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 living, 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?