Due to shifts in public funding in South Africa, with many other funding avenues exhausted, for the first time in a long time, Beth Uriel is truly facing closure before even the year end. Beth Uriel has supported countless young men in their journey from boys to men, and it would be a travesty to see them close their doors. I wrote this piece to support their REAL MAN campaign, created to help drum-up financial support and general awareness around the issues they work with on a daily basis.
One night in 2008, like many of my fondest nights spent in Cape Town, I was sitting around with a group of friends, enjoying food, laughter, and communion. Halloween was quickly approaching and, though I don’t know how we arrived at that very moment, my friend Lindsay―manager and head social worker at Beth Uriel―dared me to go as a fairy for Halloween. Without thought, I agreed.
Though I rarely turn down a fun dare, both Lindsay and I knew it wouldn’t even take something as formal as a dare to get me to dress as a fairy, on any night, much less Halloween. Dressing as a fairy was really inconsequential to me, especially considering my past. I grew up constantly playing dress-up―also involving every friend and family member I could coerce into dressing-up in some random costume I had made―and my childhood pictures are hard evidence of that fact. I would say I am dressed in some costume that I had made or acquired in approximately three out of five of my childhood photographs―cheetahs, robots, ballerinas, chickens, clowns, cowboys, flappers, monsters, Paula Abdul’s backup dancers, punks, miscellaneous unidentifiable people and creatures, and beyond.
As a kid, I never felt any more or less “masculine” dressed as a clown or cowboy or princess. I just liked dressing-up. My mom still tells stories of how one of my favorite parts of playing baseball was getting dressed-up in the uniform, making sure every piece of apparel was perfectly in place, including ensuring that my batting gloves hung out of my back pants’ pocket in the most perfect and stylish way, a type of behavior our sexist socialization might consider “sissy” or “effeminate” or “wrong.” At the time, I―maybe innocently―didn’t see it that way. I just wanted to look good.
I was never a “normal” boy. I am not a “normal” man. I was, and am, just me.
So, on Halloween of 2008, I joined my Beth Uriel family members―some who went as a Flower, an Angel, Cotton Candy, a Tahitian Purple People Eating Bird, Dwight K. Schrute, and a Piece of Bubblegum Stuck to the Bottom of a Shoe―dressed as a fairy and we went out trick-or-treating around Cape Town. Like most Beth Uriel outings, we had a blast that night. Though many people were completely unfazed by my costume, it was interesting to see different people’s reactions to me dressed as a fairy, many who projected their own fears onto me. Whether well-intentioned or not, many of the comments I received reminded me of Toni Morrison saying, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
“Oh no! Why?!”
“Wow. That’s brave,” with a hint of disapproval.
“Are you doing this for LGBTQ rights?”
“Men aren’t supposed to dress like fairies!”
“That’s awesome,” with a condescending shake of the head.
“But really, why are you dressed like a fairy?”
Whether they realized it or not, most people’s comments said more about them than they did about me. I was just dressed as a fairy, and though I was not ignorant enough to think that there would be no reaction, I didn’t really care what people thought about it. I just wanted to be a fairy for the night, no strings attached. As I said, definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.
Halloween has historically been a hypocritical time, where we seem to have no problem with little girls dressing as boy characters, but completely lose our minds when little boys want to go as girl characters. Just this weekend, my social media newsfeeds were flooded with images of little trick-or-treaters, many of whom were little girls dressed as this season’s most popular guy characters. I even saw a picture of Jay Z and Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy dressed―looking flawless, I might add―as the late Michael Jackson. I didn’t see one single comment in protest to them dressing her as a male icon. However, I could only imagine the uproar that would have occurred if Blue was a boy, and they would have dressed him up as Janet Jackson. And some people reading this would quickly retort, “That’s different!”
But really, apart from our skewed sexist socialization, apart from the fact that at some point people randomly decided certain fabrics and colors should be worn by certain types of people, what is the difference?
Well, the difference is we live in a society where sexism and misogyny warp the way we see things. We wrongly equate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. We use phrases like, “You throw like a girl,” as an insult, rather than taking it as a complementary comparison to someone like Mo’Ne Davis. We don’t recognize patriarchy and sexism as institutionalized systems of domination, and we don’t understand how the very society in which we live is still controlled by those dominator values. We often blame female rape victims for how they dressed or presented themselves, rather than blaming the rapist. We are convinced that street harassment many women endure is “no big deal,” and they should “take it as a compliment.” Our misogyny runs deep. And for these reasons, and more, we often have difficulty defining what a “real man” is.
What is a “Real Man?”
