What is a “Real Man?”

November 2, 2014

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.

Hypocritical Halloween

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.

“That’s gay!”

“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?”

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.

Beth Uriel

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:

http://www.realman.org.za/

Share, nominate a REAL MAN, and donate!


Suffer Not…

October 21, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering lately. It cruised into my head a few days ago, parked and decided to stay a while; not actual suffering, but rather thoughts in and around the topic. And in my ponderings I have thought things that are in no way new to me. These reflections, however, seem to be hitting me in a fresh new way. I am really starting to wonder why on earth suffering exists on the level of regularity it does.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the rebuttals already, “We live in a fallen world,” and “Suffering is necessary to grow character,” and so on and so forth. I agree. And I am even thankful for the suffering that I have been through in my life because, for the most part, it was used to form me into a stronger, more insightful and empathetic person; for the most part I said. But even in acknowledging these facts about the presence of suffering in the world, I still cannot grasp, at this point in time, how on earth we as humans allow others to live in the daily suffering a vast majority of people live in. Lately I’m finding it cruel, and inhumane. How can this be?

Maybe it starts with us not wanting to take responsibility for others’ sufferings. “We’ve got our own problems,” right? And if we don’t, we don’t want them! We also often tend to shift the blame or responsibility to a Higher Power. “God got us into this mess, and it’s His responsibility to get us out,” or acting as though all that can be offered for another’s suffering are prayers from afar, because a mere mortal is not capable of such a divine intervention. Some Believers would even say it’s blasphemous for us to be “arrogant enough” to say or think we could do anything to relieve the suffering of another; “that’s God’s job”. But what keeps hitting me over, and over, and over again is the realization that we humans have the capacity to end the suffering of others.

Like, I am literally talking about completely abolishing the majority of suffering on the earth. It is totally possible! In the same way humans are responsible for causing so much suffering, in the form of injustice, inequality, oppression, hate and selfishness, they can be equally responsible for removing it through seeking justice, repatriation, leading others to liberation, love and selflessness. Some famous dude once said something to the extent of, “Suffering only exists because good people allow it to” (at least I think someone said that, because I can’t believe I made that up). That’s what I’m talking about!

Poverty in the world could be eradicated by evenly distributing the wealth of the world. Hungry people could be fed with the excess of food glutinous people indulge in on a daily basis. One person’s bad day could be completely turned around by a random act of kindness from a stranger, or even a friend. An ear could be offered to someone “suffering in silence”, so at the very least, that individual is no longer trapped in that prison of silence. Suffering, for the most part, is really just the lack of relief from an unpleasant experience. And the pungent thing is, we all have the power within us to offer that very needed relief, in most situations, in one form or another. And all it takes is for good people to act.

Don’t get me wrong! I am in no way making light of the suffering that people go through. When I look at some of the situations people live in I am deeply saddened, and even appalled at times. But what is even more appalling to me is the thought that someone’s suffering could be ended, or at least toned down, by a selfless act of another, and yet good people rather keep to themselves, in turn holding back that much needed relief. And you know what? It does not matter what your situation is, or how “bad off” you think you may be, there is always someone in a worse off situation. So, something positive from your perceived “bad off” situation, could be used for the good to totally uplift someone in a “worse off” situation; the value of mere camaraderie at the very least.

Evil reigns when good people don’t intervene. Hate is really just the lack of love. Injustice occurs when we decide to turn a blind eye. Suffering exists when those with the capacity to offer relief from that suffering choose not to act, or at least don’t choose to act. I have decided to become more aware of this, not just in the situations of those who I have invited into my life, but also with those who just pass in and out, who may remain nameless. For this season, my question for the day, whether on a macro or micro level, is, “What can I do to end the suffering of another?”. And I’m looking for answers.


Lessons of Indulgence Learned Through T-Pain, Me & Clinton, and Some Random Kids

May 23, 2010

About six weeks back I took Clinton to apply for his South African ID Book. Last Thursday he got the text message from Home Affairs saying that his ID Book was ready for collection. He was pumped. I picked him up from school on Friday and we went straight to Home Affairs. Sure enough, after not too long of a wait, Clinton was the proud holder of an official South African Identification Document Book! We decided to go to Steers for some celebratory lunch.

