When I was fifteen or sixteen, my father asked me if I was gay. As is his way, he didn’t actually ask me. He made a statement intended to elicit a response which would answer the question he really meant to ask. We have issues with communication in my family.
I was cutting the grass, as any teenager raised in the suburbs was responsible for doing and hating. Cutting the grass is stupid. My attitude and body language reflected my feelings about cutting the grass. My father noticed this and made an observation. He said, “you know, you show more enthusiasm for baking than you do cutting the grass.”
I had been baking since I was ten. It was the age my mother picked to start giving lessons in cooking and cleaning because, in her words, she wasn’t going to raise a “trifling man.” My first lesson was chocolate chip cookies. They’re still my favorite to this day.
Baking is awesome. The end result is cookies, cakes, and pies. Cutting the grass is stupid. The end result is smelling like sweat and outdoors. I don’t think it’s hard to pick up on why I would favor one over the other.
But my father thought he was seeing something more, something he didn’t like. I hadn’t thought too much about whether my dad was homophobic, because I was a teenage boy in America and homophobia is the air you breathe.
His whole thing was raising me to be a man. What that meant for him was preparing me to someday be a husband (to a woman) and father. He was often frustrated with me because I showed so little interest in the things that were a part of that training. In order to get me to pay attention and give extra effort, he’d say things like “when you have a wife and kids of your own, you’ll understand why this is important.”
Perhaps the reason I have no interest in getting married or having children is because my dad led me to believe it’d be a cruel nightmare filled with drills and hammers and screwdrivers and wrenches and fixing sinks and unclogging toilets and touching car parts I still don’t know the name of and, of course, mowing lawns. Obviously it’s not the worst thing in the world to be able do these things. I just never made the connection between this stuff and being a good husband/father/man.
I suppose if I were gay, it would have made more sense to my dad why I wasn’t into drills and hammers and lawnmowers and whatnot. For him, that stuff is manly; being gay is not.
That isn’t exactly a revolutionary observation of my father’s ideology, but when I realized what was happening in that baking/grass cutting moment, it raised questions about masculinity and manhood I’m still trying to answer. If I had told him then and there “I’m gay,” would he have stopped trying to teach me all of his “manly” ways? If that’s the case, why wouldn’t it benefit me as a gay man to know how to put a shelf up on a wall or change a tire? And why was he sure my presumably hetero self was going to one day be married and have kids? What does manhood look like when the identity of husband/father isn’t at the center?
That last question is something I grapple with much more as I get older and watch a lot of the men around me get married and have kids, then talk about how that experience has made them men. And it’s not just the traditionalists. I see it among the most progressive of my social circle. They’re on board with redefining masculinity, but only insomuch as it relates to being better husbands to their wives and fathers to their children. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, that’s absolutely necessary. But if we’re only going to redefine it on those terms, who among us gets left out?
Some people I know think we should do away with the concept of masculinity altogether. They think it’s too destructive and not worth redefining. We’d be better off just doing away with the idea. I see where they’re coming from. But I think it’s worth exploring because our conception of masculinity has come to define how so many of us see ourselves in the world. Maybe we can’t save it, but we’d do well to understand just how much damage it has done.
A few years after the lawn mowing incident, my dad awkwardly attempted to bond with me over some homophobic remarks he made about Brokeback Mountain. I guess he figured since I had brought home my first girlfriend that I wasn’t gay and we could get about the business of “being men” together.
We never did work out those communication problems.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.