When Beth Uriel family members reached out to me to write a piece for their REAL MAN campaign, with the prompt, “A REAL man is…” I must admit my mind was flooded with all sorts of conflicting thoughts. For many individuals, it is difficult to separate the idea of a “real man” from our hypermasculine, misogynistic, sexist, patriarchal socialization of “what it means to be a man.” In popular culture, “a real man” has usually resembled a muscular, tough, dumb, burping, farting, chauvinistic, beer-drinking, sports-playing, womanizing, nincompoop. We have seen this image of a “real man” repeated over and over again. I, for one, do not buy-into, or fit into, that stereotype of the “real man.” Still, though I have a deep awareness of what it means to be a “real man” to me, I struggled to find the words to describe it.
Alas, I consider myself a feminist and many of my best examples of what it means to be a “real man” came from women―two things that a hypermasculine “alpha male” would use as reason for the immediate revoking of my “man card,” though I don’t remember ever signing up for one, or even desiring owning such a thing. Some of the strongest, bravest, toughest people I know are women. Likewise, some of the “realest” of men I have known do not fit into the hypermasculine stereotype of what our society has determined it means to “be a man.” That is not to say that I haven’t known “real men” who do, in fact, fit into that stereotype of the hypermasculine man―I simply will not let patriarchal values limit my definition of what it means to be a “real man” by that shallow, constrictive archetype of a “man.”
Patriarchy is no different than any other institutionalized system of domination―it was actively and intentionally created, and it must be actively and intentionally deconstructed. It is oppressive, causing both the oppressors and the oppressed to live in different forms of bondage. Unfortunately, just like with other institutionalized systems of domination (imperialism, white-supremacy, capitalism, etc.), there is an ignorance and denial that comes with those who benefit from the system. As James Baldwin put it, “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” And until we are completely released from it, we will continue to perpetuate sexist ideas of “what it means to be a man.”
In her book Feminism is for Everybody, feminist, academic, and author bell hooks defines feminism as simply, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” In the same work she laments, “Often the only alternative to patriarchal masculinity presented by feminist movement or the men’s movement was a vision of becoming more ‘feminine.’ The ides of the feminine that was evoked emerged from sexist thinking and did not represent an alternative to it. What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity.” This vision of masculinity that bell hooks speaks of is possibly the beginning of what it means to be a “real man”―for an individual to have the courage, strength, self-esteem, and self-love to base his identity on his unique being, who he really is, rather than trying to create an identity rooted in, and fitting into, the societal pressures and stereotypes of “what it means to be a man.”
Nonetheless, I think that definition of being a “real man” has less to do with being a “real man” and more to do with being a real human.
A REAL man is…
With all of that said, asking what it means to be a “real man” can be as daunting of a query as asking what means to be “human.” Assuredly, each individual person finds different purpose and meaning in life, in being human. Being a “real man” can look as vast and different and unique as each and every individual man inhabiting the earth. In my experience, from people I have known and loved, here are some examples―including but not limited to―of what it means to be a “real man.”
A real man has a deep understanding that we do not live in isolation from one another, that we are not here by chance or coincidence, and has a deep awareness of how we perpetually co-create each other―living with the knowledge of Ubuntu: I am what I am because of who we all are.
A real man makes himself aware of injustices taking place around him, and activates himself in a fight against them.
A real man stands up for what is right, even if he is the only one standing.
A real man knows when to speak and knows when to listen.
A real man knows how to love.
A real man is compassionate and empathetic.
A real man lives with a sense of purpose.
A real man is responsible and takes responsibility for his actions.
A real man wholeheartedly laughs and unashamedly cries whenever he feels like it.
A real man has the courage, self-esteem, and self-love to be the unique individual he really is.
A real man lives in the realty that he can shape and mold society, rather than trying to fit into the confining mold society might try to put him in.
A real man plays ball with his daughter or his son, braids his daughter’s hair, dances with his son―sees his children as unique individuals and helps and encourages them grow more and more into who they really are, to pursue their individual talents and gifts.
A real man is a doctor, nurse, teacher, lawyer, lumberjack, ballerina, drag queen, seamstress, chef―a real man is proudly whoever he really is.
Since its inception, Beth Uriel has been a part of molding, shaping, and mentoring uncountable numbers real men. One of the things I appreciate most about Lindsay and Beth Uriel’s leadership is that they really get to the heart of who the Beth Uriel family members are, encouraging them to boldly and unapologetically be the very best versions of themselves, and no one else. I have seen all types of young men enter and exit the doors of Beth Uriel―and there are so many more I have not witnessed―and one common thing remains, those young men were given the opportunity to grow in, and even discover for the first time, who they really are. They were supported and encouraged to be brave enough to discover what it meant to be a “real man” in their unique, individual narrative. The young men of Beth Uriel have become social workers, models, butchers, soldiers, actors, chefs, singers, nurses, and more. They have been challenged not to live up to or fit into stereotypes of what it means to be a “real man,” but to be radical enough to create a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of their unique being forms the basis of their identity. They are and were encouraged to be “real men,” whatever that means to them.
To learn more about the REAL MAN campaign that supports the amazing work of Beth Uriel, visit their website:
Share, nominate a REAL MAN, and donate!