Toxic masculinity is the subject of much discussion in our radical self-love community. Fashioning a new masculinity that counters and dismantles its toxic counterpart is an essential element in our our fight against cis-hetero-patriarchy. We’re making great strides by having these discussions, and as masculine people, by seeking to embrace accountability. We’re posing many critical questions, and among other things many of us have come to ask ourselves, “What is healthy masculinity? Does it even exist? Is it at all possible to fashion a new masculinity, or is masculinity a lost cause?”
However toxic masculinity may tend to be, it is a natural variation in human gender expression. We can no more eradicate masculinity than we can queerness, for example. To suppress or manipulate, diminish or demonize masculinity itself is dehumanizing to trans and cis men, transmasculine, masculine-of-center, androgynous people, and more.
For this reason, I choose to work from the assumption a healthy masculinity can be found.
Yet my own quest for a healthy masculinity has been, I think, uniquely conflicted. I am someone who experiences both masculinity and femininity very strongly simultaneously, an androgyne. For me, toxic masculinity generates a profound and vicious internal conflict. All that is degrading and abusive about my masculinity is felt firsthand by my female self. It’s excruciatingly polarizing, and puts me in a state in which I am my own worst oppressor. It’s gender chaos.
It makes me wonder whether part of why so many people struggle with these concepts is because they tend to identify so staunchly with one gender or another, but rarely as two or more, even over time. I assert myself as an androgynous person, experiencing femaleness and maleness simultaneously. As such I feel that the backs and forths of this issue play out internally for me, and I ask myself if the duality of my experience can offer any insight on our questions.
In my effort to identify a healthy masculinity for myself, I do a lot of reflection. I seek out people who can validate my masculinity while still holding me accountable. With that intent, I recently attended a discussion group the focus of which was this very topic. It was hosted by Trans:Thrive, a San Francisco-based “LGBTQ and people of color health organization”. They have a regular inclusive transmasculine meetup, and this time we were gathered to discuss themes of toxic masculinity as it relates to trans identities.
It felt great to see a diversity of masculine people (though all of us were close in age) coming together to actively work at this problem, a real sense that there was the potential for community. Some excellent thoughts were thrown around. But there was one point in particular where the group stalled.
Folks seemed pretty ubiquitously comfortable saying what a healthy masculinity isn’t. It’s not related to traditionally gendered traits or activities. It’s not defined by one’s sexuality. It’s not down to body type or genitalia. It’s not a matter of honor or chivalry. But, if it’s not those things then what is it?
What is masculinity? We were asked this question, and it was met with silence.
That’s fine, in itself. But then there was a follow-up: Is it possible to define masculinity without relating it to femininity? Can femininity and masculinity be defined independently of one another? The group was uncertain. Some people flat out said, “No.” No one gave a firm “Yes”.
This was intriguing and odd to me. Even though folks were entirely unable or unwilling to define masculinity itself at all, they were certain that whatever it is, it has to do with femininity.
I left the group feeling good about the connections I had made, but unsettled on this point in particular. I realized just how immense the void left by this problem must be. If we don’t know how to talk about masculinity independent of femininity, then what hope do we have of destroying patriarchy and smashing the gender-binary?
The problem is that even if we’re not saying that masculinity and femininity are opposites, when we define them in relation to one another, we suggest that they occupy different, but connected definitional space. But I don’t think that’s true, and it implies a degree of exclusivity that I don’t think is reflective of reality. Anything I can think of that is commonly defined as masculine either shouldn’t be gendered at all or could just as easily be interpreted as feminine.
I feel like my entire being is an illustration of that concept.
Because I experience masculinity and femininity simultaneously, I feel like I am living proof that in fact they can be defined independently of one another. If they were even the slightest bit exclusive, I couldn’t be as powerfully, gloriously androgynous as I am. I am living proof that they are independent and overlapping.
Aspects of myself that I sometimes identify as masculine, at other times I interpret them as feminine. Most often I identify them as both at the same time. Yet the traits themselves never change. Therefore, I think of masculinity and femininity both as fluid, and as overlapping. Male and female can occupy the same exact parameters and still be different. The expressions of my genders can be identical in every single way, and yet my genders themselves are still different. There’s only one factor that matters in determining which is which, and that’s how I feel about it.
More Radical Reads: Undoing the “Manly” Myth: My 5 Steps to Finding a Healthy Masculinity
Shaping a masculinity that is anti-binary brings us to a place where masculinity – where all gender – is free to be understood subjectively. That’s a big win in the face of patriarchy, which relies on the continued imposition of externally enforced gender constructs to generate its hierarchies. Robbing people of their rights to gender autonomy, to self-determination, to explore their genders on their own terms, and to define their genders for themselves, is essential to the ongoing functioning of patriarchy.
It’s not limited to the misogynistic tendencies of people to tell women and femmes what is and isn’t feminine; how they should or shouldn’t express femininity; what is and isn’t respectable, and so on. Patriarchy also generates toxic masculinity by imposing restrictive definitions of what is and isn’t masculine. And most often, whatever is masculine cannot be feminine and visa versa.
We have to make space in our efforts toward radical self-love for understanding and embracing all the healthy shapes that our masculinities can take.
That means first allowing them to develop.
We must be demanding in our reforms, but must also leave room for that same natural variation that exists in all of us. Placing parameters on masculinity that prevent systemic harm is imperative, but beyond that masculine people must be free to define their genders for themselves.
Our new masculinity, the masculinity of radical self love, must be anti-binary.
It cannot be defined in relation to femininity, even non-oppositionally. In fact, it cannot be defined from the outside at all. It’s on each masculine person to find an understanding of their gender identities that doesn’t rely on toxic patriarchal constructs. Our new masculinity must recognize itself and all other gender expression as being absolutely subjective.