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Healthy Masculinities: A Pro-Human Endeavor

by Josie Lehrer


Before a standing room-only house at the debut presentation of the Men’s Story Project in August 2008, Kenyatta, a 60 year-old writer from Harlem, describes how, at the age of seven, he proudly shared with his parents a poem he had written. Since many contemporary African American poets were gay, they glared at him with suspicion and disapproval. For the next 30 years, he never shared a single piece of his writing with his parents for fear of bad consequences.

Reading a letter he wrote to his father, Robert Haaland, the first transgender candidate to be elected to San Francisco public office, declares that his maleness doesn’t imply an acceptance of all the baggage that comes with being a “man” in this society. There are as many genders as there are people, he says.

Galen, a 29 year-old anti-violence activist living in Oakland, describes being physically abused by his father and his own perpetration of hundreds of acts of violence against other men and his female partners: “My father used to hold me down… he’d twist my arm back ‘til it’d almost break…the pain would be piercing…and he’d say, ‘That doesn’t hurt! Quit complaining! Be a man!’” Galen describes coming home from a major fight at school, bruised and swollen, and his father’s response was: “How could you lose? Didn’t I tell you never to lose!” Galen then describes his long journey of healing and ceasing his own violence, expressing gratitude to those who supported him along the way.

With humor and poignancy, men participating in the Men’s Story Project events share many stories: of men’s public restroom rituals, lessons of personal strength from a father with polio, spirituality and transformation inside San Quentin prison, testicular cancer and personal wholeness. A transgender man expresses the disorientation caused by the fear his male presence provoked for a woman in a parking lot late at night. A 69 year-old man describes consciously unlearning his homophobia after losing a beloved gay cousin to AIDS. A gang truce-maker describes refusing to let community members avenge the murder of his son.

I created the Men's Story Project in March 2008 in San Francisco because social ideas about masculinity and appropriate gender relations are among the root causes of many preventable health challenges faced by people of all genders today. There are few public forums where traditional masculinity ideologies are critically examined, and alternate, more healthy, approaches highlighted.

The Men’s Story Project brings this dialogue into mainstream forums. In each presentation, local men - artists, activists and men who’ve never been on a public stage - share stories about their own lives with an audience, followed by discussion. The presenters break social silences, talk about things that men don’t often talk about publicly and challenge stereotypical notions of manhood. They celebrate men's beauty and strength, and present a more expansive and peaceful vision of contemporary masculinities. The emphasis is on men’s humanness.

Traditional male gender role ideas are often intertwined with sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, ableism and other forms of human oppression and negation. Research around the world shows that men who hold “traditional” or hegemonic masculinity beliefs are more likely to engage in a variety of risky and harmful behaviors, with implications for their own health and that of the people around them. These include greater likelihood of HIV and STI risk behaviors such as condom non-use and multiple partners; violence between men; violence against women; substance abuse; unsafe driving, and other problems.

Hegemonic masculinity beliefs are also intimately linked with homophobia and transphobia - which in turn contribute to problems for LGBT youth who suffer higher rates of depression, suicide, substance abuse and school dropout. And when boys and men buy into hazardous gender role norms and then assume positions of power in social institutions that are largely male-dominated, gender inequalities become entrenched and supported through policy. The personal and the political are fundamentally connected.

A need exists for more critical public conversations about masculinities. Many men have said they found the Men’s Story Project presentations to be surprisingly “real,” and that it was affirming to see some of their personal experiences reflected onstage. Many women have said the performances helped them to understand the challenges that men may face. The Men’s Story Project model is designed for local replication with a DVD and training guide; upcoming are additions of theory-based curricula and an online Men’s Story Project network.

Rather than talking about “masculinity,” let’s bring the word “masculinities” into our discourse. Let’s support men in broadly claiming their basic humanity. This includes their right to express their emotions openly, to be vulnerable, to seek support and to break out of the traditional boxes that have constrained them. “Men” is not a monolithic group in any society, and patriarchal norms harm all men and marginalize and stigmatize many.

In supporting men’s critical reflection on gender role socialization, we will, in turn, strengthen men as allies in helping people of all genders live with the safety, wellness and equality that they deserve.

See a video from the Men’s Story Project.

October 26, 2009

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Josie Lehrer, Sc.D. is a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCSF Center for AIDS Prevention Studies and founder of the Men’s Story Project. She also consults with San Francisco Women Against Rape and facilitates social support groups for youth living with HIV/AIDS. Dr. Lehrer’s work has been featured on CNN World, CNN Headline News, CBS, Associated Press, Forbes.com and MSN and elsewhere.

Also see "Teens, Freaks, Outlaws and Alternatives to Suicide" by Kate Bornstein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See “The Art Perspective, Featuring the Work of Tammy Rae Carland, On Becoming; Billy and Katie, 1964” curated by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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