The Island of Misfit Boys

I’m not a sociologist, psychologist, psychiatrist or cultural anthropologist. Just an observant, sensitive and reasonably intelligent sixty-two-year-old gay American male author, who is concerned about the plight of our boys and young men.

I should also tell you I am an ardent supporter of gender equality. Equal rights. Equal opportunity. Equal pay for the same job. In fact, I think women are at least as qualified as men to capably fulfill the requirements of most any position… including that of President of the United States, though–regrettably–we have yet to elect our first female Commander-in-Chief.

During the course of my thirty-four-year communication career, many of my best bosses and mentors were smart, savvy and successful women. I had a few decent male managers too, but looking back, it’s the women from who I learned the most. They were the ones who encouraged me to take on projects that enhanced my skills, rewarded me for my contributions, and made the greatest positive difference in my career.

I don’t have any empirical data to draw from, but now that I have more time to ponder the “what ifs” of life, I’m seeing a disturbing trend. In the past few years, I’ve encountered a disproportionate number of bright young men (straight and gay) in their twenties and thirties, who are lonely, disenfranchised and struggling. Fighting for their lives as they face their addictions. Trying to launch and differentiate authentic lives in a society that still clings to narrow views of masculinity and offers few accessible male role models.

What worries me is the lack of meaningful structure and focus I see in the lives of young American males. (By the way, in my mind, a passion for fantasy football leagues, video games or binge drinking doesn’t count. As a rule, I don’t view these activities as life affirming or mind expanding, though they can be fun diversions.)

I was discussing this topic with my husband and a close male friend recently, and suddenly found myself transported back to sixth grade in suburban St. Louis. I had just received a writing award from the Daughters of the American Revolution for a piece I had written about the Stamp Act. I don’t recall the focus of my paper. Just the fact that I received recognition for my writing.

I remember that most of the other award recipients were girls. Somewhere in a dog-eared scrapbook from 1968, there is a photograph of all of us standing with our adoring teacher. She, my parents and the female students were proud of our accomplishments. But the other boys? Not so much. The feeling I got from them was:

“Writing is for girls. It’s not something a real boy should be proud of. What really matters is your athletic prowess, your ability to tie Boy Scout knots or cut and polish hard wood with your hands in shop class.”

I realize how ridiculous this sounds, but the feelings that stung my ten-year-old psyche were real. They were also never heard or validated.

As a sixth-grader, what price did I pay for internalizing the notion that writing was a less-than-masculine endeavor? Did this and other similar experiences discourage me from pursuing a literary life until my mid fifties? When did it become uncool for boys to be smart?

In 2020, could it be that as we’re beginning to realize and remedy all the ways American girls have been undervalued in our society, we’re still duping our boys and young men into believing that reading and writing are “softer skills” that might lead someone to suspect they are gay?

Are we sending the message to our boys that it isn’t acceptable within our masculinity framework to be smart, creative and artistic in the United States? Have we boxed our boys into believing some sort of myopic masculine mythology? Is this why some of them are lost or adrift? Is this why some of them snap?

I don’t have answers to any of these difficult questions. But I think we could start by listening to our boys, letting them voice their fears, loving them for their strengths and frailties, and encouraging them to follow their dreams whether it leads to refining the inner workings of an airplane engine, nursing a segment of our aging population or writing the next great American novel.

Have we created a metaphorical place for our young men, which they are desperately trying to escape?

What more can we do to help guide, challenge and mentor the young men in American society so that they can find their bliss and leave the island of misfit boys?

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “The Island of Misfit Boys

  1. Gender equality is not a ‘women’s issue’ – it’s good for men too,Seriously, gender should not matter it’s the person doing the job, being who they are, they should be respected for that and judged if necessary on their achievements. But there is still a long way to go, and we’ll only get there by drawing more men into the conversation. Better parental leave for fathers would be a good start

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    1. I couldn’t agree more. As a young child I watched my mother navigate her way back to work after my dad suffered a heart attack. She was a trailblazer and I will forever be a champion for gender equality as a result of her influence.

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  2. Maybe paint me as uncool… I’ve wanted to be a writer since 1978 (even though I never really wrote anything until 2013). I have a 14 year old boy (gamer, burgeoning demolitions expert). I worry about his long term success. Because I work in nonprofits, the vast majority of positions are staffed by women. It makes it hard for me to see a career path for a male. Because he’s now in high school and his areas of interest are now solidifying (science) I’m hoping it gets easier for me to envision him growing in a field.

