Two days before the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, my girlfriend was pulled into a bitter exchange by her son’s father. The conversation began when he sent her a picture of their son, Noah, holding up an over-sized monster truck T-shirt with the caption, “This is how little boys should dress.” For the next hour, he repeatedly excused Noah’s misbehavior as “a little boy’s energy,” then accused her of destroying Noah’s childhood by allowing him to wear pink and being sensitive with him instead of firm.
The question of masculinity comes up often in our home, primarily, because my girlfriend and I both believe in allowing our children to explore their interests and identities organically. Her son, Noah, enjoys Shopkins and unicorns. His favorite colors are purple and pink (really, it’s purple, but he felt bad for pink and didn’t want it to be sad).
He also loves dinosaurs and bow ties. He likes to have his nails painted. He also likes to build things, so much that he constructed his own Shopkin’s gumball machine because he didn’t have one of his own.
Noah is 6 years old, and I’ve known him for just over a year. In that time, I’ve seen him diagnosed with ADHD and struggle with anger. I’ve seen him lash out at those he thinks are hurting his mother. I’ve seen him break down and cry about a lost Shopkin. I’ve seen him without ADHD medicine, and I’ve seen him with it. I’ve gone with the family to kindergarten celebrations and parent-teacher night. I am not Noah’s father, yet I understand him more than his father ever will.
From the moment Mallerie and I began dating, she shared with me that Noah’s father wholly rejected Noah as he was and tried desperately to “make him a man.” This horrified me as a parent and as a feminist. On one hand, I couldn’t imagine pushing a small child to hide parts of themselves. On the other, I was beyond exhausted with the idea that masculinity had to look a certain way. I felt for her. I wanted to help her. But the truth is, I had nothing to offer.
More than I feared being a father, I feared having a son. I have never been manly. I had no idea how to raise a boy.
My parents divorced when I was 2 years old, and my mother gained full custody. At the time, my father had his own demons to work through. I didn’t see him again until I was 5, and even then it was sporadic at first. My mother didn’t remarry until I was 9. All this is to say, I was raised almost entirely by a single mother during my early years. Much of what I know, I learned from her.
Once my dad had pulled his life together, he did become a strong presence in my life. Looking back, I’m grateful that we developed a relationship when we did because my mother had begun dating again and the men made me feel, for lack of a better word, gross. They weren’t inherently dangerous. They were just awkward and clearly not excited about interacting with me. My father provided an important balance.
My father, like me, is not traditionally masculine. He is a Texan through and through, so he fishes and can clean a deer with his eyes closed. He can damn near fix anything, and I’ve never seen him struggle to carry a heavy load. But those things are only one part of him, and they’re driven less by a need to exert his manhood than a strong work ethic. It’s not so much that he’s drawn to “manly” activities; he’s just wired to get things done, so he learned how to do them on his own.
During one summer, he rebuilt a truck engine and dug through a septic tank when it clogged. But those were necessities. The things he did daily, the things he valued, were keeping the trailer as clean as possible and cooking good meals. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone enjoy cooking as much as my father. He actually seeks out people to cook for, and he delivers meals to everyone from his dentist to his florist. His “feminine” qualities are as superficial as his “masculine” qualities, though.
The most obvious way my father strayed from traditional masculinity was his empathy, something I was internalizing well before I understood it. By the time my mother remarried, I had learned that it was not only acceptable for men to be emotional, but it was perfectly normal to tell other men that you love them.
This was vital, as my mother’s new husband embodies traditional masculinity to a fault.
He’s quiet and removed — usually refusing to show emotions other than anger and indifference, and he’s a vocal homophobe. I didn’t really understand why my stepfather always yelled at me or why he was so adamant that I learn to work with my hands, at least not as a boy.
It took college, and a lot of very patient friends, to help me understand that he was trying to mold me into a traditionally masculine man.
When I first learned that I was going to be a father, I begged the universe for a daughter. It just made sense. I’m an outspoken feminist. I connect with my female students more organically than with my male students. Virtually none of my friends were cisgender straight men. Put simply, I felt confident that I could raise a daughter.
