I’m not a man but I am well-placed to write about toxic masculinity.
I know what it feels like to be surrounded by people expecting you to live up to their expectations of what a man ought to be. To be repeatedly shamed, teased, or bullied for allowing the mask to slip, revealing the person behind the act.
Forty-odd years ago in a hospital in Manchester I was born. I’m guessing some doctor took one look and decided I was male: that’s what went on my birth certificate. I’m still living with the consequences of their decision.
I might have been given the label but that’s all. It didn’t mean anything to a baby–why would it? But it influenced the way everybody around me interacted with me. How they spoke to me, how they dressed me, what toys they gave me, what future they imagined for me.
I wasn’t given a choice, not even made aware that alternatives existed. So as I grew older and became more self-aware I felt more and more that there was a gap between what was expected of me and how I felt inside.
I’m autistic: there are certain behaviors like hand flapping and toe walking that are natural expressions for me. An autistic body language. I was teased and bullied for them in school and worked hard to suppress them.
But not all the behaviors I had to suppress were related to autism. Others–mannerisms, speech patterns, responses–were shamed as being “girly” or “sissy”. I had to learn the rules to be seen as acceptably male, to conform.
That’s the essence of toxic masculinity: conform or be punished. You will be bullied. You will be abused. Until you fit in. Or you die.
You see, it doesn’t take long before you feel you’re being watched every minute of every day. You watch yourself, alert to every slip. The pressure to conform instills a deep and abiding fear and anxiety.
Living with that day in, day out wears you down. You learn to hate yourself, hate the fact that you must conceal your desires and feelings, that you must hide yourself. You go through every minute of every hour pulling levers behind the curtain of this fake persona to keep yourself from harm.
You become depressed. You wonder why you make the effort when you will never be free. You might self harm just to feel something real, to do something to reach down through all the layers of deadening armor between you and the world.
It’s easy to feel suicidal. It’s understandable. It takes away the crushing pressure of the trap you are caught in. I tried to kill myself a couple of times. It wasn’t like TV and the movies try to show it. There was no note, no plea to the world for understanding. Just utter, wordless despair on a lonely, dark night with a handful of pills and a load of alcohol.
Most of the people who made me feel this way had no malicious intent at all. They just projected their expectations onto me, expectations of masculinity. I’m not male, but even if I were I would have been subjected to the same pressure to conform.
That’s why it’s toxic: it poisons you, poisons your mind with its relentless drip, drip, drip. “Man up!” “Grow a pair!” “Sissy!” “You’ve got no balls!” “You talk like a girl!” “Poof!”
There is no single, right way to be male (or female). There is not a single characteristic that all people of a particular gender share except one: their own identity. Expecting people to conform to your idea of their gender is immoral, coercing them by shaming or violence is abuse.
Trying to prevent people from expressing who they are, even unconsciously by perpetuating gender stereotypes, harms them. It really is a matter of life and death. I’ve lived it, I nearly died. I know.