Am I man enough?

Aaron McManus
6 min readOct 24, 2019

I want to tell you a story about a time that I was shoved into a box.

In my freshman year of high school, the football team grabbed me and forced me into a small wooden box that was used as a coffee table in a student lounge.

I didn’t fight very hard. There were more than 10 of them, and just one of me. I’d been through enough iterations of this same pattern before to know how it goes. If you fight back, they use it as an excuse to brutalize you.

So I went into the box with only minimal resistance.

I barely fit.

It was hot, and my breath was tight — I couldn’t open my lungs enough to take a full breath.

All 10 of the football team members pounded on the box.

The noise was deafening.

I remember thinking that I needed to go into my happy place. I took short, small breaths and waited for it to be over.

I didn’t want to let them hear me. I didn’t want to cry. I knew that if I cried, they’d laugh. I knew that if they heard me scream to get out, getting out would take forever.

So I stayed quiet.

Eventually the pounding stopped. They were still laughing. I was still quiet.

Finally one asked: are you ok in there?

I said nothing.

Shit, man. We’d better let him out.

I got out. I said nothing. I just looked at them.

I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing that they had traumatized me.

I had already learned, through too many times.

So I stared at them. I didn’t smile, I didn’t cry. I just stared.

It creeped them out.

They didn’t bother me much after that.

Am I man enough?

Obviously not.

It’s been clear since I was a child that I have never been man enough, and I would never be man enough.

I was so bad at baseball that when I was in right field, staring into space, I was hit by the ball in the forehead.

Not once, not twice, but three times.

Nothing could have compelled me to pay attention to something so boring.

But a better man than I would have caught the ball.

I was always dropping the ball.

I am a terrible man.

I liked to sew. I am such a terrible man that I enjoy embroidery. I like to wear pink. I like making cookies.

I am such a terrible man that I paint my fingernails.

I know that I am a terrible man because these things were reasons to hurt me. I was punched, kicked, spit on, shoved into lockers and other small spaces, sexually assaulted, held down by 10 young men so that one of them could press his anus into my face, and more.

I know I am a terrible man because of the disdain in the question I was asked often: “are you a boy, or a girl?” I know because when I was 5, kids demanded that I show them my penis to prove that it was there, and I got in trouble for indecent exposure. Or the countless times I was called a faggot, or a queer.

I know I am a terrible man because I am willing to put on lipstick.

I know that allowing myself to appear feminine is a terrible act because it always attracts violence.

When I wore eyeliner and barrettes to high school in the 90s, it was a way for me to wear my confession on my face: do not ever expect me to be man enough for you.

The larger boys who already looked like men, shaved like men, slapped each other on the ass like men, harassed young women like men — for them, my confession was permission to attack me. When their mockery of me in class became loud, I was sent to the dean, who asked me why I was a disruption. She was defensive when I pointed out that I had been trying to learn while the man-boys behaved like apes, that it was absolutely stupid to defend their behavior because they literally could not tolerate my presence in the classroom. She believed that I was at fault for being a distraction.

I didn’t know the words that I know now to use — to ask how exactly my gender expression could possibly be used to justify brutality from others?

But what was clear from that conversation was that I was not man enough to be defended by the institution.

What was clear is that bullying is tolerated when it supports the status quo, as it often does.

It was clear that compliance is more valuable than learning.

I learned that in the work world, too — that if I wear ugly little khaki pants and a bland striped shirt, my presence might be temporarily tolerated for as long as I add value. I am not man enough for the culture of a workplace to support my identity. I am an oddity that will be tolerated as long as it is profitable.

Only when I posture myself as ready to commit violence — then I am perceived as man enough.

If I laugh at brutality and remain unbothered by dominance, then I can be seen as man enough.

But only for a little while. We all know that it is temporary. I am not man enough for my value to be unquestioned, for my existence to be celebrated.

I must fight for my right to thrive and exist on my own terms.

I learned that when a man threatens me because my identity makes him question his own, I must be so brutal in my response that he will never dare to threaten me again.

I learned that in order to defend against toxic masculinity, I had to adopt its violence as a shield.

It was my willingness to be as brutal as my attackers that saved me; more times than I could count.

This brutality makes me more of a man, but not a better human.

This brutality serves to perpetuate the trauma of toxic masculinity. It does not heal it.

Men are not supposed to heal. It is an act of revolution to bring a group of men together to heal.

Men are not supposed to nourish. It is a small dismantling of the patriarchy to put on an apron and decorate a cake.

Men are not supposed to cry. It is a crack in the system to shed tears of compassion, understanding that brutality and violence has come at an extremely high cost to the world.

Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. It is the beginning swell of a tsunami when the facade of masculinity is allowed to crack and fall away.

Masculinity is an illusion. It is a powerful fiction with a purpose.

The expectations of masculinity create rigid walls that close in upon us, squeezing away our potential to be whole, complete, loving human beings. The expectations of masculinity are axes that chop off our connections from each other. The expectations of masculinity are that we wage war upon ourselves first, so that we can then wage war upon others, without realizing whose interests we serve.

Masculinity expects us to be brutal, cold, and violent.

Masculinity demands that we conform to perpetual war, inside us and out.

Masculinity demands that we perpetuate unending cycles of trauma and abuse, all to create control.

Masculinity demands dominance and submission, and it will never tolerate equality.

Masculinity demands sexism, racism, and oppression. As long as everyone is fighting for their position in the hierarchy, masculinity is being served.

I will never be man enough for the expectations of masculinity, and it would kill me to try.

Fuck the expectations of gender.

I reject the binary.

I want to challenge the expectations of masculinity, because the truth at the heart of masculinity is that it is a weakness. There is no courage in brutality, only fear. There is no strength in violence, only insecurity.

I dare masculinity to show its truly weak self.

I refuse to submit to the war raged by masculinity. It needs to be called out. Masculinity is an impotent old man spilling his boner pills in the toilet and weeping alone at his own fragility.

Let masculinity die in the dirt. I refuse to comply with its demands.

I am not man enough?

No — I refuse to be man enough.

I am a terrible man in order to be a better human.

I will not go back into the box.

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This story was originally told for “Am I Man Enough”, an event series produced by Ada Cheng, at the Center on Halsted as part of the Anti Violence project for domestic violence awareness month.

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