Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Notes on Man-Loving: a gay radical profeminist's reflections

[image of David Cassidy is from here]

When I was young I had crushes on boys, knowing very well that society wasn't going to applaud that fact. Probably my biggest celebrity crush was on David Cassidy, aka Keith Partridge of The Partridge Family. (I mean look at him. Come on. He's beautiful! And it's not JUST physical beauty either. For me it never is just that.) There's a sweetness to the man. A gentleness. I grew up at a time when men who were understood to be cute or handsome were not bulky with muscles or heavily masculinist. There was a sense of gentleness about men back then, at least the ones I drawn to. Those have always been the kind of men I've been attracted to. Without exception. If someone tells me about a man and says "he's really sweet and caring" that's my cue to take interest. Even better if "and he's really emotionally available and is able to talk about his feelings". Yeah, that's my guy. But he has yet to appear in my life.

When a teenager I had a boyfriend. I was in love with him but his self-esteem was so poor and my communication skills so non-existent that he never knew it. He never knew I loved him. Until decades later when we reconnected, and I told him how strong my feelings were for him back then. We were never sexual, out of fear. But we were close, physically. His step-dad walked into his bedroom, where I was sitting with my arms around him, and yelled at my boyfriend. The look in his eyes said "flee!". So I just left, wondering how much yelling my boyfriend would have to endure for letting a boy his age put his arms around him in affection and love. The step-dad then moved him far away in order to break us up. It worked, against our best efforts to not let the distance destroy what we had... for way too short a period of time.

As a man I've had a few love relationships with men. Almost all of them with profeminist men.

But far more than those profeminists, I've loved many, many other men too. Of many ethnicities, sexualities, and classes. A good deal of diversity in those areas can be found in my extended family alone. Except, oddly, I am the only gay man and the only Jewish person. All the other Jews in my family are dead. And as for others who might be lesbian or gay, there is one cousin who may have been gay, had he not grown up in such an anti-gay white, working class culture. (I was raised middle class, for the most part, but the homophobia was just as threatening.) He is strong enough to take care of himself in a physical fight, but no matter what, if a group of whiteboys wants to take you out, they can do it. So he's closeted, and is maybe bisexual inside, and heterosexual outside. Only heterosexual outside. Except for those few years with me, which I've written about elsewhere on this blog. Incest was a theme in our family, much the way alcoholism is in other's families.

I posted about this at the MacKenzie Phillips thread because I wanted people to understand that incest is often very emotionally complicated, but even in its complexity the abuse of it doesn't disappear. The erosion of needed boundaries, the confusion, the experience of knowing people are getting needs met in ways that are destructive to souls and bodies is all there. The turning of children into adults through sexual abuse, is a devastating thing. What has not been written about much is how children who are sexually abused by adults tend to find one another, and bond, not always in healthy ways. My cousin and I were, unbeknown to each  other, sexually assaulted by the same man. Me at twelve, him more like at nine. And he and I were both abused by other males as well. Later we'd learn of this commonality in our past. But he's never spoken about it except to confirm that it happened. He's never spoken about it and so it lives in him doing damage to this day. Not that talking about it makes the damage go away. But it can at least take away some of the shame. Talking about it with caring people can at least do that.

As fully grown adults, over the age of thirty, he and I used each other. Years earlier I had engaged him in a sexual relationship, not a romantic one. He was open to it, but upon closer and more honest self-reflection my bringing it to him was abusive in and of itself, regardless of what he was open to doing.

As grown adults we'd meet in motel rooms he'd paid for in order to have a place in which we could secretely have sex. Having sex came from his need, my lack of boundaries, and my wish for some connection to and affection from a man I loved (I loved him, but not romantically). He gave me connection, but not affection. Beyond the secretive world he and I participated in I felt like there'd be little chance of me ever finding "true love". When I say true love what I mean is what I saw today in a repeat on Oprah, with guests Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, Portia de Rossi. It's "that look" that they have when they see each other. It's about the most beautiful love I've seen on TV, and thank you Oprah for having them both on your show and having a segment on their wedding. It was beautiful.

[image of Ellen and Portia is from here]

My cousin's life has been a mess of pot-smoking, too much drinking, using and abusing women, and neglecting children he's had with several women, none of whom he supports in any way. And I love him but I don't like what he's done with his life, to himself, and especially to other people--those women and children.

