03/11/2015 12:18 GMT | Updated 02/11/2016 05:12 GMT

How to Be a Gentle-Man


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.

I somehow found myself in a pub in during the rugby world cup and the level of testosterone in the room had already put me on edge. Out of nowhere I felt myself shoved aside and I turn around to find a miserly man telling me off for standing 'too close'. That's all it took. There with my lemon tea in a room full of pints, his sense of entitlement and sheer force, I realised what all of us men need to do. Spurred on by Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling book Lean In that I'd just read, it came to me: our duty as men is to lean the f*ck back.

I volunteer for an organisation called Great Men. We go into schools and work with boys aged 13-18 and run peer-led workshops around gender equality - we explore issues including consent, representation of women in the media and pornography. We also talk about men's mental health, and the pressures on young boys to be "real men" but in my mind the antidote is the same - feminism.

When you treat women as equals, suddenly there's half the world that you can learn from, share with and not feel like you have to conceal things from. The difference in the students after just three hours is incredible. At the start of one workshop, I had a boy tell me that of course Chris Brown should hit Rhianna - that same boy at the end of the session said that if a female friend wanted to define as a different gender, he'd welcome that.

Rooted in this work that I do with young men, I started to make a theatre show on BAC's Emerging Artist as Activist Programme. I knew that a show that was as much about feminism as it was about speaking to men, needed to be a collaborative female/male endeavour. So cue Oonagh Murphy, best friend and brilliant director, and together, over the past year, we've been developing our performance piece, Give Me Your Skin. From an acutely feminist perspective, the show tries to access our own inner heteronormative man, so we know and can share how to dismantle him. We race to piece together hyper-masculinity through history like critical theory countdown, we share stories of our homophobia towards "that gay kid" in school and we restage a porn film with the roles reversed. But at the heart of Give Me Your Skin is our deep female-male friendship; emphasising the notion that the best remedy for men feeling trapped by their masculinity is to learn from their fellow humans, women.

Neither of us ever thought we'd end up making a show about masculinity. Oonagh spends most of her time making theatre with women from disadvantaged backgrounds and I co-run a political theatre company with a female director, Populace, and work almost exclusively with all-female casts and majority female teams. But Oonagh and I realised that we had some arsenal up our sleeves beyond our feminist ideals that made us the perfect theatre-makers for the job - we're both queer.

I love being queer. I am given permission to be gentle in a way that I would never be if I were straight. Nowadays even gay men are presented with such a narrow spectrum of masculinity, that no wonder hyper-masculinity is ubiquitous. But gentleness is not something to be flippantly dismissed, it's not a sign of weakness; I see it as a potent political tool. Being gentle equals flexibility, a sensitivity to the world around you. Being gentle means that when someone else leans in, you'll probably make some room, actively stand back. Being gentle as a man means that if a woman leans in you're not going to respond by leaning in further.

So in Give Me Your Skin, Oonagh and I are sharing our queerness in hope that no matter how straight you define, no matter how much you see yourself as a cis-gendered man who would like to have only sexual relations with women, that actually by giving in to queering yourself, you will remove those gender pressures, unburden yourself from the shackles of hyper-masculinity, recognise your privilege and allow more space for women. So please, gentle-men, lean back.

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