From first through 12th grade, my peers bullied me for being more feminine than the other boys. My friends at school were girls. I enjoyed spending time with women more than men, particularly within my family. I enjoyed “girly” things like playing with my mom’s high heels, wearing nail polish, and figure skating—things society has taught us to believe that boys should not enjoy. So my classmates called me girl, sissy, queer, and other unsavory names. And it wasn’t just the popular kids who bullied me: I became a go-to punching bag for anyone who was “uncool” or who existed outside the norm.
Consequently, I always—and I use “always” intentionally—felt as though I was a very feminine (cisgender) boy. I saw myself as so far removed from normative masculinity that I would fantasize about being a girl so that my life wouldn’t be so challenging as a boy.
Undergrad didn’t change much in terms of how I saw myself in relation to masculinity. I no longer wanted to wear high heels or paint my nails (except for black nail polish during my emo phase), but I was openly queer/not heterosexual, which, as stereotypes of queer men continue to tell us, is somehow inherently not masculine. Even among some queer and gay men, being “straight-acting” is hoisted up as the ideal. Just look at how some of us advertise what we’re looking for on social dating apps. I continued to feel like a very feminine man.
Only recently have I realized that I possess a great deal of masculine energy. As Carline Turner over at Difference Works summarized in her brief blog about masculine and feminine leadership strengths, I noticed that I more easily gravitated toward self-assertion than integration, to rational knowledge over intuitive wisdom, and to competition over cooperation. So when I took up my leadership doctoral program’s strong recommendation to practice new ways of leading (which arguably could be considered feminine), I tended to do so in what felt like mechanical ways. It was a real struggle to integrate and embody these new leadership practices and not to simply assert or execute them as a matter of course. After a few years of trial and error, resistance and acceptance, frustration and fulfillment, I came to understand that it was all in the approach: once I took ownership of and honored the masculine, I began to more comfortably and authentically honor and integrate the feminine—both as a leader and as a person.
So what exactly did this process look like? Below are four ways I began to take ownership of and honor the masculine.
I began by recognizing that, inherently, masculinity (as well as femininity) is neither good nor bad; it simply is. This helped me let go of my shame and guilt for being “too feminine” or “not masculine enough.” It also illustrated that masculinity and femininity are not necessarily opposite sides of a spectrum, and that there are other ways that might encompass both, or neither.
Once I stopped placing a value judgment on masculinity, I found that I could take stock of the ways my masculinity was (and was not) serving me as a person and leader. Because I had spent so much of my life assessing the extent to which I was (not) masculine, I wasn’t noticing how my masculinity was making an impact on my personal and professional life.
I spent more time with my male friends, particularly my queer (cisgender) male friends. I’m not trying to make the case here for “men-only” spaces. Rather, I discovered that, for me, I had not been spending a lot of social time with men at all. This allowed me to reflect differently on my masculinity and on myself as a person. The range of masculine and feminine energy and expression in the queer community prompted pride and humility.
As I wrote previously [Minding the Gap between Action and Reaction], mindfulness has been a critical component to honoring the masculine. None of the previous steps would have been possible without the reflection, awareness, and intentionality involved in my mindfulness practices.
As a man, it is imperative that I incorporate feminine ways of knowing and leading into my personal and professional life. There are numerous blogs and other media that emphasize the importance of both masculine and feminine leadership strengths to our current political, social, and organizational challenges, and the benefits are there. For me, it has translated into stronger and more effective working relationships with my peers, employees, supervisor, and senior administrators. Perhaps most importantly, it has translated into stronger connections to my Self. I find that my spiritual practices have deepened and have been enriched. I’ve discovered that I’m actually more introverted than extroverted, and thus I can better attend to my self-care and renewal. I enjoy deeper emotional and spiritual connections with those around me—and the list could go on.
Though the masculine and the feminine are present in different forms, they both exist within us—and I do mean all of us. What does honoring them look like for you?
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