Some of my defining memories of adolescence are a series of intense conversations I had with my father. These conversations seemed spontaneous, but they always happened somewhere beautiful – sitting on the boot of a car in a pine forest, driving through mountains as the night fell, standing at the edge of a cliff as the grey sea washed over the rocks below. When we talked in these places, he broke down the adult world into digestible fragments for me. We discussed sex and relationships, death and life, the different kinds of love, the state of the world. I learned much about him during these moments – he abandoned all pretence and spoke directly and honestly. It was a mark of his respect for me that he wanted to share his hard-won insight.
But all the while, even when we were talking, I was haunted by the knowledge that I struggled to relate to some of what he was saying. I felt I betrayed him by not absorbing his words and applying them to my own life, but I sometimes could not. His view of the world was rooted in his idea of manhood. Many of the thoughts he ventured were coloured and framed by the expectation that one day I would benefit from this knowledge as a man. Time and again the tropes of men as providers and protectors surfaced, not as a conscious expression of the roles he thought I should play, but in a subtler way – they were the cornerstones of his worldview.
For a long time, almost past the horizon of memory, his concept of manhood has sat uncomfortably with me. I’ve comfortably identified as male my whole life, but as I’ve grown up it seems less and less that the eventual destination of my journey is to be a man in that traditional sense of the word. In the classroom, on the sports field, at parties, even on the Internet, I’ve never felt that I belonged in the communities of men that I have encountered.
And yet for the most part, when they are not acting as bastions for harmful and silencing stereotypes of masculinity, these communities are valuable places. They empower men by giving them a network of friends and equals in a society that often shames men who share their emotions. Furthermore, spaces like men’s sheds are vital because they transcend the barriers of age and generational identity. While people of my age are predisposed to listen to messages about mental health and seeking help, many men older than me have experienced a lifetime of socialisation against reaching out in times of trouble.
The opportunity to share these experiences privately can counteract a secret and suffocating aloneness. Several of the older men in my life have told me about moments of breakthrough where they took the plunge and confided in others. They were amazed to discover that the trials they had undergone in isolation were in fact experiences they had in common with their friends and peers.
I think that as Australia’s cultural discourse evolves, the narratives of masculinity we espouse evolve simultaneously. Now more than ever it is acceptable for men to discuss their insights and feelings. Men are freer to pursue their preferred careers, hobbies and lifestyles without fear of stigma. Rarely are deep friendships between men subject to the suspicion and innuendo of others – emotional bonds can develop free of the menace of homophobia. Resources and counselling services for men navigating trauma and mental illness are increasingly (if imperfectly) accessible. Our idea of what men can be and do relies less and less on stale concepts of performative masculinity, which in turn allows men broader latitude to define their identities in their own terms.
One of the hallmarks of generational change is the preservation of knowledge that is deemed valuable, accompanied by the discarding of that which is not. I know that my father imparted to me many principles I cherish, such as respect, commitment and pacifism. Conversely, many of the things he told me are less relevant. Many times he talked about marriage, women and gender roles in domestic life: his stories were heartfelt but largely inapplicable to my life as a gay man. My father did an admirable job of transmitting his understanding of manhood to me, and by picking and choosing the insights I wished to absorb I developed my own conception of masculinity.
The problem with this relationship is that this transmission of cultural knowledge is almost never a two-way street: young men rarely choose to discuss their viewpoints with those who first educated them. Men who learned about the world in times of different norms and morals can feel alienated by the messages about manhood that young people propagate. Consistently abandoning them by the wayside of these discussions can leave them reluctant to access the opportunities and freedoms that a more expansive view of masculinity affords.
One of the greatest hurdles I faced when coming out as gay to my father was the fear that in doing so I rejected many of the ideas about manhood that he had bequeathed to me. I worried that because my sexuality fell beyond the pale of his experience, he would feel distant from me. But in fact, just the opposite happened: he told me that he loved me, and that he was receptive to learning more. When he weathered a crisis shortly after, it took me time to convince him that he was not burdening me by reaching out for support. Both of these times I was humbled by the way my father chose to incorporate my perspectives into his worldview. His responses to alternative ideas about masculinity challenged my preconceptions about intergenerational knowledge-sharing.
Men are human beings, and that fact entails imperfections and weaknesses. Nobody should feel the obligations to retain a masterful façade and suppress their own suffering when faced with challenges. Nor should anyone feel that an unalterable aspect of their identity compromises their masculinity and needs to be atoned for. To people my age these reflections probably seem banal, but for many older men these ideas are radical.
Fundamentally masculinity is about what it means to be a man, and a great wealth of human diversity shows us this can take millions of different forms. It excites me to think that instead of falling outside the scope of previous definitions of manhood, I can push its limits beyond tradition while honouring those of its teachings worth preserving. But at the same time it is selfish and harmful for me to keep to myself the rewards I reap from this process. The evolution of masculinity is an intergenerational dialogue, and it’s my responsibility to talk back.