For those of you who don’t know, Steers is really no big deal. I mean, it’s just a fast food restaurant, though I realize it is a tad bit more expensive than McDonalds. But our reasons for going there were not special, and mostly just a matter of convenience because that particular Steers was on our way home. But yeah, I mean, fast food or not, I guess Steers is still a luxury in a country where the masses live in poverty. But still, really no big deal.

So, we pulled up to Steers and got out of the car. On the way in three little boys approached us with outstretched hands asking for “Fufty cents for some bread.” I smiled at the spokesperson of the group, “Sorry buddy. Not today,” and Clinton and I went on in to order our meal. It came to just over a hundred rand (about 13$ U.S.). Wow! Steers is more expensive than McDonalds! We got the food, sat down at a table, and began to eat. Both Clinton and I immediately got sucked in to the television that hung high above our heads. MTV Cribs was on and they were touring T-Pain’s house, “Yeah, yeah! And this right here, this is studio A. I got three studios: A, B and C.” Three studios?!?! I mean, what on earth does T-Pain need three studios for?! Would one not be enough?

Throughout the Cribs tour, Clinton and I continuously shook our heads in disbelief, looked at each other with the “can you believe that junk?!” face, and then rolled our eyes as we turned our heads back to the screen, as T-Pain showed us his cars, his kitchen (that is bigger than my whole flat), his three studios, his game room, his pool, his bedroom, his club (yes, in his house), and so on and so forth. We could not believe this guy, and the likes of him! I mean, wasting all that money on all that stuff!! I mean, the whole of Khayelitsha could live in T-Pain’s bedroom! The nerve! “How can someone live like that knowing there are people living in absolute poverty?!” I complained.

And then something happened. In between the rolling of eyes, sounds of exasperation, and comments of how ridiculous T-Pain’s spending habits are, I looked out the large Steers windows and made eye contact with the three little boys who were still standing just outside, the ones who had asked for only “fufty cents”. They were watching Clinton and I scarf down a hundred-rand-meal with the exact same reaction as Clinton and I had to T-Pain’s overindulgent estate and lifestyle. To them, our spending was just as ridiculous as T-Pain’s was to us. As Clinton and I sat, eating and judging T-Pain with our good-Lord-why-do-you-need-a-flat-screen-TV-in-your-shower’s, the three little boys outside were looking in on us wondering why we could afford to eat such an “expensive meal” without even being able to spare them fifty cents. Maybe thinking, “Don’t they know a chip roll is less than ten rand?!”

And I realized, I may not have six cars, two pools, three studios and a lounge the size of the small town I come from, but my lifestyle, as humble as it may seem to me, can look just as luxurious to others who have less, as T-Pain’s does to me. I don’t have to feel guilty or sorry for it. Maybe just aware. And I have to take the responsibility that comes with the level of lifestyle I live. The whole, “the more you have the more is expected of you” kind of thing. And not judging others is probably a good lesson to learn to. We’re no better than T-Pain, though for a minute, Clinton and I had convinced ourselves we were.


Borrowed Car, Borrowed Time

February 5, 2010

There’s a certain resilience that comes with poverty; a “make something out of nothing” attitude that fills the moneyless gaps. This translates into things like: newspapers, magazine pages, or product labels being used for wallpaper to decorate the would-be-destitute walls of a shack in a township, or making meals feel more filling by a huge pile of starches and little to no meat, or like when underprivileged children turn any random found object into a toy that can entertain them for hours, days, months even. Money is stretched for weeks longer than it should be, and saved in areas thought impossible. Resources, considered rubbish by those with “more”, become useful parts of every the day life of those with nothing. I have grown to admire, appreciate, and learn from this buoyancy, adopting it when I myself am pinching penny’s to squeeze out a dollar.

One day I called my friend and he told me he was walking through the aisles of a store, trying to do a week’s worth of grocery shopping with only 30 Rand (Roughly $4.00 U.S.). “Let me guess what’s in your trolley,” I said. He seemed to like the idea of an impromptu telephonic game. Game on. “Eggs, a loaf of bread, and two-minute noodles,” I said with absolute confidence. At this point I think he looked around and over his shoulders for a few seconds before answering, “Are you in here?” I laughed and said I wasn’t at the shop, but I knew that line-up well, and had just lived off the same supplies the week before. People who have always had more than enough would be surprised to know how cheap it actually is to have enough.

