Pride Month Special: Unfortunately, It All Starts With Toxic Masculinity
A recent viewing of Michaela Coel’s ultra-realistic I May Destroy You forced me to rethink my actions as a cis-het male in the society. It’s been a frequent occurrence for some of us since the eruption of India’s #MeToo movement and increased LGBTQ representation in pop culture. Was I once homophobic? Maybe. Did I not know enough about consent? Maybe. Is there a constant need to check our privilege in comparison to the struggles of the marginalised communities? Definitely.
But for the sake of this essay, I’ll restrict myself to discussing homophobia among cis-het men. If I were a character in the pluralistic I May Destroy You universe, I would like to picture myself as a Ben — the mild mannered cis-het man, whose life appears in a comfortable shade of vanilla under envy lighting (minus all the weed-smoking though – I’m on meds). But within the straight crowd, I get to interact with far too many Nilufers — the homophobic Tinder date who’s stuck in her own set of beliefs to be rather compassionate — and Zains — a stealther, who removes the condom without the partner’s knowledge during a consensual sexual encounter — than my liking. I’m not claiming to be the perfect ally here; honestly, I’m not even sure if I’m qualified enough to be giving out advice on being one.
I grew up in a small Indian town in the ’90s, where insults like ‘chh*kka’ were casually bandied out among both boys and girls; anyone exhibiting effeminate behaviour was brazenly bullied; and Kal Ho Naa Ho gave you the licence to use the queer-baiting Kanta Ben trope to shame what we proudly romanticise as bromance today.
Living in the boys’ hostel of an engineering college doesn’t impart healthy vocabulary to discuss gender issues and address abuse, either. Plus, you sometimes get lost in dealing with your own problems due to an unbeknownst Muslim identity (haters gonna hate).
In the subsequent years, though, I broke free from the engineering grid, and found myself working in the media industry. In bigger cities and within creative spaces, worldviews on gender differed greatly. Thanks to queer-identifying colleagues and peers, I was exposed to ideas of identity privilege and systemic oppression. It took several years of unlearning and relearning to shed ingrained layers of homophobia and gender stereotypes. The process still goes on, but my worldview is currently based on intersectional efforts towards uplifting all marginalised sections of the society (aka moving beyond white ideas of ‘wokeness’); but also putting my mental health first (privilege check). Although, I often ask myself: how much effort is enough effort, as a privileged cis-het man?
An unlikely source offered some sort of starting point:the only ‘guy gang’, from my engineering days that I’m still part of, had reunited for a wedding earlier this year. On the eve of the functions, we were unexpectedly sharing our mental health struggles with each other (ironically enough, over alcohol). Expectedly though, crisis was a common theme. There came a point though, where we all agreed that crying is a grossly underrated form of expression. We went on to unanimously concede that social constructs about masculinity could be at the heart of most of our crises.
As men, we have been conditioned by society to put up stoic facades, and restrict our masculinity to traditionally toxic ideas. ‘Mard ko dard nahi hota: so just keep bottling it in till it manifests into something explosive.’ This has, in turn, shaped our noxious attitudes towards men deviating from these norms. But the backing of safe spaces, to influence the collective cis het male conscience, can form the basis for a future where masculinity can take on varied definitions.
Fewer things have helped me sleep better at night than being honest with myself. Just as I May Destroy You made me do, try confronting your experiences bluntly. About time we stopped running.