Redefining What Makes a Man a MAN

Eligible bachelors for the ladies.

Big guns, whether we’re talking massive biceps or massive firepower, don’t make a man any more of a man. Masculinity is prized in our culture, but it’s a confusing prize. The men who look like he-men are actually gay, and the men who consider themselves “men’s men” are not. Gay that is. The women I’m friendly with tell me the straight men who are still available don’t know how to define themselves as anything other than out of shape and possessing no sense of style or personal hygiene–let alone mentioning the things that matter, but we’ll get to that. Thus the gene pool is littered with couch potato sports fans, some of whom are clinging to guns while only marginally aware of the phallic significance those tools possess. I’ve been reflecting on a book I wrote years ago, but never made any effort to publish. I’ve given it the working title of Unclaimed Freight as it is also unfinished. Excerpted below are some passages that came back into my mind, dealing with masculinity rather than guns. But I consider the two to have a closely intertwined relationship in our culture. The book excerpt is in blue. The names of the people involved have been changed:

What is presumably one of a pair of big guns.

It’s no secret that I’m a gay man, born in 1950 – best to get that out of the way right up front in case anyone wants to begin dissecting my masculinity or lack thereof even before I’ve had my chance to speak. At my age, I’m comfortable in my own skin, but as a high school kid in the 1960s, I was not. I remember the football players cutting up before Spanish class when the teacher was running late. They were prancing around, led by Jake O’Swaggerty, who was the star quarterback. He and the jocks were feigning limp wrists and lisping in an exaggerated Castilian accent imitating our teacher’s foreign accent and lilting voice. Our Spanish teacher was an immigrant from Poland, so we were learning Castilain Spanish with a Polish accent, but in the our unruly classroom, no one was learning anything, so it didn’t really much matter. The teacher insisted that we all assume Spanish names during class. For example, he was Señor Volenskia, and I was addressed as “Guillermo.” Señor Volenskia was a very refined (and dare I say it) effeminate man who dressed like a dandy. During this pre-class episode of horseplay, I was doing my best to dissolve into my desk lest I draw attention to myself and have the ridicule turn my way.

The more I hid however, the more attention I drew to myself, so in desperation and self-defense, I stooped to joining in the melee. I did a rather accurate imitation of our teacher rolling his R’s, tripping my tongue against the roof of my mouth and letting out  a staccato “A-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r” to the tremendous amusement of the football team and other classmates. They loved it, and insisted I do it again. I was off the hook as the object of ridicule but had inadvertently placed myself center stage when Señor Volenskia suddenly entered the room having heard far more than we realized. He sharply clapped his hands together twice like an enraged Polish flamenco dancer and said, “Tell us, Guillermo what it is that you are finding so amusing about me?” I was dumbstruck. “Tell me at once, or you will go to the principal’s office.”

In a squeaky little voice I said, pausing, “The way you roll your R’s, Señor kind of makes me laugh.” Señor Volenskia widened his eyes with rage. He addressed me and the entire class while I stood frozen in place. “All of you silly children think that I am a sissy! A panty-waist! None of you know anything and probably never will. A man is courage and integrity. Not football or sexual prowess. Go back to your seat, Guillermo and stay there after the bell!” There were tears filling my eyes as the truth, pain and embarrassment of what he had just said pierced through me.

After class, Señor Volenskia made me get to work and roll my R’s repeatedly. We then practiced phrases for the following day’s lessons, one of which was: “Los tocco discos es descompuesto.” Which I believe roughly means “my record player is broken” or something to that effect. Taking off his cuff-links, he pushed up his sleeves and grilled me while correcting my pronunciation over and over. He caught my eyes resting on the pink triangle tattooed on his left wrist with the line of numbers on his forearm. He quickly tugged down his sleeve, and dismissed me. Life was not going to be easy, and that was my real lesson for the day. I had missed study hall, and had to proceed directly to gym class.

Classic J. C. Leyendecker illustration of the quintessential football hero.

