When a nonbinary trans woman named Lauren told her fellow audience members that she felt “like masculinity wasted so much of [her] life,” there was a definitive weight to her words. The conversation began as part of a post-show panel following director Eric Ting’s well-executed #LoveHateOthello at California Shakespeare Theatre. I was one of the panelists for “The Construction of Gender: The Impact of Toxic Masculinity in Society,” a free civic dialogue with folks in the community and theatre-goers. Sikander Iqbal (cis heterosexual man of color), Ariel Luckey (cis heterosexual white man), Michal “MJ” Jones (non-binary Black trans person) and I brought our very different, but complementary voices to discuss masculinities with a small audience after the Saturday matinée of this theatrical production of Othello. Eric Ting, Cal Shakes’ artistic director, moderated the conversation.
The conversation didn’t start with such powerful words, however. Lauren’s contribution was juxtaposed by a comment from an older white man who said the equivalent of “not all men” and a white woman who grew up in Puerto Rico wishing that she was Black. In meeting the audience where they were in regards to vocabulary for this conversation, I asked the audience what words they associated with masculinity. Many folks used words like “destruction,” “power,” “war,” and “strength.” I also explained the difference between cis and trans. However, the audience was already primed by the subject of discussion: toxic masculinity. A few folks in the audience took issue with the negative framing of masculinities that we took from the start.
However, when discussing a play written by a prolific white man in the 1600s about a Black man who kills his white wife, discussing toxic masculinities is important. We must question what it means that “Othello the Moor” is portrayed as a violent Black warlord, and his white wife as a battered woman. Add to that an election season where a cis heterosexual white supremacist has awakened deplorable Americans to incite violence against migrants, Muslims, and many more groups of human beings. #LoveHateOthello’s Brechtian directing style of speaking directly to the audience and agitating them connected the snippets of Trump speeches interspersed throughout the production to the Islamophobia that is old as the tale of Othello “the Moor.” The 400 year old story about race, Islamophobia, and empire addresses what we are still facing today. These circumstances require a focus on how we address the negative aspects of masculinity that are literally killing us.
We had to explain to the audience that men are not inherently “evil,” however we all benefit in a patriarchal society and we reconstruct it every day. We did not have time to address the woman who emphasized us all accepting each other. Her analysis, as a white girl who grew up wanting “to be Black,” ignored the way that many members of oppressed groups do practice “acceptance,” only to risk economic, physical, psychological, and emotional violence at the hands of those we “accept.” Her comment was also in response to a panelist of color stating that he wanted to be white growing up, a very different assertion than wanting to be Black. We must always consider who holds the power. In this case, a man of color wanting to be white often stems from a belief that “white is right” and therefore better).
As someone who is cis and has only really begun to deconstruct gender in the last three years of my life, the audience member’s words really stuck with me. I’m a member of at least three privileged groups (cis, masculine-presenting, and man) that are relevant to this conversation. In other words, I never had to question gender. Although my Blackness and my queerness affect my treatment in a structurally racist, classist, heterosexist, and ableist society, I’m still a man in a patriarchal society. Given that, all I could think of after the discussion was how we made people uncomfortable because they had to question what they knew about gender. A panel of four people told an audience that masculinity is a performance and that gender is a social construct in a society where we only have such discussions in the academy.
In conversations like the one at Cal Shakes, where I use the terms cisgender and transgender, I have to take a step back. I forget that not only did I just learn these term two years ago, but our mainly older white theatre-going audience in Orinda, CA were definitely less familiar. I kept thinking about how I got to where I am and how inaccessible a lot of what I write is to the folks I’m often trying to reach. Ultimately, defensiveness over masculinity and gender is expected. I believe that it requires multiple points of entry and willingness for the average person to drop our defensive nature, particularly for those of us who are part of privileged groups. Each individual’s journey to humanizing those who we have dehumanized for years often comes with a lot of resistance from us. Additionally, these conversations about toxic masculinities and “aha” moments happen in typically privileged spaces.
There is a direct correlation of between my examination of gender and access to courses and professors at top-tier universities. The two classes that really shifted my thinking were two sociology courses: “Race, Class, and Gender” at the University of Cape Town and “Sexual Cultures” at the University of California, Berkeley. This is not to say that these conversations do not happen in high schools, community colleges, or even the hood. In fact, young queer, trans, intersex, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people are creating their own understandings of gender and sexual identity. The mainstream discourse, however, comes from white, affluent, and college educated folks within the academy, not the queer kids getting kicked out of their houses.
For many folks in the U.S., their first introduction to the social construction of gender was with Caitlyn Jenner. Even then, however, the focus was on her “transness” and not on our “cisness.” We have to continue to take seriously the role of public engagement and community involvement. We have to think about who we leave behind in the discourse. We have to consider how we reach the folks who are at risk of violence due to our understandings of gender as only “man” and “women.” What happens when we begin to acknowledge that gender may have more than two (man and woman) possibilities and expressions? We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable to create a more hospitable world for those of us who do not fit neatly into little boxes.
Anthony J. Williams is a writer, Editor-in-Chief of the Afrikan Black Coalition, a recent sociology alumnus of UC Berkeley, and a frequent twitter user (@anthoknees).