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  3. I have a slightly different perspective on video games and fantasy leagues.

    My kids are not at all into sports, but I know three other sports families that use fantasy leagues as a family activity. It provides them with more to talk about while they watch the games, gives them all a vested interest, and in some cases provides some healthy competition. The kids I know who are super into fantasy leagues know their stats, know their game, and can hold their own in a sports conversation with adults. I have only seen the positive side of this activity, but I know it is only one side.

    As for video games, I have three gamers in my house, my two boys and my husband. I will be the first one to tell you that gamers can be challenging to parent and live with, but I will also be the first one to tell you the benefits of gaming. Gamers have to know how to work as a team to succeed in the big campaigns, how to use their characters’ strengths and weaknesses to their advantage, and how to communicate with people who may be very different from them.

    Gaming brings people together, and gaming keeps people together. We have moved our kids more than I would have liked, but their gaming friends have remained constant and they have kept in touch with their old friends through gaming. I wish gaming was given more respect. I don’t say this to dismiss your perspective, only to share mine. Thank you for the platform. 😉

    I too worry about my boys, and I too wish that sexuality, masculinity, and femininity weren’t so narrowly defined. Finishing on a ray of hope though, my oldest son’s best friend is studying to be a nurse. He will be fantastic, and I am really excited for him! 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your perspective, Julie. I’m glad to know that you’re seeing fantasy leagues and video games leading to positive connections for people. Perhaps I’m a little old school on this, but having two sons of my own I worry about the external pressures of society and the world they have to navigate.

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  4. Mark, there actually has been a men’s movement dealing with these kinds of issues since at least the 1970s–in fact, there have been several men’s movements, not all the same. In the aftermath of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s, local men’s groups sprung up in several cities trying to deal with issues of sexism and sex roles and how it affected men as well as women. These groups tended to be pro-feminist, pro-gay and anti-sexist, and sometimes had activist programs dealing with violence against women. These groups met in a national conference called Men and Masculinity in 1975 in Knoxville, Tn. This conference became a national event held each year in a different city, and eventually an organization was founded. It has had different names but still exists under the name NOMAS–National Organization of Men Against Sexism. Chicago had an active group in the 70s and 80s called the Chicago Men’s Gathering, which sponsored men’s consciousness-raising groups (=men’s support groups), a quarterly Sharing Day, and for a few years an annual weekend retreat in Kenosha Wisconsin. I became involved in the Chicago group and remained active for several years, and attended 6 or 7 of the national conferences. They were positive and self-affirming for me. After the early years, other men’s movement groups started to spring up. Some were actually anti-feminist and focused on men’s divorce rights. The poet Robert Bly became active in a group which held retreats and seemed focused on getting men to open up to other men about some of their deepest their vulnerabilities. There was a wonderful documentary on PBS years ago about Bly and his workshops. There have been many books, articles, and journals written about the Men’s Movement. I googled “Men’s Movement Knoxville” just now to get some good background information on all of this and some links to other websites and materials.

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    1. Thank you, Mark, for your historical perspective and insights on this important topic. Even in 2020, it’s difficult for young men, straight and gay, to find their way. I felt the need to shine a light on what I have experienced recently.

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      1. Absolutely. It is an issue that is always relevant. When I was involved we talked of how expectations of how men and boys “should” act were destructive to a lot of us. Men and boys sometimes do not want to be aggressive. Sometimes they want to express their feelings. Sometimes they want to cry. In fact, one of the previous names of NOMAS was the NATIONAL ORGANIZATION OF CHANGING MEN.

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  5. If there’s a bright spot in all of this, it’s the fact that 2 mid-century gay men have reached out to so many of these young men in our daily routine, either at the gym, at the coffeeshops, around our home, or in other activities we enjoy…and that they have responded so positively, and have become our friends!

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  6. That is great, Tom! I congratulate you on that. One of the nice things about singing in the Windy City Gay Chorus is the different age ranges of the people. My husband Bob and I met two of the youngest members of the chorus at a chorus game night a few years ago, and started a friendship that has been very rewarding. By the way, I wrote an article for the Chicago Men’s Gathering Newsletter a long time ago which was published in a book. The book is called MEN FREEING MEN and my article was titled “Hugging My Father.”

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