Gym teachers liked to make fat boys like me, hang limp with defeat on rings and ropes attached to the ceiling. They relished forcing us to leap over leather-upholstered horses and other useless apparatus. They lived to hurl weighted medicine balls at us just to see us fall over backwards, but nothing made their day like wrestling. Wrestling meant that they could match boys by weight class. At fourteen years old I tipped-in at roughly the same weight as an apartment piano.

I was paired with Jake O’Swaggerty the aforementioned quarterback of the football team. Now as delighted as I was to have Jake O’Swaggerty breathing close to my face and crawling all over me, it never really lasted quite long enough. Nine tenths of a second and I was pinned. (I was actually pinned by the quarterback of the football team, and here I didn’t even know we were dating). The romance generally lasted only a painful fraction of a second, but what was pain when there was love and lust in my eyes?

That’s me to the far left, the dazed looking fat kid at my brother’s college graduation.

Showers came next. Everyone was forced to shower—naked that is. Some poor souls who hadn’t yet sprouted pubic hair tried to shower with their underpants on, but there was no way of avoiding the ridicule and shame. My problem wasn’t a lack of pubic hair, my problem was the the Lord in his infinite wisdom had seen fit to cause my pubic hair to sprout-out as Safety-Signal-Orange. “Please God, let the earth swallow me whole,” I’d pray as I paraded my fat pasty ass past handsome naked boys, snapping their towels at me calling out “hey nature boy, look at the burning bush!” I further prayed that I wouldn’t pop an erection and be killed. This was counterbalanced by a darker prayer where I would pop and erection and be killed. Either way it was pure undiluted hell. I could hardly wait for gym class to end just to go home and lapse into my dazed adolescent hormonal nod of listlessness and television.

Jake O’Swaggerty lived a few doors away from me, and delighted in tackling me on my own front lawn when I least expected it. He’d pin me down for much longer periods of time when there wasn’t a gym teacher around with a stopwatch. He’d pin me down breathing in my face and holding me in place with his massive toned body. Every part of me hurt—the Indian-burn he’d be giving my wrists and the pulled muscles straining in my helpless limbs. “Say ‘uncle’ ya’ fat little creep!” he’d demand, but I’d refuse. How else could I keep him lying on top of me? Eventually he’d let me go, dimly believing that even though I had no physical strength, I had endurance for whatever he could dish out. The minute I was free I’d run into the house and lock myself in the bathroom and relish the moment privately. Use your imagination.

This went on for several months until Jake O’Swaggerty decided that I was made of tougher stuff than muscle. One day he tackled me from the back pushing my face and belly down into the grass using all his weight and strength to restrain me. He berated me with insults breathing venom into my ear grinding his body into mine to keep me from struggling. I felt a stiffening in Jake’s loins, and he suddenly realized what was happening to him too. He drew back from me and spit down the side of my face, and called me a faggot. He climbed off my back and ran home, never to acknowledge my existence ever again. Just as well, I hate long goodbyes.

Another stylish bachelor displaying his penis extender. Clearly it’s been quite a while since he’s been able to see past his man-belly to have a gander at his own little button mushroom.

But today, relentlessly straight men aren’t by and large, physically fit like Jake O’Swaggerty. Being physically fit has become associated with gayness for so many men. But the dynamic of lording power over someone weaker than themselves hasn’t changed. In my recollections, Jake, the stereotypical jock, while admittedly still young was completely insecure about his masculinity, which is why he was a bully. My effeminate teacher had endured and survived challenges in life few of us could ever begin to understand which are the very things which made him a man. These days men need dangerous toys and inane “stand your ground” laws to bolster their waning stranglehold on the world around them. Which brings me to the point I’m trying to make: I believe that smart and secure men aren’t threatened by the existence of gay people or powerful women. But I suspect that men born with a sense of entitlement and a belief that the world inherently belongs exclusively to their gender, are very unsettled by the increasingly progressive era in which we live. The “old boys club’ is threatened. And nowhere is that threat more evident than in the inevitable emasculation of the NRA. Men have mostly controlled the world throughout history. The word is, after all HIStory and not HERstory. It’s time for that to change. Guns, fast cars and big muscles (or bellies) seem to give some men a false sense of entitlement. Granted, you see a similar dynamic at play in certain women, but nowhere is it more evident than in male mental weaklings who require props like guns, cars and brutish behavior to bolster a subconscious denial that they might not be a real man. A real man is gentle, understanding and tolerant, and therein resides his strength. A real man shows courage in the face of adversity without falling victim to prejudice or false prophets.