A material resource can be stretched until the elasticity of that resource is absolutely compromised. But as I took the thirty-minute walk from my flat to the train station yesterday, I thought about one thing that cannot be stretched, manipulated, or messed with: time. Sure, one can learn how to manage it, using every second for the most productive outcome, but those seconds can neither be frozen, lengthened, nor made shorter. With time, you take what you get, and you have to learn to work with it; one has to learn to budget it, and work around it, because it will not work around you. So yesterday, as I walked and watched car after car whiz past me, the drivers turning my thirty-minute walk into a mere five minute drive, seemingly taking their comfort for granted if only in my mind, I realized (maybe for the first time with such an epiphany) that another aspect about poverty is it can be incredibly time-consuming.

Luxuries like cars, microwaves, and hot water from the tap, things seen as “basic needs” in most of the developed world, shave minutes, even hours, off of daily tasks. The twenty-five-minute drive I take to work when I have a car turns into an hour-and-forty-minute journey when I am without; a thirty minute walk to the train station, a forty minute train commute, and another thirty minute walk to my place of work. My mentioning this is far from a complaint, but merely an observation, because I realize that millions, if not billions, of people all over the world live in this constant reality, and rarely, if ever, complain. I mention it because I know how easy it is to take these luxuries for granted; I fall into the trap of becoming ungrateful when they are at my disposal.

For instance, the other day when I borrowed my friend’s car, I popped in here and quickly stopped there; conveniently forgetting that merely one of those stoppings or poppings, taking five minutes out of my car-graced day, would have taken me an extra hour on a day I’m on a taxi-train-foot mission. I was again humbled, and brought back down to reality, when I dropped the car back off at my friend’s, and began my twenty-minute walk home, realizing it would have been a one-minute drive. But I know that I am not alone in my subconscious adaptation and ungratefulness in times of much. I see others around me who blindly take the wonderful luxuries of life completely for granted, and even worse, people who are merciless when it comes to dealing with others who do not have those valuable things.

It is for this reason I am angered to the point of fighting and spitting when I hear a rich South African “Madam” of Constantia complaining that her Domestic Worker from Khayelitsha is late every now and then, the Madam most definitely unaware of the efforts taken and the challenges overcome to even get there at all; the Domestic Worker, coming from a township conveniently placed far from the eyes of the rich, has to wake up around 4:00AM, to boil water for her own children to wash and get them ready for school, making sure they are fed and out the door before she can begin her first walk, or taxi ride, to the first train station, to get on a train that travels for thirty-minutes, taking her to another station where she gets another train and rides for twenty-minutes, to then board a taxi which takes her twenty-minutes and drops her at the outskirts of the wealthy suburb, where no minibus taxis are allowed in. There she begins her thirty-minute walk to the Madan’s mansion.

By the time the Madam is groggily sipping her first wonderful mouthful of coffee, made by the Domestic Worker, she is blissfully unaware that her employee has already been awake for more than four hours. One would argue that the Domestic Worker should not complain because “at least she has employment and it’s her responsibility to get there”, but the complaints I hear do not come from the Domestic Workers; they come from those who have more than enough, if not way too much, and they are insensitive, ignorant and non-empathetic complaints at that. The Domestic Worker is not asking for the right to be late all the time, or for pity or patronizing attitudes, but rather a little understanding when the trains are not running properly, or the taxis are striking, or when her shack is broken into; happenings often perceived as “lies” or “excuses” by many-a-madam.

Cars, microwaves, and hot water from the tap are conveniences of life, not obtainable to all. Conveniences have the power to turn hours into minutes and minutes into seconds, but convenience has a price. Those who cannot afford it have to learn to manage the time, that will not bend for them, and make do with what they are given. I am not saying it is better or worse to have or not have; that is up to the individual to judge for his or her self. But what I am saying is no matter how little or how much we have, it is an important exercise to look around us, taking stock, and being grateful for what we do have, whether great or small, because just as we can count on time to remain the same, predictable, steady force, we can equally count on life for being the unpredictable, unreliable, and mysterious force that can take something and turn it into nothing, or take everything away with one fell swoop. It does us good to appreciate what we have. Because what we have today may indeed not be there tomorrow. An time… it will remain steady, and keep on ticking. It waits for no one.