By Rev. Nick Peterson (right, being introduced by Ruby Sales)
Without this effort, the secret place is merely a dungeon in which the person perished; without this effort, indeed, the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness.
James Baldwin, Another Country (1962)
My friend was in pain. All the things he held dear and cherished were slipping from his grasp. In naming his losses he named his desire to grab ahold of something, something to help him live, to help him cope. I wanted to comfort him, to hold his hand, make some kind of physical contact, to disrupt the isolation he was feeling. But I hesitated, unsure of an appropriate way, a manly way, to comfort my friend. Truthfully, I was paralyzed by the fear of what my touch might communicate about my identity as a man, my sexuality, and my connection to him.
Why did any of this even matter in the first place?
Since childhood I have always felt on the fringe of acceptable manhood. Actually, there were times when I was certain I wasn’t even on the margins of acceptability. I was the non-athletic, husky (fat), musical and artistic boy who liked going to church. By my early teens I was assigned the nickname Petunia by some of my older brother’s friends. I wanted to be good at sports and I wanted to be in with the rest of the boys, but I just did not fit. The tags “sissy,” “faggot,” “pussy,” and “gay” were placed on me like discount stickers on clearance items– betraying my real worth for the sake of a cheap laugh.
Shame, guilt, and isolation nurtured my identity before I really knew what sex was or what it meant to be a man. Much of what I had to do–to prove– was that I was not less than the others. Efforts were made to shore up my limp-wrist ways, and at least, to camouflage the pain of being a target. I would be a spectator in the arena of manhood, never a participant.
I can distinctly remember watching an episode of Oprah with my mother. The show was noting the rampant spread of HIV and my mom looked at me and said plainly, “that’s what happens when boys kiss.” I was terrified, I knew I had kissed boys, and now I had to reckon at the tender age of 11 with daunting reality that I might have contracted HIV doing so. I was terrified.
In time, I internalized the absence and avoidance of healthy touch, emotional vulnerability and intimacy with other men as a sign of true manhood. Male to male affection was a death sentence socially and physically. This myopic and misguided construct of manhood/masculinity in all its unhealthiness gripped me. It squeezed out of me an appreciation for my gentleness and tenderness. It dried up trust in my emotions and pulled from my heart the curiosity and innocence that make love possible. It handed me pain instead.
A lack of intimate male community can make it impossible for men to build relationships of mutuality and care. While we can embrace the “bro” culture which enables us to share body humor and engage in reckless behavior together and even have physical points of connection, we cannot confuse that with cultivating the kind of emotional maturity needed to risk vulnerability and deeper expressions of intimacy. It is good that we can laugh and watch movies together, but we also have to acknowledge how those serve as defense mechanisms from revealing our truest selves.
In the absence of a dynamic male intimacy we are left only with sexual relationships to tend to our holistic needs. That dominance and conquest characterize popular conceptions of male sexuality further problematizes healthy intimate relationships. Even in religious contexts we can only talk about porn in abstraction. We never come to grips with how it affirms the larger narrative around male sexuality and the problems it creates between men.
Where there are no humane friends and brothers, there are no humane lovers and fathers. In lacking the emotional intelligence birthed in shared vulnerability, we narrow the spectrum of acceptable expressions of masculinity and manhood. Envy, strife, jealousy and competition become primary modes in which we engage each other. Tenderness, gentleness, compassion, and affection are sacrificed at the altar of ego and saving face.
Even in the biblical text it is the lack of relationship between two brothers that brings about the first murder. Cain is jealous of his brother Abel, kills him and then rhetorically asks God if he is his brother’s keeper. This is a fundamental breach in brotherhood and friendship and we still suffer from it today.
We are not being acculturated to be our brother’s keeper. We crave acceptance and affirmation. We need our feelings and concerns to be normalized in the company of other men. But the level of vulnerability required to make that happen seems too great. It is much easier to stand at a distance and maintain objectivity or loathe the man who appears to have it all.
Even at the age of 35, with nearly a decade of marriage under my belt, academic degrees, respect in my vocation, and numerous accomplishments, I still question if I am man enough. I still wonder if the fluidity of my sexuality precludes me from deep friendship with men, for fear of it being too gay socially and sexually. And even in the wondering, I know enough now to not let my sense of shame silence my questions. I need the wisdom and care of my wife and I need the wisdom and friendship of my brothers.
Eventually I realized that I am my brother’s keeper, his welfare is my concern. So, I did what a brother would do, I cusped his hand and, in that moment, he had something to grab ahold of. We sat next to each other, at times in silence, at times in tears, at times in conversation, but holding on. My hope is that I do not have to wait until crisis strikes again before I reach for his hand or he reaches for mine.