Growing up, I didn’t think much about my gender and the effect it had on my life. How things have changed: As I sit here writing this just after turning 33, I’m able to look back and see the many ways who I am has been shaped by what was expected of me, as a boy and then as a man. A lifetime of striving to fit into society’s expectations of manhood had stripped me of so much of my humanity that I couldn’t even recognize it at the time. I signed a bad contract. And now I’m lighting that shit on fire.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that having 17.5-inch arms and an almost 600-pound dead lift caused people to look at me in a way that made me feel powerful—not just physically but socially as well. In a culture that teaches men to be dominant, I found myself building a body and a persona that would demand respect by being “better” than others. I did this often at the expense of my humanity and integrity. For all the time many of us men spend trying to be “good enough” or “better than,” when was the last time we saw a man apply the same effort to becoming more honest and compassionate? At the root of these extraordinary human qualities is the ability to be vulnerable, a quality too often seen as weak and “unmanly,” something most of us are taught to avoid at all costs. Going against the grain can be costly, but not nearly as costly as slowly bludgeoning our own humanity into submission.
We all know the rules in the bold-type section of the male contract. I, like many of you, had learned them so well that they just felt natural. Being respectful of women doesn’t necessarily give us the same social power as hooking up as often as possible and then feeling the affirmation of the head nods we get when telling other guys about it. Like most boys, I was taught we should get as far as girls would let us. I was taught our worth depended on our ability to deliver. Not knowing about sex, not being confident about it and not wanting it were never options.
And so, in making our sexual relationships a determinant of our social value, we learned to dehumanize women to fulfill what was expected of us. Many of us lied to our friends about getting to third base, boasted about whom we’d hooked up with and never actually asked for permission to go further. We didn’t ask because we didn’t want to be seen as unsure, or perhaps because we didn’t know or didn’t care how hard it is for most women to have to say no. Our expectations of women and our own drive to “conquer” led us to give them the culturally recognizable labels of “tease” and “prude” when they didn’t do what we wanted. And then we would shame them by calling them “sluts” and “hos” for doing the same things boys and men did—things that made us “players” and “pimps.”
Reclaiming my humanity is dependent on resisting societal pressures that tell me to conform to the status quo.
I’ve succeeded in many of the ways men in our culture are taught to aspire to. I’ve had success in my career as an actor, earning fame and a decent paycheck. I was a nationally ranked powerlifter. And yet I was left with profound insecurity and a sense of emptiness. How could it be any other way when my self-worth relied on having to prove myself over and over again?
Mutual liberation was the antidote to my despair. I wholeheartedly believe that when we’re our best selves, we fight for what is right even when we know we’ll get pushback. Courage and integrity require this of us. I have gone through a reorientation of my heart and soul, and I know that the work of growing to understand myself better, and to effect positive change, will never be complete. Reclaiming my humanity is dependent on resisting societal pressures that tell me to conform to the status quo, that tell me to be silent about injustice and to normalize oppression, hate and even my own deep-seated biases.
In order for us to stand a chance at claiming our full humanity and embodying an expansive and inclusive worldview, we must be willing to go out of our way. We’ve grown up in a culture that teaches us to devalue the perspectives of the most marginalized. I did this for most of my life without even realizing it. But if we’re ever to create a world where everyone is truly valued, safe and free, we must learn to listen to the voices from the farthest margins. We must assume the same, if not higher, levels of competency and objectivity in those who don’t fit the image of the “all-American man.”
It is my honor to bring in four leaders whose voices, perspectives and brilliance need to be heard. By listening, with open hearts and open minds, we will grow to better understand others, the world we live in and, ultimately, ourselves.
In the words of one of my sheroes, Angela Davis, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”