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Unpacking the Man Box: Guys on Masculinity & Homophobia

By , 19, Staff Writer Originally Published: June 6, 2013 Revised: June 6, 2013

If you were asked to think of what a traditional guy is supposed to be like, what would come to mind? Maybe you would think of adjectives, like strong, athletic, tough and unemotional. Yet this traditional role or “gender box” leaves many teen guys who do not fit into the box, feeling like they don’t measure up.

We were curious about what guys had to say about masculine gender roles and what affect they have on guys. I spoke with three guys—Chandler, 16; Kunal, 18; and Maada, 18. The conversation was facilitated by Andy Lushman, a health educator at HiTOPS and co-advisor of their teen council, a group of 20 teens who have been trained to provide peer sexual health education. Read on to see what the guys had to say.

What Is Masculinity?

Andy: When I say “masculinity,” what does that mean to you?

Kunal: I just think of like strong men. Muscular.

Andy: So the fact that I wore a little shoulder bag…. Is that masculine?

Maada: Probably not. It’s just like the social norm that a guy can’t wear a purse…a pullover bag or anything….

Kunal: A man purse.

Maada: Yeah, like a man purse. Nah, that’s just not what society would think of as someone that’s masculine. Definitely not. Maybe you should have worn a backpack.


Andy: Maybe if I wore a backpack I would have been more masculine. [Laughs] Can I have one person go over on the board and draw a big square? As we talk about masculinity, what things come to mind that you would put inside of that “man box”?

Maada: Muscles. Sports.

Sam: Tall. Getting girls.

Chandler: Player.

Sam: Don’t cry.

Maada: I’d say tough.

Kunal: Strong.

Chandler: Big.

Sam: Rugged.

Andy: How about work?

Kunal: Successful.

Sam: Yeah, wealthy.

Maada: Dominant.

Sam: In charge.

Maada: In charge, yes. Fast cars.

Andy:  Think about all of these words in the “man box.” If you don’t fit inside the gender box—like a lot of people, what are some things you’re called?

Chandler: You’d be called feminine.

Andy: OK, good. That’s a very polite word. If they’re really polite, that’s what they’ll say. [These words along with some other derogatory, sexist and homophobic words are written outside of the “man box.”]

Kunal: A girl.

Maada: Gay.

Kunal:  Wipe, maybe. What about outcast?

Andy: Outcast, sure.

Maada: A loser. They’ll call you a loser if you’re outside of any box.

Chandler: And if you don’t fit in period.

Maada: Dork. Nerd.

Andy: I grew up in a place where if you were outside the box it was hard to survive. Has anyone had a moment where they conformed to what’s inside of the box?

Maada: Psh. Yeah. [Laughs.]

Chandler: Yeah, definitely.

Maada: Maybe not conformed to the point where you’re picking on people for being outside of the box, but in terms of interests, sports, working out. I’m not the biggest guy ever, but I like to play sports with my friends and give off the impression that I am that big guy.

Chandler: Or if people are talking about working out, you want to be able to talk with them about it.

Maada: You want to be a part of it.

Sam: It’s not necessarily bad to have certain characteristics that are inside of the box.

Maada: Right, it’s about accepting people who aren’t inside of the box.

Kunal: I wouldn’t say I conform to the box. But I might not have said anything about what I thought or felt because I knew I would be judged by people in the box.

Andy: Is it OK to be a guy’s guy?

All: Yeah.

Andy: Is it OK to have big muscles, play sports and be tough?

Sam: [Jokingly] No, it’s terrible.

Chandler: It’s just not OK to think that everyone should be like that.

Maada: You could be the most typically masculine guy ever, so long as you aren’t judging other people who aren’t.

Andy: So it’s OK to have traits that are inside of the box, so long as you are open to everyone else?

All: Yeah.

Masculinity and Homophobia

Andy: Would you agree if I said that some guys act in homophobic ways or sexist ways to make them feel more powerful or cool? Would you agree with that?

Maada: Yes.

Andy: Why do you think that someone who is perceived to be inside of the box, would call someone a sissy or a wimp? Why would they do that?

Chandler:  To make themselves feel good—to put someone else down.

Maada: They want to keep themselves inside the box. So if you’re going for people outside of the box, it solidifies your spot inside of the box.Especially if you’re with the boys, and they’re like, “Yo, call that kid out.”

Andy: So, maybe what they’re trying to do is thicken this boundary around the outside of the box, yeah? So, what are some other reasons people might want to do that? Why?

Maada: To keep up a front, if say they’re nerds and they like studying, but they don’t want to show their true colors to other people.

Kunal: To try and hide who they really are.

Andy: Have you guys heard of internalizing homophobia and stuff like that?

All: Yeah.

Andy:  So maybe in reality a person may be gay or bisexual, and they act homophobic as a way of dealing with it because they’ve internalized homophobia. Have you guys ever experienced this—not necessarily with yourself, but in your schools?

Chandler: Yeah. Definitely.

Andy:  So how many people in the room have actually seen this? So 100 percent of the people in this room have seen this. OK, what are some things that guys can do about this? Is it a problem, first of all?

Kunal: Yes.

Maada: It puts other people down, makes people think that they don’t belong.

Kunal: It restricts your freedom of expressing yourself.

Sam: So, what can other people do about this?

Andy: Especially guys, what can other guys do about this?

Chandler: Step in and join the other person’s side who’s getting picked on.

Kunal: Stick up for the underrepresented.

Sam: Be comfortable in your own skin. Don’t change who you are or how you act to fit in.

Maada: If it’s someone who is really in the box, do something on the outside to show that you can do something not typically considered masculine and still be a masculine guy. Like if you’re a leader, show that it’s OK to like typically feminine stuff.

Andy: So if you want to wear a man-bag—

Kunal: Go ahead and wear it!

Andy:  Go ahead and wear it. Who cares what other people think, right? So be a role model.

Maada: If you see someone being called a name for not acting manly, call the bully out and step in.

Andy:  OK, what are some groups in schools today that help fight against homophobia?

Kunal: Gay-straight alliances.

Maada: Peer leader programs, if your school has one.Yeah, HiTOPS Teen Council.

Andy:  Do you think conversations like this would help?

Kunal: Yeah.

Sam:  If guys can take it seriously.

Chandler: They would make fun of the person who’s talking.

Maada: Yeah, if you did this in my school people wouldn’t take it seriously. They’d be thinking things like, This guy is such a punk.

Andy:  OK, so if they’re not going to listen, what can we do about that? Who do we need to get on board? Who will they listen to? If they’re athletes, who can be a key component?

Sam: Coaches.

Andy: Coaches! So, let’s say you take your stereotypical football player he comes in the room. He’s probably not going to have the conversation, like you guys said, unless who’s on board? If he sees his coach, like you just said Sam, then maybe it becomes more acceptable. So, what does that mean? We need to get coaches, other leaders and role models involved.

Chandler: Coaches need to talk to their athletes and role models need to talk to the young men who look up to them.

Maada:  It’s hard. I don’t really know what would work. But, I would say just getting out there and educating people would be the best way.

Andy: What I’m hearing from you is that, if we start in school and involve teachers, coaches and other role models then we can have a huge impact on how we view masculinity and the role of men in our society.

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