Transforming Masculinity

by Will Rowan

My name is William, and I am a man. I am a man who struggles with how to be me in a culture that has strict definitions of what a man should and shouldn’t be. I am a man who had to relearn to cry as an adult. I am a man who struggles with rage and who needs to remind myself that I can ask for help when life is overwhelming. I am a man who is getting better at admitting and apologizing when I am wrong or when I have made a mistake. I am a man who listens to and believes women. I am a man who is in service to my community, which includes all beings of the Earth. I am a man who seeks the mystery.

When I was 25, I came to a gathering called Rites of Spring. Within half a day, every man (and a few women) who I had met came up to me at lunch and told me that I should go to the beach and meet the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf. How could I say no to that?

On the beach, we met each other hand to hand, body to body. We pushed each other upwards, and we caught each other when we fell. And we held each other when we cried—we gave each other space to let out the pressure that had been building and building inside of us. But we let it out without fear of hurting anyone, because we held each other.

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Will and Donovan demonstrate during the workshop (photo by Moira Ashleigh)

And over the years, we built networks of trust with one another. We howled into the distance between us and our brothers called back, offering to us a witness of our struggles. And we grappled with what it means to be a good person in a world that tells us over and over that to be a real man we have to hurt our sisters, our brothers, and all others who dare to not bow at the altar of He-Man. We sacralized this work, built a temple, and took our place in the web of our community.

And now we’re sharing it with the world in the hopes that other men can learn from our stumbles and our successes and take up this important work themselves.

For the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Donovan Arthen and I spoke about our experiences with the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf, its founding, its development, and the effect it has had in our lives. The presentation was called Transforming Masculinity: Changing the Way that Men Engage with Communities. The response to the material from the fifty-some-odd people in the room was palpable and I hope we left them inspired to go out and do their own version of this important work. Unfortunately, Donovan and I spoke so passionately about the subject that we ran out of time to answer questions!

So here are some of the questions folks wrote down for us along with my answers. Please note, these are my answers, based on my experience, and I do not speak for Donovan or for the all members of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf.

What suggestions do you have for transferring this experience to young men living in an urban setting?

Donovan did answer this one at the Parliament. He suggested taking them out of the urban setting to begin with. I definitely second that. Even if that’s not possible, it’s important to bring this work away from environments associated the sort of heckling that often goes along with recreational and sporting culture among men. A good urban setting for this kind of work would be a martial arts dojo, and I would suggest respecting the customs of the dojo by bowing when entering or leaving the mats. Keeping whatever space this happens in sacred is important.

Say there is a young man who is struggling with toxic masculinity to the point of making others feel uncomfortable. However, this young man doesn’t see a need to change. How do you help him become aware of his actions?

This is a tough one. This kind of young man is habituated to discount the words of women and feminine folk, and he also is likely to ignore any criticism of his actions from any source — especially if it’s paternal. To accept criticism is to admit defeat and lose face, and this defensive mindset is a master shape-changer that can rationalize itself for days.  (I should know, I’ve lived it.)  He needs to be called on his behavior by people he respects and trusts who are willing to be patient with him refusing their criticism over and over again. And in order for that to happen, somebody has to gain his trust and respect first. That’s a lot of emotional labor, and it’s definitely not a burden to be put on the shoulders of the ones he’s making uncomfortable. This sort of emotional education is often the province of coaches, outdoor educators, and camp counselors. The trouble is, a lot of coaches—men specifically—are still operating within the constraints of the same model of masculinity and so need to break themselves out before they can do this work for others.

Do you share your vulnerabilities with each other? Also do you work on relationships with women?

In some of our work in the past five years, we’ve come together to share what we’re going through in our lives and how we’re doing. The network of howls (sending a simple coded email to a whole list and whoever is available can respond), has been another way for us to see each other in a supportive way at our most vulnerable. As to relationships with women, we’re all working on our own relationships and support each other on an individual level as requested by each other. However, some of the best work on that that I’ve seen in our community was when we hosted a series of discussions over several years entitled “I’m a Guy, Any Questions?” During those we dug into a lot of the pervasive societal gender dynamics we see around us and talked about ways that men can use their privilege to support women rather than marginalize them

What are the ways (if any) that a woman can assist a man to break the societal expectations of masculinity?

I have to say it’s really tough for me to suggest that women and feminine folk take on more emotional labor than is already loaded on them by default in our culture. This is our work, and we really can’t ask you to shoulder the burden for us. That being said, when you have the bandwidth, there are some things that in my experience help.

1) Don’t pull your punches, rhetorically speaking. Sparing our feelings only teaches us that our comfort in ourselves is more important than your emotional well-being and sovereignty.
2) Celebrate and encourage the ways that men around you are breaking societal expectations. Sometimes we’re putting a brave face on it, but we’re internally nervous as heck.
3) Please don’t participate in the casual shaming of “feminine” behavior in men, and call shamers out.
4) This is a silly one: call it a bun, not a man-bun.  It’s the same hairstyle. We don’t need to be insulated from the merest whiff of femininity by having it called “guy-liner.” Is our masculinity really so fragile we have to put “man-” in front of a purse in order to carry a moderate number of things around? #petpeeves

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2 thoughts on “Transforming Masculinity

  1. Fantastic article! I am so glad you and Donovan took this work out on the streets by bringing it to the Parliament. Great answers to some tough questions too.

  2. Pingback: Parliament of World’s Religions 2018 – A Personal Report – EarthSpirit Voices

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