Who Gets To Be a Man?

For all the progress we’ve made talking about who is and isn’t a man, we’ve lost a sense of who men are, what makes us men, and what it means to become one.

Photo by Bernard Tuck on Unsplash

I stumbled onto a pretty vicious Twitter argument the other day. Like most everyone who uses these kinds of sites, I couldn’t pull myself away until I’d scrolled through about a dozen, increasingly vitriolic quips back and forth.

They were talking about gender, again.

Specifically, the point in contention was whether transgender men (females at birth who decide to live as men when they grow up) are “real men.” Of course no conclusion was reached. Just a state of diminishing returns on virtually bashing one another.

At the risk of sounding pessimistic, I’m not sure we’re ever going to conclude that debate. It’s not because one side is hopelessly ignorant or ideologically entrenched. It’s because we’re not really talking about men anymore, even though we really want to.

Here’s what I mean.

The question is: are transgender men real men?

The yes side offered two answers: trans men are men and trans men are valid. Essentially their argument is that transgender men are a type of man, and therefore are real men because their type of manhood is valid (real).

The no side offered two other answers: men are adult males and women are not men. Their argument takes a reverse approach, defining men as adult males and not women, both of which presumably exclude transgender men from being real men.

We can keep lobbing these slogans at one another until the cows come home, but fundamentally we’re working with at least two different definitions of manhood, and until those are reconciled, we’re at an impasse. No one is really talking about any individual men here, as personal as the bickering can get. We’re talking about definitions.

Now, while we’re talking about definitions of manhood, I want to offer a third. And then I want to talk about part of why we don’t have a clear idea of gender in American society anymore.

I don’t think manhood is something we’re born into.

Sorry Jim, but I’ve known plenty of adult males I don’t consider men. They’re boys. And on the other hand, I know plenty of male minors who have been the men of their family for quite some time.

In general, I think manhood is a mythic journey. We undergo some sort of transformation, sometimes marked by a rite of passage, which makes our manhood apparent in the responsibility we take for the rights and privileges it confers. That’s a working analysis, by the way.

I think my understanding of manhood is one I’d consider cultural. Sometimes you’re your own man at age six and a half. Sometimes you’re in your thirties. And even rites of passage are superseded by our movement through circumstances, the natural world, and life itself.

As much as I’m a sucker for picking apart dreams and the ancient symbols our minds speak through, it’s impossible to ignore the inputs TV and movies provide for contemporary men to define ourselves too. They contribute to how we understand men and coming of age, and in turn they frame how we perceive ourselves.

Age and identity are the background, at best, to these stories. But those are the central elements to what our friends on Twitter are arguing, right? Pressed enough, the yes side from above will tell you that the only thing that really matters with regards to gender is how the person in question identifies themselves. The no side will similarly reduce manhood to biology (male — itself defined by things like chromosomes and having a penis) and age (boy vs. man).

Maybe I just spend too much time in men’s empowerment groups, but who the fuck talks about men like either of these guys?

Photo by Gary Meulemans on Unsplash

Ah, that’s right. These conversations are only tangentially about actual men’s lives. What we’re really talking about is the legal definition of a man (and how that’s going to impact businesses, schools, sports, and the like).

If you’re not sure how the legal definition of a man is different than the cultural understanding of a man, or you didn’t realize that difference until you read this, you’re in good company. Most of us have lost sight of this. I reckon it’s because we’re in such new territory.

You see, long ago, maybe we just knew who or what a man was. We might have belonged to a certain religion or tribe that gave us some parameters around that too. But you and me, we first and foremost live in a society that codified sex as a still-open-for-debate civil category about a generation or two ago with the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of categories including race and sex.

My hypothesis is that culturally speaking, mankind has been without a rudder since then. I mean that inclusively of women too. And that’s part of why there’s been this huge cultural struggle around how we define gender. It’s the next logical step, right? The act has been passed into law providing cover for the category. Now we have to hash out what that category means through how the law gets applied.

Spoiler alert: this is where concepts like intersectionality and critical race theory cut their teeth.

Our debate about who is a man is tied up in all of this. If you think about it, there’s probably a pretty decent case that discrimination against transgender people is already covered under laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex. For instance, if someone fires you because you dress like a woman instead of like a man, they’re discriminating against you because of your sex. Likewise, if someone says you can’t go in a public restroom or locker room because you have a penis — again, sex discrimination (and a recurring reason some women have opposed the Equal Rights Amendment).

I’m not sure if same-sex marriage was decided or ever fought on these grounds, but there’s probably a case there too. The determining factor has nothing to do with “sexual orientation,” it has to do with the sex of both parties — there’s no space on marriage paperwork asking if you’re a homosexual, only for your sex.

Still, concepts like “sexual orientation,” “gender” (as opposed to sex), “gender identity,” “gender expression,” “familial status,” “disability,” “ethnicity” (as opposed to race, color, or nation), and likely many more have exploded onto the scene in the last few decades. On the one hand, including terms like these in civil rights laws ensures that people are protected on the issues where they feel vulnerable.