After a few years of struggling to figure out how to say no to him, I finally figured out that if I simply didn't answer his calls, which always came out of the blue, to meet him in motels--if I didn't answer the phone when he called, time would pass before he'd call again. And then more time would pass. And it's a good thing I figured out that what I needed to do was not answer the phone. Because I was becoming increasingly despondent about meeting him for sex. He smoked and I hate cigarette smoke. I'd tell him not to smoke inside but he'd smoke in the bathroom with the door closed, and then would leave it open when he'd put out his cigarette. He needed the cigarettes to ease his panic about wanting sex with men. As far as I know I'm the only man he's been sexual with "consensually", in his adult life.

What he wanted me for was sexual satisfaction. What I wanted from him was affection. I've never been that into sex, probably because of my abuse history as a child. I've seen sexually abused children have their lives altered in many ways, thrown off some unknowable non-abused course along another trajectory: some of us become compulsive about getting sex, to try and turn it into love, or we give it freely or for money because we think that's what we're for and what we're worth. Others of us shy away from sex.

Others figure out how to live lives that outwardly appear as though there were no damaging effects at all of the incest, child molestation, child sexual assault, or child rape. But the damage is there. And I hear all about it: the dissociation, the not being able to be present during sex with one's partner or spouse, the use of pornography to keep oneself focused on anything other than what was is most feeling deep down: the fear, the sorrow, the pain. Using drugs and alcohol to do the same, to numb out or get into an altered state.

And then there are people who play power games with one another or get into rough scenes, because mutuality and really being seen, and treated with respect is too terrifying or just too foreign, to unfamiliar. So better to put on costumes, internally or externally. Or have emotionally unhealthy dynamics to serve as a distraction from that old buried pain. Or better have one's power manipulated, because it seems like what sex is supposed to be, because power was never shared appropriately or respectfully during the abuses of the past.

Most of my loving of men has not been sexual, however. Mostly it has been directed into non-sexual friendships with gay and heterosexual men. I have a surrogate nephew for example. He was raped as a little boy by an older white boy. His childhood was atrocious: he had an abusive mom who didn't know how to love, and suffered physical and emotional abuse from many men. His father, who is American Indian, left his life early. He tells me I'm the first grown man he met he felt completely safe with. I think he knew I understood what it meant, viscerally, to be sexually abused as child, and how trust not betrayed is so very important in every relationship after that.

Gay men have tended to be the men he feels safer with I suspect because we know what feeling shamed, denigrated, and despised is like, and tend to be more sensitive to those who feel similarly, even if for different reasons. Not that there aren't callous-as-hell gay men, but I've honestly never known one. My "nephew" is married to a woman and they have a child. He's reasonably happy, now that the flaskbacks have stopped being a nightly intrusion into his dreams. He's been suicidal often during the many years I've known him. I've had to talk him through it a lot. Bring him to some sense of himself as not totally damaged, as worthwhile, as lovable. I love him. Sometimes saying that to him does him a lot of good. I think knowing you are loved when you feel such deep self-hatred is healing. It seems that way between us, anyway.

There are even more times I've talked him through being so triggered he didn't know what reality he was in--the then or the now. They are fused when he is triggered and he needs help untangling the past from the present at those times.

I have a heterosexual male friend, in his twenties, who is like a little brother to me. I adore him. He knows to call me with any emotional distress. If he's able to reach out, he reaches out to me and I feel lucky about that, to know him and to have his trust. A trust not betrayed. He's heterosexual, white, and from a family without much spare money.

I hold a general love of male survivors of sexual assault. And for gay men. And for men who are gentle, sweet, and emotionally vulnerable. It's the men who seem always to have a guard up that worry me. And the men who really do play into the stereotypes of only being able to talk sports and cars and "women" as if women were something to conquer and possess, take, use, abuse, and cast off like dirty laundry.

My cousin has done with that with women. He has that attitude about women more often than not. But I love him, now as a cousin with lots of boundaries in place. I am not close with him, though, due to his abuses of women.

Every heterosexual woman I know well has stories like this, of loving men who treat women well, of loving men who don't show much respect for women at all. This is also true for most of the lesbian women I know. Maybe it was loving their fathers or brothers. Almost all of the women I know have tried hard to love men who didn't know how to love with vulnerability and honesty. And those women have been very hurt. And they often try again with someone else who seems like he won't be like the last guy. And too often he is like the last guy.

The women I know personally do not hate men. Not one woman I know well hates men. What they and I hate is what men do that hurts women. We hate the hatred men show towards women in so many ways. And the disrespect, and the indignities that men too often claim as "my right". My right to access images of raped women. My right to not grow emotionally. My right to speak however I want to, no matter how it affects the woman I'm with. My right to not be accountable. It's this stuff I hate. And the institutions that keep misogyny and sexism, white supremacy and contempt for people of color by whites in place. And I hate that my white and male dominated society makes vulnerability in all of us an interpersonal liability rather than something to cherish and respect.

