushed four steps away to make sure I got a joke. The “two hits for flinching” game. The “hurts don’t it” game. Then at 10 came the true male education: boxing, football, wrestling and shooting.

 Step 1: Watch the game.  We sit down and I do a lot of watching him drink and yell at the TV. Then we glorify the violence on TV by slapping and hitting each other.

Step 2: Learn the rules while playing the game.  He tells me a small amount of rules of the game, we begin playing and I am advised of the rules as I get hit, beat, and thrown around the yard.  But I must always remember the more violent the better.

Step 3: Shoot and destroy Barbie. This was practice for hunting. If I could destroy Barbie with a dart gun, then I moved up weaponry until I was blasting barbies out of the air with a 12 gauge shotgun.

Throughout this education, good learning and proper manly actions were rewarded with a smack on the back that usually took my breath away and bad learning and actions were chastised with more taunts and intimidation. To put the intimidation into perspective, he was a 6 foot 7 construction worker and I was a 5 foot tall skinny middle school student.

Now my mother was a very strong woman so she added constantly to my education and my understanding of the world; and now that I look back on it all, I see that she said the right things at the right time to make me hear her over all of the “masculine” nonsense. But in her own words, she wanted someone just like her father and for a very long time she was comfortable with all of the abuse. It was like she had finally found the home she had been kicked out of at 15. Her father threw her out of the house by her hair for getting pregnant; ironically she lost the baby because of all of the stress. So she was powerless to stop him and his violence because she saw it as just boys being boys. If she said anything, she was put in her place through taunts, intimidation, and abuse. In the end, she just hugged me and told me she loved me. As much as I had been taught that hugging and lovey stuff was for girls, it was always something I took advantage of when I could get it.

My masculine education ended when I was thrown out of a window for defending another boy. My mother, I, and her boyfriend were sitting in the living room watching TV. It was a week away from my high school graduation and a newsflash came on, back when we got our news and information from the TV and not the internet. Somewhere in the Midwest a high school kid about the same age as I was openly stated he was gay. Now, I had been taught by my mother that “some boys date girls, some boys date boys, and some girls date girls” and that was that. He had never said anything about people that were gay; even though he used all the derogatory words for gay men, I never associated them with people who were gay.  I had always seen who someone dates as their choice and nothing more.  The 18 year old was jumped by a group of guys,  drug behind their pickup truck, tied to a barbed wire fence, peed on and had beer poured all over him. His wounds were so extensive that by the time they found him he had bled to death. It floored me that someone could be so cruel.

“That’s what he deserved. That’s what they should do with all them fudge packers. Damn faggots!” was the words that came out of his mouth. I can hear them as clearly now 20+ years later as that night. I spoke up, yelled, screamed, and the fight was on. In the end, I landed in a pile of glass outside my living room, and he landed himself in a drunk tank for 3 days. I left my house and all that behind till I was staring in the face of a little girl and a book mark.

At age 33, I was a divorcee, the proud father of an awesome daughter, and starring at a book mark that was being held by my girlfriend. As my small child stood there smiling, my girlfriend read off the things that were on this book mark that she said described me. As she read them, I informed her of why I did the things I did.

“tries to control me” – No I don’t. I just know the way to do things better than you do.

“is possessive” – that’s’ what dating is about. You are MY girlfriend.

“makes all decisions” – Because I know the right decisions and you don’t. If you did it would be different.

“keeps me from seeing my friends and family” – They annoy me, so if I keep them away from US. Plus, every time you go see them they say horrible things about me.  You don’t see my friends doing that, do you? Plus, why wouldn’t you want to hang out with me instead?

“always blames me” – Stop doing things to be blamed for them.

“minimizes things that are going on” – That’s because you’re an emotional  girl and make too much of things.

“threatens to leave me if I don’t do what I’m told” – Yeah, if we’re not getting along then the relationship isn’t working. Duh!

“makes me cry” – You’re a girl…an emotional mess. You decide to cry. I don’t make you do anything.

Then she read the bottom: If you recognize any of these warning signs, you are probably in a abusive relationship. She looked at me and said, guess what you’re an abuser. What? How did this happen? The one thing I was trying to avoid. The one thing I was running away from. How did I get here?  Then my daughter saw that I was getting angry and started crying. I yelled, “Stop crying. You have nothing to cry about! Crying is stupid!”  She cried more and I yelled more. I walked past the mirror and there I was – the exact man I never wanted to be.

My 3 year old cried herself to sleep and I later went in to check on her. As she lay there with her tear stained pillow and cheeks I picked up a pink Barbie notebook filled with scribbles and flipped to a blank page. I began writing down the characteristics of the type of man I wanted my little girl to marry. I wanted her to marry a man just like me, but the characteristics I put down were not the man I was. They were the man I could have been. They were of the man I wanted me to be. That night the girlfriend left, and I am glad she did. Her parents raised her right; raised her to see when she was in an abusive relationship, even if it didn’t involve physical violence. I think the bookmark was all she needed to remind her of whom she was and where she didn’t need to be. My life and the way I lived it changed that night.

I hugged my little boy tighter and tighter. I pulled him close to me and gave him a great big kiss, all the things that the “bro code” says I’m not supposed to do to a man or a boy. As his face smooshed into my chest, I cried. I cried because I knew where he was. I cried because I knew how he felt on that school field. I cried because he would have to go through all of this and it’s not any easier looking on this side of growing up then his side. I cried because he should be allowed to be exactly that wonderful, imperfect boy he is; the same boy we all are. I cried because I don’t want him to be judged or pushed into thinking a certain way.  I cried because no matter what I say to him, his peers will push, punch, and yell louder.  I cried because this isn’t the first time he has been judged for his masculinity. I cried because his sisters will be forced to be with men like those boys that made him hurt, and they will hurt them.  I cried because I wish I had a Dad like me. I cried because it doesn’t have to be this way.

But I honestly wonder why does this exist? Why is it that men need to live in this shell of violent masculinity? Why do so many men see this as the right way to be? Why do so many men uphold this power and control driven way of being? Why must men force other men to be “just like them”? Where did men see this as the right way of being?  I’m fortunate to have seen firsthand what boys experience unconsciously and there is a need to prevent this type of brain washing and sexist socialization.

No, I don’t have all the answers. No, I don’t even have the answers to all of my questions.   But I do know a solution; a solution that all of us men can use. I took hold of my son’s shoulders and we wiped each other’s tears away. I told him what he needed to do:

You need to be a real man! A real man has empathy for others, feels his emotions, and wants to help others in trouble no matter what that trouble is. Real men look for ways to promote nonviolence and uplift all people. Real men look for solutions to the problems the world is having right now. Real men don’t bully, demean, or use violence; those things have never helped the world. Real men educate other men about respect, kindness and empathy. Remember, respect is treating others how THEY want to be treated, as long as it’s not violent. Real men stand up for what is right, even when everyone else is doing the wrong thing.  Real men use their knowledge and their strength to help and assist women, not lead and control them.  As we walked into the house I pondered the questions I still hadn’t answered. But you know, if all men stood up, spoke up, and began being a “real man” – I wonder if those questions wouldn’t become obsolete….I’d like to think so.

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