On the other, the constant reiteration that simple ideals like “equality” fail to cover what’s being described, and, moreover, that there’s a pressing need for each of these categories because people are vulnerable to (real or hypothetical) discrimination through them, creates this sense of antagonism between certain groups of people and between people and the state.

The ever-expanding LGBT community sort of encapsulates the anxious mood of figuring out who is and is not an equal citizen. Does anyone wonder why all of these different genders and sexualities weren’t previously identified and defined by any other culture? Same-sex relationships, intersex people, and people who don’t fit into today’s gender norms are well established throughout history.

I’d argue that “xenogender” and “lithsexual,” “demiboys” and “non-binary lesbians,” are all the products of sexual liberation. As Western culture adapts to society without clearly defined gender roles (i.e. sex discrimination), some of us are totally lost and some of us are genuinely just making up new stuff to try and define ourselves in the detritus of existing language.

Without the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I don’t think we’d have an LGBT community. I don’t think we have xenogendered people or trans pansexual sex workers. At least, I don’t think we’d have all of these different words and obsessive attempts at categorizing and defining our differences. Look at how the LGBT community defines its history. Everything starts with the Stonewall riots and turns almost overnight into an ongoing civil rights campaign. That makes sense when your identity is connected to this newfound sense of sexual liberation codified by law.

It makes absolutely no sense when you realize that people who now might be thought of as gay or trans or whatever have existed across cultures and history.

Contemporary identity politics can’t conceptualize the absence of self-categorization as anything other than an enforced “closet” so to speak, because the point is to justify a legal argument, not a cultural one. That legal argument is founded on the assertion that big ideas like justice, equality, or even manhood aren’t sufficient without additional qualifications — i.e. discriminations (ironically enough). So, these ideologies can’t process the idea that people can exist and even live happy, fulfilling lives without being explicitly catalogued and locked into this dynamic where they require state intervention to end the oppression they face.

This is what people are arguing about with critical race theory these days too: does the state need to intentionally look at race in order to best combat discrimination? Sexual orientation and the gender categories apart from each other and apart from sex are just another expression of this anxiety. All the new identities and terms are just a bewildering attempt to catalogue everything and everyone.

All of it is built on the idea that we can’t just leave things at a more simple ideal: equality, America, manhood, personhood, whatever.

If this is challenging to follow, that’s understandable. The distinction between legalese and our own humanity is so blurred over the last decades, most of us haven’t even really lived in an era where we weren’t defined by some sort of category that requires intervention by the state.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Our friends over on Twitter might think they’re talking about themselves, but the framework of their argument is one of legal philosophy, not their direct personhood.

Well, but, that’s the world we live in! Civil rights matter.

It is, and they do. And maybe no one’s told you this since the 60s, but there’s more to life and to being a man than legal definitions and technicalities.

Here’s some free man wisdom on that:

If you need a nanny state to define manhood so that everyone else knows you’re right and they’re wrong, you’re not a real man.

If having a penis is your only accomplishment as a man, you’re not a real man.

If you think being a man means everyone else seeing you as a man, you’re not a real man.

If your church or temple needs volunteers… if there’s an elderly person in your neighborhood without someone checking on them… if there’s a single mother next door whose kids haven’t got someone to play catch with…

…and you’re on Twitter arguing about who is and isn’t a man, you’re not a real man either.

One of the most bizarre things I’ve found in my family’s history so far is a distant uncle who first appears barely in his teens on a census record in the late 1800s. Previous records list a girl his same age, and no boy. No record of him prior to that first census, no record of her from that point on. They have similar names, and seemingly the same birthdate.

He lived into the 1940s in rural Tennessee and Kentucky. Married a woman, and together they raised several children from the surrounding area as their own, until they died just a few weeks apart.

His story isn’t the first I’ve heard like that of Appalachian families having a son or a daughter one year and introducing a daughter or a son in their place the next time someone with the census comes around. What makes their stories even more unique though is how foreign they feel to the conversation we’re having around gender today.

Of course, I’m limited in my knowledge of his life. But what I don’t feel is a lot of evidence for a sense of rejection or oppression. He transitions in his childhood and remains at home until he marries — he’s not kicked out, and his parents presumably are the ones who inform the census official about the ages and genders of their children.

He stays in Appalachia. He doesn’t run off to some big city or another country where he might be able to connect with a “safe space” of other people like him. No, he gets married, they adopt local orphans, and stay involved with the local churches throughout their lives.

In my book, he was a man. And it had nothing to do with how he was born, and little to do with how anyone may or may not have seen him. It’s the way he lived his life. He was a son to his parents, a husband to his wife, a father to his children, and a man to his community.

When it comes right down to it, I think that’s how most men think of manhood first — before penises even, certainly before chromosomes, before “identity,” before legalese definitions and qualifications. Who even cares about that shit? What matters is the people and the land right in front of you.

We’ve lost that cultural, mythic sense of manhood.

But I think it’s worth fighting for.

sign-up for my newsletter at jozua.substack.com