“Hey, Bert. Want to talk about masculinity?”
“Gee. Masculinity? What is masculinity, Ernie?”
An upcoming issue of The New Yorker (pictured right) will feature Bert with his arm around Ernie, who is leaning into Bert while they watch a really old television with rabbit ears, which shows on it an image of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
The Defense of Marriage Act was just partly overturned and Prop 8 was found unconstitutional. These are things to be celebrated, for sure. As much as this image makes me smile and makes me happy, I also find it incredibly problematic.
Bert and Ernie have been roommates for as long as I can remember and well before my time (1969). They are pretty different, argue sometimes like the old friends they are, and live together. Neither, to my knowledge, are dating anyone.
This cover can be viewed in at least two ways. 1) Bert and Ernie are happy for everyone that equality is possible and are comfortable with one another and comfortable with their heterosexuality (or non-named sexuality or asexuality), that they can snuggle and enjoy a moment of joy for the triumph of equality. 2) Bert and Ernie are boyfriends.
Either are perfectly okay options and ways to view this image in my opinion. Yet option 1 is socially (in the grande scheme) deemed as impossible. The majority of folks see this image as option 2 and insist, even prior to this cover image, that Bert and Ernie couldn’t live together and have the kind of relationship that they do if they weren’t gay.
Somehow men are not permitted to have close relationships with one another without the suspicion that they are gay. The upholding of our (US) social notions of masculinity make it very difficult for men to have deep and meaningful relationships with one another – let alone for there to be any physical touch that is condoned or expected. And, no, this is not a universal approach to relationships between men all the world over. I know that at least in some Middle Eastern nations, affection between men is viewed as normal and same-sex friendships are very important to women and men. In some of these places, it is a sign of friendship for men to hold hands. Friendship, nothing more.
By refusing to accept that Bert and Ernie are friends, we (society) are insisting on maintaining the same expectations of masculinity that we always have. We thus continue to make it difficult for men to be friends with each other in meaningful ways beyond fart jokes, “I’m hugging you, but I’m hitting you”, watching some games over some drinks, ogling women, etc. We all need friends and someone to talk to who is willing to listen, empathize, and try to understand our perspective, including men. And sure, some men may have one or two of these friends, but perhaps that’s not enough. If more men were permitted to be in same-sex friendships absent of the judgement and the heteronormative policing, we might also find that the level of homophobia/hate crimes may decrease. When men recognize that they won’t be judged for their friendships, they may judge others less often.
When these same men, who receive encouragement for having meaningful friendships with other men, are later labeled as gay, perhaps they won’t see it as a huge slam, but as a compliment to how amazing their friendship is. That they are in sync with one another so much that others see them as a couple. What a compliment! After all, it shouldn’t be an insult if others think you are gay.
In fact, my best friend will go out to (gay) clubs with me and other friends and will often be hit on. He dresses well, is attractive, has a nice smile, and can dance pretty well. He is comfortable in those environments because he is comfortable with his gender and his sexuality. His comfort, I believe, leads many of the gay men to think that he is also gay. He is hit on and then bashfully and apologetically says something to the effect of, “I’m sorry, I’m not gay, but you seem like a really nice guy.” (Typically, this is something that confuses the other person and thus they think he must be “in the closet” or is just so rare of a man that they stumble away in a brain-dizzying stupor.) To my bestie, and to several other heterosexual men I know, it is a complement to be hit on, regardless of who it is from.
There is a small and growing number of men I know who are comfortable challenging notions of (hyper)masculinity and who have learned and are learning to enjoy the company of and meaningful friendships with other men. This growing number makes me hopeful for where we could be if these pockets of society keep encouraging men to take part in these conversations and friendships. And I could see these men huddling around a television celebrating the victory for love that is represented in the recent SCOTUS rulings. In between their deep discussions, I’d be surprised if they didn’t hug it out. And that makes me smile.