The Benefits of Being Vulnerable With Other Queer Guys
One of the things that frustrates me the most about most published dating and relationship advice I find for men on the internet is that it either focuses exclusively on sex or managing the emotions of women. This is not to say those kinds of resources aren’t necessary for people who may not have access to sex ed that isn’t focused on abstinence or extremely heteronormative. But we need to supplement these with more robust resources on negotiating emotional intimacy and one’s own feelings with the context of a relationship.
It’s extremely disingenuous to pretend that everyone but men struggle with emotions, and doesn’t help liberate us from the toxic ideal that “real men don’t cry,” or exhibit sadness. Men who date other men have additional obstacles to navigate if both they and their partners have difficultly accessing vulnerability. And I bet it’s become more obvious to you in the past year that doing activities in close physical proximity to a friend or person you like isn’t always a realistic or feasible substitute for direct communication.
That’s why I’d like to take the time with you to discuss how social norms have shaped the emotional health of queer men and how crucial vulnerability is as an empowering vehicle towards deeper connection and compatibility in your relationships. I’ll also share some tips with you on how to uncover your own latent feelings and offer some suggestions on how to share these thoughts with someone you’re interested in or dating.
Emotions are not inherently masculine or inherently feminine. We all have emotions, and there aren’t any inherently developmental differences between people who are identified as, or who identify themselves as, boys and girls that effect the ability to have feelings. But in many cultures, children are taught and learn to express or repress these emotions based on gender stereotypes. Children assigned male at birth are often taught they need to be strong and stoic in order to protect their loved ones, that sadness or fear is unmanly. Adults and peers alike typically reinforce these beliefs by shaming gender-nonconforming children who deviate from masculinity and boys for expressing vulnerability. I’m sure you’ve heard someone you know try to shut down or shame a guy for crying. Researchers have found that boys start to internalize these lessons and become less emotionally expressive as they start school. If left unchecked, emotional repression can have serious detrimental consequences. In 2019, men in the US died by suicide 3.63 times more than women, even though women are much more likely to be diagnosed with depression.
This is the context in which we have to break down the term “toxic masculinity,” which the right has successfully warped to the extent that this phrase has become a buzzword often associated with misogynist depictions of feminists. The “toxic” in this phrase does not imply that any gender expression that encompasses masculinity is inherently bad or corrosive. It’s referring to the collective set of social experiences that teach men to express themselves and their emotions in a way that is ultimately toxic to them and others as a way to achieve some artificial ideal of “manliness”. These social pressures are so harmful that mental health professionals have had to identify different symptoms of depression in people trying adhere to a stoic masculine ideal. You don’t have to use the phrase “toxic masculinity” when you’re trying to open up to someone or talk about why you have difficulty expressing yourself. I find that sociological terms don’t serve me well when I’m trying to talk about my own emotions. But it’s important to understand that the way we teach people how to “do gender” in our society can be actively harmful and keep us from experiencing happiness.
Let’s also take a second to recognize that we live in a society steeped in homophobia and femmephobia, which puts additional pressures on us as queer men to tone down and mutate our emotional expressions. As our culture sets up the cisgender, stoic man as the good and desirable archetype of masculine expression, it simultaneously demonizes overt expressions of emotions and femininity. Gender isn’t tied to morality or inherent worth, and most people don’t fit comfortably into a totally reductive view of masculinity or femininity. But that doesn’t make it any easier for if you get bullied for acting “like a girl” or for liking the things you like. In certain contexts, stoicism can serve as a kind of misdirection or mask to help us avoid unwanted attention, discomfort, and danger. One of my most reliable ways of dispelling attention in public restrooms as a trans guy is to reduce my voice to a deeper monotone and to be as curt as possible. It is totally understandable if you have reservations about being vulnerable in front of others, especially people who are cruel or who have the potential to be cruel to you.
Queerphobia itself is part and parcel of a broader culture of violence that we teach is inextricable from manliness and which doesn’t help us build healthy relationships. Psychologists have also found that men may act aggressively or violent as poor coping mechanisms when they fail to live up to gender norms or have very rigid gender expectations for themselves. Unfortunately, the exposure to violence can also act as a source of stress that pushes some guys to withdraw emotionally or enact the violence out on someone else. If two men in a relationship are struggling to break this toxic cycle, there is the very real potential that poor communication can do a good deal of harm. If a mutual cycle of aggression and emotional repression doesn’t manage to seriously jeopardize a relationship, it will serve to hold you at arm’s length from your partner and keep you from accessing support and affirmation.
