Society treats masculinity as a given, and it ostracizes those who can’t be easily labeled. But what if our dear picture of masculinity is flawed and limited? As Junior explains, “Everyone who was in charge of showing me what a man was failed at it miserably. So, I’ve embraced figuring it out on my own terms.” Perhaps it’s time we relied on people like Junior to not only defy the status quo, but help us re-imagine a more inclusive vision of manhood, entirely.
I was born in Africa, so there are a few differences culturally from America. I was raised by a single parent—my mother—without a male figure anywhere. Having experienced that, it made me feel like my mom was superwoman because I never saw her depending on anyone but herself, working tirelessly to raise three kids.
She took everything off of her back to make sure we had something to eat, which made me have little respect for men and a lot of respect for women. I developed some resentment toward the men who watched women work super hard but never offered to help out. That had a lot to do with how they viewed masculinity.
“Real men” in my culture had scars on their bodies. They didn’t care about getting hurt. You had to be aggressive. Every game you were a part of, you had to go for it and you weren’t allowed to ever be afraid. For example, in soccer, you would play and couldn’t be afraid of getting injured. I wasn’t like that. I was always cautious of getting hurt. So, to some people, I wasn’t considered masculine enough.
Another important part of being a man was to disrespect women. You couldn’t value them, and that’s something I didn’t appreciate it. When other guys talked ill of women, you were supposed to laugh and entertain the conversation, but I wouldn’t. A lot of them had such a low appreciation of a woman’s value in society besides bearing kids and cooking at home.
You were also expected to have sex at a very young age with women, even though you didn’t know what you were doing. At that age, I already knew that I liked guys, which made me even more reluctant to participate in those acts.
“Real men” in my culture had scars on their bodies. They didn’t care about getting hurt. You had to be aggressive. Every game you were a part of, you had to go for it and you weren’t allowed to ever be afraid.
I relocated to America when I was 15, but it wasn’t because I wanted to. I was taken away from my birth mother by my dad because he said he could give us a better life. So, he brought us to the states where we started high school. Being raised by my mom and then suddenly having to be around my father felt abnormal and very tense. He hadn’t been around my entire life at that point, yet I was forced to live with him as if he’d been there all along.
In my dad’s household, I wasn’t considered masculine because I worried about washing my face at night. Plus, I watched TV shows like That’s So Raven, so I was made fun of. I didn’t do a lot of physical activities because I was so focused on getting good grades. I was also very sensitive, which wasn’t considered a manly trait. Because I held so much inside when it came to my emotions, when I did get mad, I really lost it.
Emotions eventually ended up coming out when I started bumping heads with my father and stepmother as I got closer to 18. Since being brought there, I had to pay rent, even though I was a minor, which was very challenging. Plus, even though I paid rent, I still had restrictions and chores, even though I didn’t do anything at the house or eat. At first, I obeyed and complied. But slowly I began to feel rebellious. I felt like I was being taken advantage of and that I needed to finally speak up for myself.
When I did, my father and I got into a physical altercation, and that’s when I realized I could never show emotions to them. He punched me a couple of times in my mouth to the point that I couldn’t eat solid food for a couple of weeks, and that ended up being my motivation to get out of that space. When I actually moved out, they were on vacation. So when they came back, I wasn’t there.
Moving away made them realize that they messed up, especially my dad because he had an opportunity to build a relationship with me, but he didn’t. I was already distant because we didn’t even communicate. They eventually realized that and started to reach back out to me, but I didn’t feel I needed them to validate my emotions because I really didn’t care.
Eventually, my stepmother and I did mend that relationship and became very close before she passed away. Once I moved out, she went above and beyond just to restore a relationship with me. It got to the point where I would be on the phone with her for hours a day. She was really there for me emotionally.
When I [finally stood of for myself], my father and I got into a physical altercation… He punched me a couple of times in my mouth to the point that I couldn’t eat solid food for a couple of weeks.
I felt like I she realized I was a kid and felt bad about what happened. She helped me realize it was okay to be emotional by apologizing and revisiting those issues with me by having honest conversations about what happened and why things happened the way they did. After having done that, we decided on how to move forward. I actually ended up telling her that I loved her and she was one of the most influential women in my life, besides my birth mother.
I do talk to my father and, as I’m older, I do realize that you only get one dad. I’ve come to the terms that he is different and will always be so. But I do see him making an effort to establish an emotional relationship that he never did before. We speak on the phone, laugh, and have dinner. I’m still not able to have an emotional relationship because we don’t have that kind of connection yet, but we do have a relationship.
I’ve learned it’s okay to forgive people’s mistakes because we all make them. As long as we can learn and be positive about them, they can improve our future. These experiences made me realize I’m very emotional as a person and there’s a reason for it. But there’s also a way to manage them to the point that I’m not letting them get the best of me.
I’ve realized that I don’t necessarily feel that I need to be a man—or the kind of man based on society’s definition. I feel I should be a human being first—the kind of person that I want to share my life with. I’ve accepted that sometimes I don’t want to be rough. Sometimes I want to be cuddled with.
In my head, I push back against society’s version of masculinity and I see myself as a gay guy who is looking to find peace within himself. All of the experiences that shaped what I thought was a man were not positive. They were all negative, so I dislike that mindset and related stereotypes. Everyone who was in charge of showing me what a man was supposed to be failed at it miserably. So, I’ve embraced figuring it out on my own terms.
When it comes to being a man, the one thing I’ve struggled with is developing relationships with other men. I have no problem being vulnerable with others, but when it is with someone I’m dating, it’s not as organic as when I’m talking to a friend. That’s why I tend to value my friendships over my romantic relationships.
For some reason, it’s hard for me to understand a guy. I struggle with getting to a space where people agree with everything for the most part and feel you are meant to be together. I feel like sometimes I want to be with someone and most of the time I don’t because I’m so self-reliant because I grew up with a single parent doing everything by herself. I never saw her with a guy, and I feel like that’s something I need to get over. I’m starting to learn it’s okay to be reliant on someone else and have them support you on the emotional level.
I believe the foundation of any relationship is built upon trust. It’s like trusting someone with your life. But it’s such a gamble in these modern times with so many things you need to be concerned about. There’s the emotional and the physical, which makes it hard to truly trust someone with your heart. I feel like I always have to trust at least 50% of myself in those moments when you need to give over 75%. So, that gets complicated, but I’m working on it.
In my head, I push back against society’s version of masculinity and I see myself as a gay guy who is looking to find peace within himself…. Everyone who was in charge of showing me what a man was supposed to be failed at it miserably. So, I’ve embraced figuring it out on my own terms.