HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
Adult life might have it stresses but there's one simple joy it's brought me: I don't have to pretend to like football. I spent a lot of my adolescence, awkwardly feigning interest in the Premier League, and trying to be some version of the perfect blokey bloke which I thought was expected of me: "Bolton have had a good season haven't they? It is Bolton right? Or was it Birmingham..." Like most teenage boys I couldn't help but feel the pressure to act a certain way and be into the sort of things that men are supposed to like: football, cars, a casual disinterest in shopping etc.
Things changed once I got to uni. I started to become comfortable with who I was and being gay. And then I started to tell other people and hey, the world didn't cave in, and people were ok with it. More than ok actually, really lovely and supportive. Although the actual coming out conversations themselves were giant canyons of awkwardness, the little freedoms they gave me were priceless: to be able to talk about relationships honestly or make a passing comment about which character on The OC was the hottest (Seth, obviously).
Once people knew that I was gay, I started to make a bit more sense in their eyes; suddenly it didn't seem so strange that I was allergic to sports and that my shelves were filled with books about cake decorating. It wasn't that I was keen to get stereotyped. But for someone who had never felt overly masculine, the assumptions people made were kind of liberating: I no longer felt a pressure to conform to some "red blooded" male identity - I could be my own cake and cartoon loving man.
Like a lot of people coming out, I worried about the reaction I might get, especially from my straight male friends. Would I lose any of them over this? Those early conversations were difficult but being honest and willing to talk about my most private thoughts had an effect I hadn't foreseen. Those guys, who I'd worried might turn cold, did the opposite. They started to open up and be honest themselves. We'd talk about all sorts of stuff: girls they were stressing out over, troubles at home, worries about the future. It opened up a whole new side to our friendships which brought us closer.
I kind of assumed that after having these conversations, the sensitive, vulnerable sides my friends had shown might carry through into the rest of our social life. Once we were back in groups though, behaviour shifted straight back to the usual caustic banter. Insults and put downs were traded across pints of beer and any hint of weakness was seized upon as a topic for ridicule. I found myself thinking "I know you're all worried you look fat/might end up alone; why are you all being SO MEAN TO EACH OTHER?!"
Although those nights out were a lot of fun, if that's the entire tone of your social interaction as a man, it can lead to a lot of loneliness. The fact is that even if men don't talk about their feelings as much, it doesn't mean they don't have them. I've seen plenty of my male patients fall to pieces when they get admitted to hospital, a lifetime of stoic silence leaving them totally unprepared to deal with the psychological fallout of dealing with illness and disability. You see it too in the disproportionately high rates of mental health problems and suicide among young men.
There's a competitive edge to male friendships that can make it difficult for guys to be open and honest with each other. You might have things that you really want to talk about but can't for fear of appearing weak. As a gay guy, I could stand apart from some of this. My friends knew we'd never be competing for women or on the pitch and so I was different enough that they could let their guard down. I think there's maybe a similar dynamic with straight guys who have close female friends. Again, that element of competition has been removed so it's easier to be open.
I'm aware that this is all pretty speculative. Maybe the reason my friends talked to me is just that I'm a good listener. The thing is, I don't have much of a frame of reference. Friendships between gay and straight guys certainly exist but they're not really talked about. I could go round in circles trying to figure out exactly why my friendships work the way they do. For someone who spent a lot of their teenage years worried about being rejected for being gay, it's nice to know that if anything, it's brought me closer to my friends.
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