A Singer Reflects on Toxic Masculinity in Trump's America
[ I wrote this piece in June of 2016, but I didn’t publish it online or anywhere else because I was afraid. Now, on the eve after Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte won the election after assaulting a reporter, the day of the stabbing attack on the Portland train, the week of the Manchester bombing, in the wake of the dismissal of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, as I’ve been watching The Keepers on Netflix, and with Donald Trump as president, I’ve decided to finally post it, fear be damned. ]
From about 5th grade to 8th grade I stopped singing. I made a choice to do so…no singing in church, no singing in school, no singing in public. I loved music and loved to sing, but I stopped because I was afraid. I was afraid to be called a fag, afraid to be seen as gay, and afraid that I would get my ass kicked. And I was right to be afraid, because if I was to sing the way my soul wanted to sing, all of those abuses would’ve rained down upon me in my small, rural, Upper Midwestern community. In seventh grade during lunch hour I was surrounded by a group of camouflage-hat wearing jocks who threw me in the ditch for being a piano-playing church-loving pussy. That reinforced my decision to stay closeted. It wasn’t until 8th grade when I worked up enough courage to sing in public again, thanks to cool older kids at my Lutheran Church Summer camp who sang their hearts out around the campfire.
Even then, the fear continued. I refused to style my hair, because I knew that any boy who spent time grooming himself in front of a mirror could be threatened and accused of being a homosexual. I refused to wear attractive clothing or assert any sense of personal style for the same reason. And once again, I wasn’t overreacting. It was a legitimate concern. It took me until 11th grade to wear the clothing that appealed to me…that expressed my developing sexual and personal joy and identity. I got contact lenses, and I styled my hair. Because I was tall, on the swim team, and got a girlfriend, I was finally protected from any further threats.
I’m now in my mid-40s. As I look back upon my childhood as a musical, gentle, and faith-filled boy, I recognize that almost my entire time spent in school and in the neighborhood was driven by fear. Fear of not being masculine enough. I knew, correctly, that if I let my guard down, I could be teased, emotionally abused, and/or physically assaulted. I didn’t hunt, didn’t swear, didn’t make dirty jokes, and didn’t know anything about sports, so I was a prime target. I would go to piano lessons, to church youth activities, to children’s choir rehearsal, to Lutheran Summer camp, and I would go back to school and lie about it so none of my peers would find out. I weighed every word I said and every activity I participated in, for the sake of my reputation and personal safety.
All this, and I was straight! My heart breaks for my queer brethren who were there with me in school and in town. Their courage and fortitude astounds me.
When I was in my early 30s, my wife got pregnant and I wanted us to have a girl. The baby was born, and before the doctor could say a word I yelled “It’s a boy!” At that moment, a part of me mourned because I dreaded the thought of birthing a boy-child into the world of Men. Male culture, in general, makes me sick. I knew that this baby would grow up, and I would have to help him develop into a loving, open, sexually and mentally secure man. I knew then, and know now, the environment of toxic masculinity he would need to navigate for the rest of his life. I’m so thankful for my own Father who demonstrated a beautiful example of creative, relaxed, strong, and loving masculinity that anchored me, even during my fear-filled childhood years. I want to be a Dad like that, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Upon graduating from high school, I moved away and became a musician. It’s been my vocation ever since, and all I ever do is sing, sing, sing, sing. Oftentimes on Sunday mornings I get invited to be a songleader at church services. For the past 25 years I’ve stood up front at the microphone and looked out at a sea of people, half of them men. So many tragic, shell-shocked Midwestern white men. Many of them are so pulverized by a lifetime of hyper-masculine paranoia and brainwashing that they can no longer function like a human being. They refuse to make eye contact with me. They refuse to smile. They will not, cannot sing, and can barely mutely mouth the words. If I direct and instruct the group to clap along with my music, most men can’t find the beat, and are unable to inhabit their bodies in any sensual, rhythmic way. Their eyes dart around, embarrassed, often standing next to their singing and clapping wives, wondering who might be watching them.
However, I also know that if I were attend a Luke Bryan or AC/DC concert, a Packer game, a UFC fight, a NASCAR race, or a college fraternity party, (or, alas, a strip club) I’d find a throng of guys singin’, dancin’, smilin’, and clappin’ with wild abandon. The only way some of these men can finally relax and emote is to immerse themselves in a bizarre whirlpool of inebriation, competition, groupthink, violence, noise, and misogyny.
I’m writing this on the day after the terrorist shooting at the gay nightclub in Orlando. Also in the news, the murder of singer Christina Grimmie, and the controversial rape trial of a Stanford University athlete. As I read the news with sorrow, I must sadly admit, I’m not really that surprised. We can talk about rape culture, gun control, stalker-ism, ISIS, terrorism, and homophobia, but I see a common denominator: toxic masculinity.
I hear those perverse echoes of my childhood all around me. In amateur and professional sports. In hip-hop, country, and rock music. In American Conservative Christian culture. In religious traditions that refuse to let women in the pulpit, or LGBTQ folks in the pulpit or on the wedding schedule. In the presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee. In high-profile scandals from Bill Clinton to Bill Cosby. In subtle jokes from the mouths of colleagues. In transgender bathroom legislation. In Al Qaeda recruitment videos on the evening news. In the mainstreaming of pornography over a healthy, respectful expression of eroticism and sensuality. On AM talk radio. On my Facebook feed. Incarnated in the person that is Donald Trump.
The terrorist who murdered those 49 people at the Orlando dance club does not surprise me. Yes he was mentally ill, but the severity of his psychological breakdown and his acts of hatred and rage seem to me predictable results of toxic masculinity. Take a psychologically fragile child, raise him in an oppressive religious environment, shame him for his budding homosexuality, and force him to suppress his true identity and sexual orientation, while encouraging him to dominate women, fetishize firearms, and embrace a violent fundamentalist patriarchal theology. With those ingredients, his response is completely predictable. Yes, he’s ultimately solely responsible for his own evil actions. But crimes like these compel humanity to reckon with the rot in our language, our bedrooms, our media, our politics, and our houses of worship.
I want to detoxify masculinity. I want men to live free from never-ending paranoia and threats from other men. Women and girls: what you endure from men in your lives, and have endured throughout history, infuriates me. I want to help create safe environments for all people to healthily live out their sexual orientations. I want to integrate sound theology and masculine identity, so that men know that they are created and loved by God, and can live joyfully, free of shame. I want my son to move about his school and neighborhood without fear for his personal safety. I want guns to be responsibly used by soldiers, cops, and hunters, without any subconscious or overt fetishization or idolatry. I want men to define their masculinity by their fight against rape and rape culture, their fight against sexual exploitation, their fight against racism, their fight for freedom, and their care for the oppressed and less fortunate. I want men to embrace sobriety, gentleness, and respectful language. And I want men to sing!