If Just This One Idea About Manhood Is Changing, There’s Hope

It was a competitive nine-year-olds’ baseball game. Grandson’s team was in the process of experiencing their first loss of what was so far an eight-game season.

Watching a grandson thrive as a truly self-motivated, avid – and grampa would add gifted – baseball player who is supported without pressure by parents continued, even on that day, not only to be thrilling entertainment. It felt as if it were a gifted connection with a fast-growing boy I had spent cherished time with from day one.

His own joy in the game, often seen in his smiles while pitching and fielding, also brought back forgotten memories of good times with my own dad when he took me to the old Milwaukee Braves’ games at County Stadium back when bleacher seats were $5.

That evening’s game began with a bad night for the Coyote’s starting pitcher. He walked ten batters so that the top of the first inning ended at the league’s seven-run per inning limit. His second inning was hardly better.

His team has some surprisingly good nine-year-old pitchers whose pitches are quite fast and accurate. So, you could see that this young guy felt as if he had let all his teammates down (much less disappointed the team’s loyal fans) when he was relieved by a friend who was, instead, in his rhythm that night.

But “the damage,” as the sportscasters’ say, “had been done.” And when he retreated to the dugout, even as fans applauded his effort, this nine-year-old young man was crying.

There’s an old, popular, and I consider unhealthy, saying that’s repeated by those stuck promoting destructive, toxic, and shaming masculinity in sports: “There’s no crying in baseball.”

But no one, not one coach, and not one fan I could hear fell back on that. We all felt his disappointment along with him, but no one added to that disappointment by shaming him for those tears.

Grandson and his teammates have been fortunate since they began playing in kindergarten. They have experienced, so far, positive coaching that has made them better without masculine shaming.

No coach or parent in my presence has ever said to these boys that it’s wrong to cry. In fact, when one of them in first grade was injured and was carried off the field crying, one coach comforted him with: “I’d have cried even harder.”

So when I see his coaches walking to their cars with their fourth-grader sons while holding hands, I regain a hope for future generations that some of us are over the “big boys don’t cry” mentality.

For generations, male gender role conditioning has included the ridicule and humiliation of boys for their tears. It’s taught them thereby to ignore their natural feelings of hurt, fear, and confusion.

It’s taught them that anger is the male thing to feel instead. And no male has yet to be told that anger and violence are unmanly – but they sure have been told they’re somehow unmanly if they express those natural human emotions that are buried under that anger.

And where homophobia and heterosexism have diminished, at least in public discourse, we hear less and less of the gay slurs applied to men who openly express these basic emotions that are covered over with secondary ones permitted for manhood: anger and sexual arousal. Sadly often, though, such worn-out slurs are still voiced.

Putting boys out of touch with their feelings has been a useful tool of conditioning for societies for generations. It’s harder to go to war against another man or fight competitively to make another man lose, to beat up another man or to destroy him with ruthless business practices, to step over male bodies on the way to what will be declared a victory or convince oneself that the others deserve their unfortunate circumstances, if you know and do embrace the idea that you and these other men actually and legitimately feel hurt, fear, and confusion.

So, the more a man has been put out of touch with these feelings, the more he’s become convinced that feeling them is contrary to the rule that “big boys don’t cry,” the more he’s lost touch with his emotional connections to his fellow men, the easier it is to deny that any human damage is done to others and that he might have contributed to it.

I’m afraid that should grandson continue on what he’d like to be his career path, he’ll run into others who are still sold on the old feelingless manhood (except, of course, again, expressing all these emotions through anger and sexual desire). It’s still so much a built-in part of our cultural norms.

The extent that someone buys into all this is enforced by both men and women who do. Few men want to be deemed “unmanly” by the standards of the men around them.

Fear that other men judge them as less than manly and even in subtle or not so subtle ways will punish them if they don’t come across as manly enough by the old definitions is one way it’s all kept in place. Gay men know this fear and are more overtly punished for breaking that man code, but all men know what it means to be scared straight no matter what their sexual orientation.

Parents enforce the man code because they fear what can happen to their boys if they don’t live up to its standards. They’ve seen what has happened to any boy not manly enough in the past.

And women have been conditioned to somehow “need” a “real man.” Are they prepared for and secure with his tears, vulnerability, and a full set of human qualities and emotions when they’ve been told they need him to love and protect them and prove to them in the end that they’re lovable?

I want to believe there have been some changes in all of this, though my book Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to be Human continues to explain so much of this for its readers even today.

I know that as long as for many it’s somehow less than manly to be gay, or less than feminine to be a lesbian, this prejudice will continue to be used to enforce the idea that men shouldn’t show feelings through tears. I know that as long as transgender people are humiliated and ridiculed because they defy the gender boxes that deny some of the human qualities to anyone based upon binary gender norms, there’ll be further pressure for everyone to monitor one’s feelings.

But I still hope that there will come a day when all emotions matter to anyone regardless of gender definition and that even in baseball there can be crying without shame.