A real man (I’m talking to you John Hinckley, Jr.) doesn’t need to shoot Ronald Regan to impress Jody Foster only to discover she’s been gay all along—and he was barking up the wrong tree, even if she’d been straight. A real man will find every possible remedy to avoid violence. Preemptive violence is the sole property of cowards and fools. Beat-up or shoot someone you disagree with, or don’t understand, then you’ve broadcast yourself to be a ‘natural born loser.’ Kill an innocent, and you lose your standing as a man. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi. Now that, was a real man.

– Dissociated Press, 1/22/2013

And now for some gratuitous self-promotion, I have a book coming out in spring.

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5 thoughts on “Redefining What Makes a Man a MAN

  1. Ah… memories. It wasn’t so much different in the 1980’s, either. Same dynamic… tho, I did grow into my big frame and ended up the captain of the football team myself. Believe me, I was more surprised than anyone, but too hormone-addled to put much thought into it. As a center with a huge crush on his QB, I was… a tad defensive of him. Pretty much personally murdered anyone who touched him on the field… and let him walk all over me off the field — because I lacked the courage at the time to face my own feelings. Not O’Swaggerty bad, but bad enough. I learned the hard way about trying to run from yourself.

    You make a good point about the real nature of courage, and one that needs to be said often. Society has — in some more sophisticated locales — made “coming out” less of a life-and-death issue than it was for your Spanish teacher and his infamous tattoos, or even yourself. Or me, for that matter. But being authentic to yourself and learning to live with integrity, is so much more important than all the artificial rites of props of a manhood never tested. Straight or gay doesn’t really matter if you simply face the challenges you are dealt with honesty and fearlessness. Thanks for your excerpt.

    • And thank you for your comments too, Blue. I went through my phase of benching my own body weight purely for the satisfaction of watching people look stupid when I entered a room. It was fun, but it was all ego and physical window dressing. I’m actually more comfortable in my skin as an older man whose looking increasingly like the Travelocity Lawn Gnome everyday. No one hits on my anymore, but I do get to observe this life from a different perspective through time and my own changes.

      I may publish some more of the excerpts of my “coming (out) of age” book from time to time. I don’t see myself ever publishing it as written.

  2. I’ve never been particularly hung up on the concept of “real man.” I am who and what I am, and the only one I care if that matters to, is my wife. That’s enough of a man for me to be. To me, a gun is not a phallic replacement, does not define my “manhood” and has nothing to do with my inherent distrust of the government. (I am even more distrustful of large corporations, they have more at stake in screwing us over) I have a gun for two reasons, the desire to hunt my own food, especially if the economy goes to Hell in a hand cart, and groceries are hard, if not impossible to come by, and home protection. It is kept were I can find it, but my son cannot get to, especially since he is to young to be home alone.
    With that in mind, the modern form of the NRA is a psycho ward that shouldn’t have a word to say anywhere in national policy. They formed as an organization to promote gun safety and sport hunting, and have morphed into the marketing arm of fire arms manufacturers with no soul, no conscience.There is a middle ground, a sensible place that allows the sensible, safe ownership of firearms, while blocking the nutjobs and jocks (I know, same thing) from owning them.
    Then, maybe we can all sit down and have a safe, sensible, heartfelt discussion of what it REALLY means to “be a man” in the post colonial, post cave-man days of the 21st Century.

    • I hope those changes in gun laws come about soon, because I don’t want to learn about another Sandy Hook or Columbine in order to re-jump start the dialog. Guns for hunting and personal safety are one thing – automatic rifles with extended clips are another. How does one prepare wabbit..?

      • What’s worse, Sandy Hook, or the more than 1,000 gun deaths in America since Sandy Hook? NOW is ALWAYS the time for the dialogue to fix our system.

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