I had to learn how to walk again.
I hadn’t suffered a traumatic brain injury or spinal cord damage. I hadn’t woken up from a yearlong coma. I had a far worse affliction—I wasn’t manly enough.
At 12 years old, I bounced around everywhere on the tips of my toes. My heels seldom touched the cement on the sidewalk. But walking on my toes wasn’t masculine enough for my father. I suppose all my bouncing around had downgraded me from aspiring man to hopeless fairy.
We stood together in the parking lot of the Base Exchange, engaged in a serious lesson about walking. He showed me, slowly so I wouldn’t miss a thing, how his heel hit the ground first. Then the ball of his feet rolled forward across the ground until his toes made contact. Heel toe. Heel toe. Got it?
It was awkward for me, and I stumbled a bit at first, sliding back into my toe-heel pattern without noticing. He was quick to correct me. But after a few run-throughs, I had it down. Heel toe. Heel toe.
Was I a man yet?
‘No homo’ has to be one of the dumbest phrases I’ve heard in my life. It’s just awkward to say, always tagged on to the end of a sentence as an afterthought. “I love you, man, no homo.”
But sentence structure aside, the reason for this phrase’s existence is what really makes it dumb. Any time straight men feel the need to reassert their heterosexuality, they slide in a ‘no homo’ to assure all those within earshot know they’re still, indeed, straight men. Because showing affection for another man, even in verbal form, is only something women and gay men do. You can’t tell your best friend that you love him and still be a man. It’s as though RuPaul shows up to kidnap you into a gay world filled with unicorns, glitter, and wigs. Every time a straight man shows emotion, a drag queen gets her wings. That’s just absurd.
Though ‘no homo’ seems like an early 2000s thing, it’s actually been around longer than a lot of the morons who say it. It first popped up in the late 90s in hip hop. Because there wasn’t already a ton of toxic masculinity floating around in rap. Rappers needed a catchier way to slide homophobia into everyday conversation.
Bless The Lonely Island for satirizing the shit out of this with their 2014 single, “No Homo”.
“I like the way your shoulders fill out that shirt. No homo.
It’s hard to pull off but you make it work. No homo.
Hey yo I kinda like your natural scent. No homo.
Hey yo I kinda like the musical Rent. No homo.”
(it’s worth a listen. I dare you to get through it without laughing just a little bit.) The “men” who use this phrase are clinging so desperately to an antiquated version of masculinity. So desperately it makes you wonder what would happen if they let go.
We don’t need to look far to see the results of unchecked masculinity. The constant need to control the flow of the conversation. The child-like desire to be heard over everyone else. The refusal to admit wrongdoing. The lack of willingness to let bygones be bygones. The unhinged responses to criticism. You know who I’m talking about. He has an unflattering orange tan, sticks out his bottom lip as though he’s in a constant state of pout, and has very little knowledge about the very important job he’s doing.
Is this what masculinity is supposed to be? Tyrannical? Insensitive? Cowardly? Straight up crazy? I sorta kinda get how walking on my heels factors into the whole masculinity equation. But acting like a high school bully during a steroid-induced mood swing? I don’t get that. I know that’s not what it means to be a man.
But it’s not just him. If there was only one bad man out there, phrases like mansplaining wouldn’t be part of the lexicon. And we wouldn’t need a weekly series from The Cut to show us all the very public examples of when, where, and why it’s happening. Like ‘no homo’, the act of mansplaining was born out of this very juvenile need to assert masculinity. But instead of tying it to one’s sexuality, masculinity, in this context, is tied to a man’s ability to be the expert. The only authority. The final say. In other words, a nightmare boss or peer who’d rather be misinformed and fail than be corrected by a woman and win.
In boardrooms all over America, “men” are mansplaining and discrediting women to boost their egos. Why, why, why is masculinity so often linked to a feeling of superiority? And why, why, why are these same guys claiming mansplaining is a feminist term used to justify wrong answers from women? Like, seriously, WTF?
So, what is masculinity anyway?
“Possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men.” Thanks Google. That’s like defining cowardly as “behaving like or possessing the qualities of a coward”. I get it but what is a coward?
Synonyms for masculinity are listed as virility, machismo, vigor, strength, muscularity, and ruggedness. Okay. We’re getting somewhere. Being a man is about having the ability to procreate (something that’s natural and takes no talent), being strong (even though women can be strong too), having muscles (women can have those as well), and being rugged. And let’s not forget walking on your heels. I’m sure leaving that out was just a careless mistake. No wonder guys don’t get it. They think being a man is tied to having a penis and exerting brute strength. If you take those things away, this definition and these synonyms are useless. But that’s not the case for actual men.
There’s a modern man out there who’s multifaceted. Esquire knows this man and described him in great detail in 2015. To be clear, this man does not say ‘no homo’, he doesn’t mansplain, and he doesn’t throw tantrums.
A few samples:
“A man owns up. A man grasps his mistakes. He lays claim to who he is, and what he was, whether he likes them or not.”
“A man welcomes the coming of age. It frees him. It allows him to assume the upper hand and teaches him when to step aside.”
Yes, ALL of this.
“A man resists formulations, questions belief, embraces ambiguity without making a fetish out of it. A man revisits his beliefs. Continually. That’s why men won’t forever line up with conservatives, either.”
To me, it sounds like a man is an adult. There’s nothing in these descriptions about having a dick, moving heavy things, or speaking over other people. The man described in this Esquire article sounds fully formed. Like the kind of adult most parents want their little boys to become. Sure, there’s some points in there about knowing how to use tools and shit like that. But no stereotypical points are driven home. Nothing mentioned pulls away from the overall meaning that a man isn’t defined by physical traits. He is indeed defined by the quality of his character. It sounds like something lifted from a political speech but that’s true.
And if this earth-shattering breakdown isn’t enough for you, there’s a new modern man taking up space in all the think pieces. This modern man was seemingly born to destroy clichés. He talks about his feelings in an unironic way, he dances Zumba, he sometimes wears concealer (and he’ll tell you where to buy his favorite brand), and he likes to cook dinner (and doesn’t mind doing the dishes). Elite Daily calls him the Millennium Man. He sounds like someone I’d be friends with.
Masculinity is a dated construct that needs to be destroyed, just like the people who harp on it the most. The word ‘masculinity’ is not so easy to define, and we all need to stop being so rigid about it. A woman can exhibit masculine traits and that’s okay. A man can exhibit feminine traits and that’s okay. A trans man is a man. A man who loves men is still a man. A straight male who talks to his other straight male friends about how much he loves them is still a man. Who you fuck and what you have between your legs don’t make you a man. For the record, there are plenty of straight males out there who have penises and sleep with lots of women but have the emotional maturity of a 10-year-old.
To be a man is to possess a state of mind, to be proud of and stand up for what you believe in, but also to have an open mind. To love and accept others and be confident enough in yourself (your beliefs, your sexuality, your destiny) to let everyone else feel proud about their beliefs too. Being a man isn’t just about the manly things you do or the manly way you do them. It’s about what you intrinsically believe and how you use those beliefs to affect others. It’s understanding that affecting others doesn’t mean punching, pushing, or taunting them. It simply means letting them live.
And in case you were wondering, I’m a very proud heel-toe walker today. But that, in no way, shape, or form, is tied to my identity. I’d be just as much of a man if I still bounced around on my toes.