It’s 2006. I’m 14 years old. My mom and I are grocery shopping. We weave in and out of the aisles, methodically checking items off our list and offering the small-town obligatory smiles and waves to familiar faces. Eventually, we come across a church friend, the kind of passerby who warrants parking your shopping cart on the side of the aisle and settling in for a long conversation.
She and my mom start chatting. After some time, my mom’s friend shifts her attention to me, asking about my first year of high school before getting more personal: “And do you have a girlfriend??”
My mom adds, “No, but he has a lot of friends who are girls!”
I feel instantly uncomfortable, a disorienting combination of insecurity and shame. My eyes become shifty, the store’s abrasive fluorescent lights seem to narrow in on me, and I mutter an incomprehensible “uh-huh.”
“What? You do, right?” my mom questions, obviously confused about my discomfort.
“I mean, yeah, I guess,” I murmur, equally confused about my discomfort.
Toxic masculinity culture
I didn’t know it then, but today I recognize that discomfort as a symptom of toxic masculinity culture. The truth is, the rigid ways in which the boys around me were socialized into specific interests (sports, cars, hunting) and specific dispositions (aggressive, lacking emotional awareness) — qualities I didn’t share — left me, frankly, disinterested and uncomfortable developing friendships with most boys throughout my school-aged years.
But as a person raised and socialized, and identifying, as a cis-gender, straight male, having platonic friendships with girls was grounds for being teased, “Are you gay?!” I had learned, mostly unconsciously, that intimacy with girls without intent of sexual or romantic pursuit was wrong; so when this was publicly acknowledged, it made me feel insecure, small.
This smallness would create moments, particularly around boys, of hiding parts of myself that I associated with femininity, like my unabashed silliness or my expressive emotions.
Of course more important than my own insecurity is how this positioning of men’s relationship to women as solely sexual leads to sexism, sexual violence, transphobia and homophobia.
Raising a son today
Now I’m 30 years old, and I’ve spent years healing from harm that toxic masculinity has caused me as a man who identifies with very little of what our culture tells us it means to be a man.
This process of becoming confident in who I am entered a new phase when my wife and I had a baby boy in 2020.
When my wife was pregnant, we had lots of conversations about gender and parenting. We talked about raising our son to be aware of his emotions, to understand consent; exposing him to diverse toys and books so he had freedom to explore interests; being explicit that we embrace all gender identities/expressions, so our child knows we’ll always love him no matter who he is/becomes.
Our son is a toddler now, and he’s such a joy: playful and silly, affectionate and loving, stubborn and independent.
My wife and I have continued raising him in this gender-conscious way, but we quickly learned we can’t control the messages our toddler hears from daycare, strangers’ comments or family. And unsurprisingly, lots of people say very gender-deterministic things about a toddler.
Most recently, we learned about our son befriending a girl at daycare. Nervous about how our son had been adjusting, this news brought my wife and I such happiness and relief.
But when I first heard the “Ray has a little girlfriend” comment, my body tensed; I felt the sensation of my hometown grocery store’s harsh fluorescent lights narrowing in on me again. Though my toddler will have no memory of these comments as he grows up, these are the small, repeated messages that caused me insecurity in my personhood and in my friendships throughout my adolescent and young adult years.
I want better for my son. I want him to feel free.
Matt Homrich-Knieling is a parent, educator and writer living in Detroit.
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