The amazing, American Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, counsels us to run to the things that scare us. Don’t run away, she says, because our spiritual/emotional growth depends upon us dealing with our fears. I’m doing just that shortly, confronting one of my fears.
Since childhood, I have been exceedingly cautious around straight boys and men. Some of them scared me, not only because I knew that secretly I represented what they grew up hating, but also because I found a few of them emotionally unpredictable, especially in their teens. Straight boys seemed capable of doing any number of irrational things, such as starting fights, picking on the weak and unliked, laughing loudly behind people’s backs, and running together as a pack. Macho straight guys, or their sycophants, were threats to my physical and emotional safety.
“Hoods,” “greasers” and “juvenile delinquents,”were the names of “bad boys” in my youth. But, bullying could also result because the guy was richer and looked down on you, or poorer and resented your family’s “wealth.”
You never knew what might get them focused on you – how you carried your books, being animated, having dandruff. They could be the cop, coach, or cleric who had authority over you, and at who’s mercy you needed to rely. If you were gay, you always worried they could see through your mask, and know you were a vulnerable “sissy.” What do we do about macho and insecure men, and the residual fear we have of them?
The Mankind Project is a global “personal development program” for men, that offers “life-changing experiential training and support” to help men find their masculine selves and assume leadership in service to their loved ones and their communities. I’ve signed up for the New Warrior Training which promises to fundamentally alter my experience of manhood.
I decided to sign up because I’ve heard nothing but good things about the training from gay men whose opinions I value, such as Joe Kort and Bill Konigsberg. But it was suggested that I go to the gay weekend warrior initiation, not the straight one. I know that I’d be more comfortable being with gay men, processing our shared feelings and challenges to growth.
But, I don’t want to be comfortable, with relatively so little time to have more life-enhancing experiences. Why go if it’s a gay retreat where I know I’d relax, laugh, sleep, and understand the language that described the obstacles to self-actualization? I’m 71-years-old, and before I die I want to confront one of the biggest ball and chains I drag around behind me.
Maybe it’s possible for me not to initially be instinctively cautious around straight men.
I know lots and lots of heterosexual men who didn’t automatically scare me, but most of them weren’t or aren’t macho. Does “masculinity” get defined by machismo? It seems so from looking at a distance at football players and coaches, cops, Marines, Army enlistees, prisoners, and gang members, among others.
To be clear, I don’t fear or dislike straight men, per se. Straight men and women occupy many of the seats closest to my heart. And, I’m aware that many straight men will say that they feared other straight men as much as I did. Just being a nice guy, or the student with the highest grades, made them the prey of insecure straight boys too.
But for gay men, it’s different. Most teachers and parents would step in and punish a straight boy for bullying the skinny kid who wore glasses. But, we gay boys worry it will be OK to kick and punch us because we are allegedly vermin in the eyes of God.
We’re less than men. We’re traitors to our sex. Even if we repent and live chaste, celibate lives, we are not free of mockery and disgust. “Kill a queer for Christ,” the bumper sticker and pins instruct. So, the fear of public derision and physical assault were a bit more intense if you were gay than if you were the nerdy scholar who had his books dumped in the hallways of his high school.
My biggest challenges during this warrior in training weekend will be: Not assuming I will feel separate because I’m gay, listening to the straight men without judgment, holding my own as a gay man, and not changing anything about myself in order to fit in.
What I hope to get out of the weekend is resolution on feeling the odd man out when I’m among straight men. Maybe that’s not possible. Can a black man ever lose the feeling of being different when he’s surrounded by white men? I don’t want my defenses to go up when I first encounter macho straight men. And I don’t want to assume that “macho” means “mean.”
Am I looking for approval and acceptance? No. I’d say I’m looking for freedom from the memories of my youth when I was so afraid of what straight men could do to me. I haven’t felt that fear since I came out at age 26 in 1974, but it’s echoes are still there. I know I still could be victimized by some straight men, but my fear is dissipated in large part because I own myself, and I found my voice. I was publicly very successful as a gay man because I didn’t show fear, and because I had a huge community of support, made up of gay, bisexual, and straight people. But fear still runs through my memories, and it affects me.
We’ll see. I’ll report back.