Some men tell me about how girls get to cry and boys don't. My male cousin's sisters got made fun of by him each and every time they cried. They were shamed for crying. So I'm not sure what world those men are talking about, but it's not the one I grew up in.

I know a lot about men, having tried to relate to so many men in so many ways over the years. I know we have protective walls up. I know we feel frightened and insecure much more than we often let on to other men. I know we selfishly need women because without women we would never get to know ourselves at all. I know we project our own self-hatred, and our contempt for our vulnerability onto women and some of us punish women for being vulnerable to men. And some men are kind to women. Some men do respect women. A few are accountable and honest. But not enough.

I love men. But I hate what men do that hurts women. So I hate rape and I hate battery and I hate incest and male-created and male-run economic systems which keep women poor. I hate the institutions and systems which keep that all in place. So that's a lot to hate, I guess. But there's also a lot to love: all the men who refuse to be hard and cold and distant. All the men who refuse to put down women as a form of entertainment among buddies. All the men who refuse to misuse our entitlements of access to get what we want even when a woman doesn't want it. And I'm not just referring to sex here. I'm talking about time, energy, and attention. Care, compassion, and concern. I see men, including myself, get quite upset at times when women do not show what is supposed to be "requisite care" for us men.

One difference between me and most men I know is that I give to women, emotionally, in support, in encouragement, in validation. I give most days to this. (So who has time for a boyfriend?!) (And, this is nothing compared to what women give men and boys. But it is what I have to offer, and I do it with as much love as I can find each day.) That is the biggest difference, I think, between me and most men. And I value women's fight for liberation from male domination. I value it more than most anything else. Because I've seen what male domination has done to the women in my life. It's done things, it has injured women in ways men do not routinely injure one another. Men don't generally call one another terms that are designed to hurt and degrade someone because they are female. Men rarely rape men in environments where there are girls and women. Men do not batter each other to the point of putting one of them in the hospital, repeatedly if they live with that man under one roof. Unless it's a father beating his son. Men do horrible things to women because the women are female not male. I hate that about men.

My life is committed to loving women and to loving justice for women. To loving into being a world in which men are not cruel or callous to women. To bringing us closer to a time when misogyny isn't socially real. And for that to happen, racism and heterosexism will have to go along with patriarchy. For racism is one form of misogyny, as is heterosexism. That those two forms of oppression impact men too doesn't mean they are not misogynistic in the ways they harm women.

I recognise that women can be abusive in many ways. In almost all the ways men can be abusive. I don't believe women are, collectively, "good" any more than I believe men are, collectively, "bad". I think we are all human beings struggling in some ways, some of us more than others, some of us with more resources than others.

And what I have found out, in the last several years of my life is something white folks and men of color generally don't seem to know: Black women have to endure A LOT in the course of getting through each day. More than I can say; more than this white man could ever have imagined, even after reading a lot of very honest novels and essays by mostly African American and other Western Black women. What I have learned is Black women's lives are difficult in ways Black men's lives and white women's lives are not. And this in no way means white women or men of color have it easy. White women endure so much sexism, so systematically, and almost never get validation that what they're experiencing aren't just random acts of unkindness. Most men of color endure white supremacist racism daily. And white men's lives are not glorious. Not by a long shot. But when you consider what ELSE men of color have to endure, what ELSE white women have to endure, and what ELSE women of color have to endure that none of those other groups face, daily, it is staggering and appalling. And so damned invisibilised socially.

There are systems in place to make sure expressed rage flows only or primarily in certain directions. Husbands who work outside of the home don't beat up their bosses as much as they beat up their wives. There are many reasons for that, the most obvious being men are raised to think abusing women is ok, and knowing damn well that if you beat up your boss you'll probably be looking for work the next day.

So when men think I'm a man-hater (and many who don't know me personally do think this), I just shake my head and think "Little do you know". When men think this because of the level of support I give to women, because of the work I do to try and make this a more humane world for women, that doesn't mean I think men are not deserving of love and care. It means I hope men learn how to give it to one another, to free women up to take care of themselves. There's no hatred in that wish. Only hope.


  1. David Cassidy, Ellen and Portia!
    Who would have thought we'd have lived long enough to see all of this in one blog :-)

  2. From David Cassidy to Derrick Jensen in two posts!! lol