The Masculinity Spectrum
During the summer after my senior year of high school, I went on a trip with my church's youth group to Panama City, Florida for a three day worship camp. We stayed in a hotel that was right on the beach with a beautiful view of the water. The rooms were small, two beds in each, so we divided up into groups of four for each room.
I was in a room with three other guys that were my age or a year younger. Brian, who was my age and going away to college in Virginia, had brown hair, long legs, and played for his high school soccer team. Jeremy, a year younger than me, was short and stocky with thick arms and legs. Elijah, who was Jeremy’s age, was tall and muscular with the face of a frat boy. They were my polar opposites. I was relatively short and quite skinny, awkwardness coming naturally to me at all times. Sports were not my specialty and I was without a membership to the local YMCA so I didn’t work out. These guys had grown up playing sports and were practically raised at the Y.
Despite being in the same youth group, I didn’t know them all that well. We talked at church and would volunteer for the same events or activities for the youth group, but I had never spent time actually talking to them, getting to really know them. We were a part of different groups, even within the big group. I didn’t go to school with them nor did I play on any of the same teams as them or work out with them. Outside of church, we didn’t have anything linking us together. Because of this, I was a bit nervous about sharing a room with them for three days. What would we talk about? What would they talk about? I wondered if they would just sit around and talk about school, a conversation I would have no way of contributing to. I supposed it wouldn’t really matter that much since we would mostly only be in the room for sleeping, but I was still curious. These three guys who were so much like each other, yet so different from myself, might easily click together while I was left as the odd one out.
On our first night in the room, they set up Jeremy’s XBOX. He had brought it along with him, as well as several games that all had to do with sports or soldiers. I watched them plug it into the surprisingly large black television set. They were each wearing a version of the t-shirt and sweatpants/basketball shorts combo. Their muscles stretched their t-shirts tight across their chests, their pants hanging low on their hips. I sat on the bed behind them in my t-shirt and plaid shorts, notebook in hand as I wrote out a bit of some story that was in my head. I would look up occasionally and watch them, the way their bodies seemed to move so effortlessly where they wanted them to. My own body was awkward and clumsy, prone to tripping and dropping things. They seemed so in control of themselves.
Once they got the system set up they each took a controller, Jeremy and Elijah sitting on the floor against the floral bed spread and Brian flopping down on his stomach on the bed opposite the one I was sharing with Jeremy. They asked if I wanted to play, but I declined with a “Thanks anyway.” I was more interested in watching.
They were playing some kind multi-player football game. They sat there for awhile, going through different plays, and talked about a variety of topics from sports to girls to their parents. At one point Jeremy farted and they all laughed. After a while, Elijah pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it to the side before laying back down. I watched the way he just laid there, completely unaware of his half nakedness.
I was supposed to be like that. Other guys were just like Elijah, taking off their shirts when they felt like it and being comfortable in that state. In fact, it seemed like a thing guys just did. So why didn’t I do it? Was I suppose to do that? To take off my shirt whenever the hell I felt like it and just be cool?
I knew why I didn’t do it. I wasn’t very comfortable with my own body. It was something I’d dealt with for years and hadn’t really gotten over. Taking my clothes off in front of other people just felt weird. Even when I was at the pool with my family I would always wear a shirt. I just didn’t like it. There was a part of me that had even felt insecure about the fact that I wasn’t comfortable taking my shirt off in front of people. All the other guys I knew did it. My Dad did it. What did that mean about me? At times I felt distant from the other men in my life because of it. I felt like I was beneath them in some way because I wasn’t taking part in this natural male habit. It made me question what it meant for me as a man that I didn’t have that confidence and comfort in my own body.
It wasn’t just then. Whenever the guys got a shower that week, they would walk out of the bathroom with a towel tied around their waist and frequently just sit on the bed talking to the others like this. Whenever I went to take a shower, I would take my pajamas in the bathroom with me and change in there before coming back out. When I did this I would wonder if they were talking about me while I was in the shower, thinking I was some kind of loser because I didn’t take part in the towel-around-the-waist practice of all other men.
It wasn’t just the body confidence that made me feel odd. It was the fact that they seemed to have every item on the proverbial masculinity checklist. Their voices were deep where mine was not quite high, but certainly not at their depths. They all worked out and played sports and they loved it. They liked to get rough and dirty on the field. I preferred sitting inside and reading. They drank beer at parties. I didn’t go to parties and preferred soda. I was more emotional and contemplative while they seemed to have a careless attitude towards most things.
They seemed to already be men at seventeen. And what was I? I didn’t have these preferences and characteristics. I was different from them in every way except for the fact that we all had penises. Standing next to them, I didn’t look like a man. Nobody would look at them and then look at me and say that we were from the same species.
Did that mean I wasn’t a man? Was I less of a man because I didn’t have all those same characteristics? What was the difference between being a man and just being male? How did that change when you were gay? I wondered what that meant for me, being someone who was male, being someone who was gay. I hated comparing myself to those other guys, but I felt so confused about what it meant for me to not be like them. Was that the only way to be a man? Could I still be myself and be a man?
All the gay guys I saw in the media were like me or more effeminate. The straight guys were all like Jeremy, Brian, and Elijah. Why was this? Were gay guys supposed to act like that, different from the straight guys, the “men?”
When this is how things are being presented to me, it’s hard to see what’s real. I know that there are a lot of gay guys that are really effeminate, and there's nothing wrong with that, but is it possible for someone to be gay and masculine? I’ve read about people saying that masculinity is a spectrum, particularly when it comes to gay men. They say that there are different types of masculinity, that there are a lot of different things that factor into a man’s masculinity. If this is true, than maybe I can be both gay and a man. Maybe I already am. I’m just a different type of man with a different type of masculinity than those other guys. If masculinity really is a spectrum, I don’t have to worry about what it means for me compared to what it means for them. I can be the man I am.