By a stroke of luck, I had identical twin girls. I promptly forgot my fears about parenting a young boy and dug into the more familiar work of connecting with my daughters. That is, until I met Mallerie and her son, Noah. My hesitation returned immediately. How would I talk to him? What should I get him for Christmas?
I honestly believed that his being anatomically male meant that I would never understand him. Of course, I understand now that my anxiety was absurd. Sure, Noah is well off the beaten path of traditional masculinity, but what being around him has really taught me is that he’s a kid. I know how to connect with kids. Turns out, parenting sons isn’t that different from parenting daughters if you focus on raising good human beings, rather than cardboard cutouts of the gender binary.
The major complication, I found, was Noah’s dad. I could write volumes on his failures as a father, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus only on his devotion to hypermasculinity here.
How could we validate Noah as he is if his father continually pushes him to suppress his sensitivity and reject his favorite toys?
More importantly, what’s at stake for Noah if he absorbs his father’s version of masculinity?
Children are not just at risk of physical and emotional abuse in the name of masculinity, but also of internalizing the impulse to silence their empathetic core and to assert power over those around them.
The shooting at Pulse is a direct reflection of what is really at stake when we condition young boys to pursue dominance and power through violence. What frightens me most is that most of the time this conditioning appears completely innocuous. It’s as easy as dismissing Noah’s tantrum by saying that he’s simply “being a boy.” I mean, what are we really saying when we equate a tantrum with boyhood? We’re saying that violent outbursts are directly linked to masculinity.
Another example of how easily we can teach our sons that taking power through violence is acceptable happens daily on playgrounds and in classrooms: Boys tease girls, and then parents tell their daughters that the boys teasing them are “just showing that he likes you.” So now we’ve taught our sons to be verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive to those they love, and we’ve taught our daughters that abuse is actually a sign of affection.
How does this relate to Omar Mateen and his horrific attack on the LGBTQ community at Pulse?
When Noah’s father tells Noah that boys aren’t sensitive, or that lashing out when he’s angry is natural, he’s creating a space for Noah to practice exerting power over others and he’s encouraging Noah to replace empathy with “toughness.”
Over time, what Noah is learning from his father is that the things he likes and the ways he likes to express himself are unacceptable, even shameful.
By 13, Noah has only three options available to him: distance himself from his father and accept that he’s a disappointment; internalize his shame and struggle silently; adapt to his father’s version of masculinity until it feels natural. It doesn’t take a mental health professional to know that all three of these are terrible options.
I, for one, feel woefully unprepared to combat the notion that men are built to dominate and oppress those weaker than them. I’ve lived most of my life as a feminist. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a circle of friends willing to educate me and point me toward resources to better understand the spectrum of gender expression. I’m dating a woman who shares my desire to allow our children to express themselves any way they wish, so long as it doesn’t hurt others. We never, ever reinforce traditional gender binaries or gender roles in the home.
Mallerie’s son has been in school for just two years, her daughter for just four, yet both are already preoccupied with traditional masculinity and femininity. We don’t stand a chance against the culture in public schools, much less the culture on various competitive teams. In short, I give my entire life to creating safer, more equitable spaces, yet I know that it’s virtually inevitable that my kids will feel compelled to fit themselves into the gender roles enforced by society.
The only word I have for that is despair.
We must change our vision of masculinity, and we must communicate the myriad ways that young boys can express themselves without taking power from others.
We must communicate explicitly and constantly that masculinity is not synonymous with dominance, nor is it incompatible with empathy.
We must, as fathers, be intentionally and visibly vulnerable so that our sons can learn what that looks like.
We must admit, as a society, that it’s not an accident that the vast majority of mass murderers are men, and that America’s brand of masculinity puts our children in danger every single day.
We must admit that when we teach our sons to bury parts of themselves, the only possible outcome is devastation.
This post originally appeared on Medium.