Mindfulness of Gender Rising, Rising
Aside from my father, one of my early male role models was a high school art teacher. As a very artistically oriented child, I had some difficulty relating to the interests of my mostly-left-brained father. So the art and music departments of my high school became my favorite places, where I was accepted and strongly supported as an artist.
Mr. Mich, an abbreviation for a longer Eastern European family name, was an older mustachioed man with a friendly face and a good sense of humor. He was well-liked and constantly encouraged my creative interests, the weirder the better. In the early 1990s I was starting to make digital art, and he saw its potential, saw my potential. He also helped me see art as a vocation with real possibility.
We students were also pretty sure Mr. Mich was gay, though he never said so. We joked with him about this all the time—for example, about how he probably hung out with a lot of “Men-nonites” where he lived in Pennsylvania, and he good-naturedly went along. Nobody I knew openly expressed any homophobia towards him, though I’m sure he probably encountered it.
Mr. Mich presented a softer, subtler version of masculinity that was a real alternative to the typically crass mainstream version. His existence helped me further realize, however subconsciously, that it was okay to be creative and introverted, to use my imagination to step outside the lines. Pencil, charcoal, and paint were legitimate tools in life. The vision of the inner eye, of dreams and daydreams, was important.
I credit Mr. Mich and other, non-US mainstream male role models (including my father) for paving an important path for me. Boys and young men need to know and learn from all kinds of masculinities and femininities, no matter who is expressing them, and to see them all as valid. Gender does not have to be as stiff and inflexible as most might think. Gender can come and go, rise and pass away, making room for new creations.
Yet some gender expressions are considered better than others, are given more affirmation, support, resources, and protection. We are usually taught to tow the cisgendered line, and to treat those who step outside the boundaries as outlaws, less than human legally and spiritually, as less deserving. Or we simply assume that some forms of gender are normal and natural.
We are generally not taught the extensive and long-lived histories of genders outside of the binary of male-female. This is a problem. It makes for boys who grow up with a narrow band of creative, emotional, political possibility, and men who don’t realize they’re trapped in this narrowness because we’re rewarded for it. Mindfulness of gender—how it rises as a social phenomenon, how it is scaffolded, how we receive unearned privileges when we stick to its conventions, how our society expresses it in law and policy—is just as important as mindfulness of anything else. Let’s sit.