There was a moment I realized that toxic masculinity couldn’t be gendered, stereotyped, or even clearly defined. Toxic masculinity permeates through these barriers to sprout up in the most unexpected of places. In this case I found it dwelling within a friend of many years named Kelsey.
Kelsey was one of the first people that I ever came out to, in a fashion. When I was a Christian I told her of my struggle with the “sin of homosexuality” and she encouraged and supported me to continue renouncing my sexuality and strive towards “true manhood”. Eventually I would learn to embrace my identity and Kelsey and I would grow farther and father a part. Many years would pass before I spoke with Kelsey again. Until one day I called, out of the blue, during a summer afternoon to check in and try to reconnect. Right away, before she’d even answered the phone, I felt oddly excited. It had been almost three years since I’d called and, yet, I’d perfectly dialed her number the first time. When she answered she did so loudly and with general Kelsey-like vitality, and for the first few moments we gushed about how much we’d missed one another, about how sorry we both were for letting life get so busy, and made empty promises to do better.
When we finished I remember saying, “Okay, catch me up. Tell me everything? How’s life? How’s love?”
I remember so clearly because the words seemed oddly specific, as if I’d sat in front of my mirror rehearsing them before calling. As someone who unconsciously modulates their tone depending on the person and situation, it struck me that I wasn’t using my “best-friend-let’s-catch-up” voice but rather my more impersonal, obligatory tone, the one I reserved for clients, coworkers, and aggressively straight men who felt it was their duty to “mansplain” the problems with “the gays”.
She spoke for about twenty minutes and I made sure to gasp, “No he didn’t!”, “That bitch!”, and offer my congratulations at all the right points. But it felt forced and fake. When it was my turn to speak I started by telling her about the recent falling out of a mutual friend. This mutual friend had for months been sending veiled, probing messages laden with Christianly commentary that seemed friendly on the surface but always left me tense and unnerved. When I finally worked up the courage to confront the issue (which was her belief that it is impossible for a gay man to be a Christian and live a gay life at the same time) the end result was the dissolution of one of my oldest relationships and the defining moment which would eventually lead me to leave all forms of the Christian religion.
After recounting my tale to Kelsey the phone went silent. For what felt like minutes (but truthfully could only have been a few, long seconds) Kelsey said nothing. And when she did speak she said the last thing I wanted to hear: she agreed with our mutual friend. At least, she agreed in part.
I take a lot of pride in remaining calm in that moment and asking Kelsey to explain her belief further.
Kelsey spoke for nearly half an hour, uninterrupted, about how Christianity is a mirror family structure: the church represents the family and vice versa. The family, like the church, has to have a single leader: the man. And this leader had to be strong—traits that Kelsey would attribute to things like having a knowledge of cars, being physically strong, and providing financially—and this could only be done by becoming as close to their masculine God as possible.
My next question was simply, “Which one of those things do you think that I’m incapable of according to your faith?” I’ll never be able to shake the certainty and absolute conviction with which Kelsey next spoke. She spoke not like a straight, white woman commenting on a community she had no experience with but like the foremost expert of a particularly disgusting disease. Factual, cold, and utterly unshakeable in her belief.
“Gay men aren’t real men like the Bible says. Sorry, I know it sounds harsh but it’s just not God’s plan for two men to be together. If you want to be a real Christian than you have to live the way God says to in the Bible.”
At this point I cordially, but abruptly, ended the conversation and proceeded to remove every Bible, Christian object and point of literature from my home.
It occurs to me now that I might handle the conversation differently given my age and experience. In some ways I ran away after I heard what she said when I should have stayed and fought. I regret letting our friendship die in humiliated silence rather than burning it to the ground defending my right to live happily. Not because of the glory of the fight but because at least I would no know I had said everything I needed to.
Sadly, Kelsey represents a vast majority of conservative, Christian, and/or uneducated women who enforce hypermasculinity to the point that it becomes toxic. Despite her own femininity Kelsey has developed views about what is and is not masculine and exercises those views by negating others’ perceptions of their own masculinity. The ultimate effect is that men with alternative forms of masculinity—be that a non-heterosexual orientation or even a non-conforming but fully heterosexual expression—are belittled, shamed, and painted as “less-than” or lacking.
I find the expression “toxic masculinity” to be quite apropos because like all toxins, hypermasculinity spreads upon contact, and even the smallest amount—when coming into contact repeatedly or from multiple sources—can poison the mind and body. The belief that toxic masculinity spreads only from those that we would define as hypermasculine is false. In fact it is societal reinforcement and encouragement of aggressively masculine archetypes, from multiple points of contact, that creates a truly toxic man.