So, when we’re trying to push back against the social circumstances that have created a culture of toxic masculinity, we have to be strategic. We have to distinguish between the people who will hold us back and who will help us grow. The people in our lives who care for us and who want to see us succeed are people to try to open up to, especially if we’re interested in dating them.
At this point you may be reading and feel frustrated because you don’t know how to open up to someone close to you or talk about your feelings. That’s okay. I’m going to address that too.
You might be so used to pushing down the stirrings of certain kinds of emotion that you aren’t even aware of what your feelings are about a certain situation. Give yourself a lot of room to be aware of feelings when you have them and be kind to yourself while you work through them. Try to remember that everybody has feelings, but the extent to which we see those feelings reflected in behavior depends on how an individual expresses them. It might be easier for you to write about your thoughts than letting them percolate, or you may just want to sit and experience your emotions on your own. I’ve also heard some people say that they don’t have any awareness of their emotional state until they try to talk to someone else about a given topic. If you have access to therapy or to a community support group so that you can do some of that processing with other people, it can be a game changer. I promise you that your feelings matter, and would suggest that someone who cares for you will feel the same way and will understand that this process is a lifetime commitment. It’s also okay if you’re tired of emotionally processing heavy topics with the people in your life. You can also find an activity that helps you carve out some time for reflection. There is no “right way” to check in with yourself and your personal needs.
Once you do the work to understand what you want to communicate, there are lots of ways to share with another person. Try to think about what makes sharing your thoughts daunting or scary to you and see if you can mitigate any of that. It’s okay if you feel nervous to share because you don’t know how you will be received. I think we all feel that way at some point in our lives, but sometimes it’s better for you to get it over with than to sit around worrying about what could happen. It might help you to think about how you feel you communicate best and how the person you want to share with absorbs information best. I know personally that I am better at expressing complicated thoughts that I have in writing than if I just chat one on one with another person, so if I really want to make sure that I am being as precise or clear as possible, I might try to text or e-mail what I am thinking. But there are some things you can’t just casually drop in a text message, so I write to myself or text out the thought to a close friend to help me practice what I want to say when I’m having more of a back and forth with the other person. When you’re ready to chat, make sure you ask if they have the mental and emotional bandwidth in that moment to listen to you. If the answer is no, you can work together to find a better time to chat. Asking for consent to vent is a great way to establish at the outset of a conversation that you’re interested in respecting boundaries and want to communicate in a mutually beneficial way.
It’s absolutely crucial that we learn to open up as we navigate a world with ongoing periods of quarantine and isolation. Researchers at Arizona State University who surveyed people from several countries last year learned that men felt their friendships were more disrupted by the quarantine because those relationships revolved around shared activities instead of in-depth conversations. We’re not going to “break through” to a time when we can just catch up with those friends quickly enough to make this pattern sustainable. If we want to maintain our current relationships and friendships, we need to meet each other halfway.
Take the time to think about how you spend time with the people in your life and make some appropriate changes to make sure that you’re communicating more directly with some of them. That doesn’t mean you have to stop playing video games together or watching a movie on your Discord server, but give yourself the room to talk about how the pandemic and the quarantine has made you feel. It’s been beyond disturbing and disheartening to watch the coronavirus sweep across the globe, and infuriating to watch politicians decline to put timely safety measures in place to mitigate the spread of the virus. Here in the United States, it hasn’t exactly been empowering to witness an attempted coup, multiple attempts at voter suppression, and attacks on peaceful protestors. We have to find that encouragement in each other instead of turning inward even further and repressing more of the feelings we have had about being lonely, the indifference of politicians, and the stability of this government. We have agency over how we care for each other. We have control over our ability to be kind.
I also want to address the idea that vulnerability is a sign of weakness that makes you lesser, because I know that we’re so conditioned to just push through difficulties that you may resist the suggestion even if it makes logical sense to you.
Strength is such a limiting quality to measure in this context. It doesn’t tell you anything about the agency about the person you are describing, their ability to make decisions, or their interpersonal capabilities. There are people you could describe as physically strong or who have strength of conviction who follow the suggestion of others instead of making their own choices. Instead, I want to think about vulnerability as a vehicle for empowerment. Giving yourself the room to work through hard feelings and trying to come to terms with the world around you is a way of being accountable and resisting the control of sexism. It is essential to dig deeper than your surface-level reactions and discover what you’ve repressed and bottled up over time. It will help you be in control of your feelings instead of trying to manage the collateral damage when emotions you’ve repressed burst through the walls of the mental dam you’ve crafted. Dropping a façade of artificial masculinity will also help you find someone who likes you for yourself. If anyone tries to give you a hard time about the way you present your authentic self, they might have some work to do to try to wade through some of these issues themselves.