Boys Leaning In
Three stories from a boys program facilitator
The latest question in our societal conversation about masculinity was posed this week in a viral marketing campaign for Gillette. “Is this the best a man can get?” the narrator asks in the ad, echoing Gillette’s former tagline. A boy runs from a group of older teenagers through the scene of another boy being held by his mother. Cyberbullying messages are superimposed around them. The frame cuts to media coverage of sexual harassment. “Is it?”
It might seem like an innocuous question, but the Gillette ad, coupled with the recently viral APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, has led to a backlash amongst conservatives and men’s rights activists. In their perspective, modern society is waging war on masculinity. That’s why they’re boycotting Gillette for raising issues like bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. That’s why they responded with outrage to the APA.
That’s why I’m writing this article.
I work directly with boys on gender and masculinity. During the school year, I facilitate gender-transformative boys programs with Next Gen Men. In the summer, I coordinate a positive masculinities program at Camp Arowhon. Throughout the year, I create a podcast on boys’ inner lives called Breaking the Boy Code.
I’m writing this in order to shine a light on boys engaging in topics like homophobia, misogyny and mental health. The boys I work with are eager to define their masculinity with more authenticity, more integrity and compassion. This is what that looks like.
It was twilight at the end of the summer. I mounted a dimly lit stage to perform a slam poem about my experiences with homophobia. “I was called a fag before I knew what a fag was,” I began. My voice drifted and held like my favourite spoken word artist, Shane Koyczan. “It tasted like blood.”
The poem is a hard-hitting journey through my years in elementary and high school, from my arts-camp crush on another boy to the violence of my grade nine locker room. It ends with a fast rhythm and a lot of swearing, so when an eleven-year-old boy asked me for a copy of the poem, I figured that was why.
As I was copying down the poem, he wanted to know if he could ask me some questions about it. I distractedly told him to go ahead, my slanted all-caps script filling up the page.
“Is it true?” he started.
I didn’t even look up. “Yeah. Everything I put in slam poetry is true.”
“What made you want to write it?”
“I guess I felt like it was important to say.”
I stopped writing, the words of the poem black on white in my eyes. “I went through a lot of shit when I was young. I got bullied every day, just because of who I was—who I am, I mean. I’m not straight. I had to hide that part of me for a long time. It’s not fair that I got bullied, and it’s not fair I had to hide. It’s not fair that that kind of thing is still happening to young people today.”
In the silence that followed, I glanced up. His eyes had filled with tears. “Thank you,” he said, and wrapped his arms around me. The paper crumpled between us. He put his hands on either side of me and pushed my body away so he could look me in the eyes again. “Thank you,” he repeated.
This was part of the purpose of the poem—an eleven-year-old boy seeing his identity affirmed in a young man wearing confidence like white Nikes—so I shouldn’t have assumed that his interest in the poem had to do with rhythm rather than the possibility of his own budding sexuality. But I did. He led the moment, and I got to witness it change him. Sometimes impact is immeasurable, and I have to believe that I’ve made a difference somewhere down the road. Sometimes it’s as tangible as tears and crumpled poetry.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in November. I was running an after-school program with twenty young adolescent boys. The topic for the week was feminism, with a goal to introduce them to gender justice in a way that still acknowledged how difficult it can be to challenge misogyny within male culture.
In the final part of the session we discussed different scenarios that the boys might experience as they go through high school. For each one, I gave them a few details and a choice, beginning with a situation in which they witnessed catcalling at school. “A girl walks by in the school hallway and the guy beside you says he’d ‘tap that ass.’” I paused to let them process. “Do you agree with him, or do you tell him not to objectify girls?”
After a moment, one of the thirteen-year-old boys put up his hand. “I know what I’m supposed to do, but if I’m being honest I think I’d probably just agree with him.” He lifted a shoulder. “It’s easier.”
“It’s safer to agree,” added another boy.
“It’s safer to agree with objectifying girls,” I repeated, then looked around. “Safer for who?”
There was a silence. The thirteen-year-old boy exhaled. “Oh,” he said.
As we talked, I kept an eye on the clock. The boys had been focusing for an hour and a half, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t burn them out. One boy hugged his knee. A few flipped around to lie on their stomachs. With twenty minutes left, I suggested that we skip a couple scenarios in order to give them some free time before the end of the program.
One of the boys lying on his stomach held out his hand. “Actually, can we keep going? This is really interesting.” All twenty of them agreed that they would rather continue the conversation than have free time. We ended up talking until there were ten minutes left.
This is exactly what I tell people about Next Gen Men — that boys are hungry for this kind of space and discussion — so it shouldn’t have surprised me. But it did. It underlined for me how rare it is that boys get a chance to thoughtfully and honestly explore their values and culture, with the guidance of a mentor who can challenge and validate them. I could see many of them thinking hard about high school and how they could remain connected to the kind of positive masculinity they wanted to embody as they grew up.
It was early December. A thirteen-year-old asked me to call him, but then didn’t answer the phone the next day. “Sorry I didn’t feel like talking,” he said to me later. “I was in a bad mood.” I assumed he’d been mad about something and told him it didn’t matter. We ended up talking about my podcast. He looked it up online after our conversation and listened to the first episode, which begins with a dedication in memory of a boy named Bryson.
Later that day, he wrote to me. “I’m sorry about Bryson.”
I don’t have enough experience with condolences to know how you’re supposed to respond to a message like that. Bryson had been twelve years old when he took his life and I had tried really hard to get his parents to support him. “I’m not sure what to say,” I wrote back. “It really sucked.”
“Have I told you about Kade?” he asked.
He hadn’t, but that’s when he did. That’s when I found out that he had known and loved a nine-year-old who had had a terminal illness and died about a month earlier, and that’s when I realized that there might be more to his so-called bad mood than a teacher getting him in trouble or his parents pissing him off. I asked him what he’d been feeling. “I wasn’t mad,” he answered. “I couldn’t stop crying.” He told me he was struggling with depression, and no one knew. He wanted to tell his parents what was going on but he wasn’t sure how.
This follows the kind of thing I say on the podcast—that boys have deeply felt inner lives that are too-often missed by adults—so I shouldn’t have assumed that nothing was going on for him. But I did. Once he found out that I had endured the same kind of loss as him he began to trust that I would understand his distress. Talking with him about mental health taught me how important it is that the men who boys look to as role models express their emotions. I could sense how carefully he had been watching me, and how profoundly he wanted to talk.
To anyone who believes the ‘boys will be boys’ rhetoric, I can tell you firsthand that boys are actively seeking moments and conversations and role models that help them expand the definition of masculinity. I can tell you that in three stories or a hundred.
This isn’t new to 2019 or even to the 21st century. Psychologists like William Pollack have been researching it for decades. Boys have been saying it for just as long.
“America’s boys are finally saying: ‘Enough.’ They want to be let back in. They want it to be okay to laugh, cry, cheer, and tremble. They want to be able to show their fragility. They want to find adults with whom they can honestly share and connect. They want to have close relationships with girls and with other boys based on emotional authenticity and intimacy rather than on bravado and disconnection. America’s boys want to be their real selves. America’s boys want change.” — William Pollack
Every single time that I offer boys a space to be vulnerable, to explore their identities and share their struggles, they lean in. That’s the parallel between these stories. All I do is give them the opportunity. The boys lead the way.
This gives me hope, just like marketing campaigns and viral tweets give me hope that outlasts any kind of backlash. Because there are many more boys watching than there are men boycotting Gillette.
Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.