COLUMN: What does it mean to be a man?
For the first 19 years of my life, I lived under the impression that in order to be recognized as an equal to other men, I had to fit the mold. It was the small details — the words I said, the way I behaved and the things I did — that made me self-conscious of my own identity.
Even during my childhood, I knew I wasn’t like other boys. I preferred Easy-Bake ovens over Hot Wheels, jump rope over handball and musicals over video games. In elementary school, it became difficult to assert myself in the group of boys I thought were “cool,” and I hated knowing that I couldn’t fit in with the group no matter how hard I tried.
During the first week of middle school, a new friend introduced me to one of her friends from elementary school — and he became my “best friend.” It was a friendship that made one of the biggest differences in my life. We didn’t play basketball or Runescape. Instead, we raved over pop music together and got matching Lady Gaga wristbands from Hot Topic. That boy, my first male companion, became more than just a friend. And because of him, I discovered my sexuality.
I hated being bisexual for most of my teenage years, but I couldn’t find interest in the typical things that other guys did or talked about. I didn’t care about League of Legends; I had no knowledge about the NBA. But why did I keep trying to act like I did? I wasn’t honest enough to admit that I could never be the person I was forcing myself to be. So I attempted different things to prove to the world and myself how “masculine” I could be.
My first year of high school was miserable. I tried playing sports as a way of validating myself as a masculine guy who engaged in physical activities. I even dated a girl I wasn’t interested in to to use her as an escape for all the self-denial I dealt with. Things changed eventually.
I became more open about expressing my sexuality with my close friends. I found a great group of male friends who I could confide in, who didn’t care if I was gay or straight or bi, and who I could talk to about our common interests. I could be me, and I liked it. But I continued to carry my misconception of masculinity into college.
Like any other freshman who arrived at USC, I was desperate for a new beginning. Though I told other people I wasn’t interested in joining greek life, I was. Being heteronormative sounded like a great idea when it came to meeting new people.
In some serendipitous way, this past year in college changed my life and, in turn, my perception of the idea of masculinity. When I finally came out to my fraternity brothers about my sexual orientation and my current relationship, I was petrified of the judgment I’d face. Would they chastise me? Would they isolate me from our group?
Surprisingly, it was different. For the first time in college, a group celebrated my differences. They supported me. They made me feel safe to be myself. They accepted me. And because of that, I was finally able to accept myself.
I like to think I’m more woke now than I was back then. Since coming to USC, I’ve become more educated about important issues, and I’ve learned more about myself than I ever did in the past 20 years of my life. A lot of different things have shaped my values, my perspective and my outlook — but I can’t pinpoint all the experiences and memories that ultimately made me the person I am today.
It could be the 2016 election and the feminist movement that pushed me to be more outspoken. Or it could be the conversations I had and the friendships I made that allowed me to be more open and accepting of people different from me. Whatever it is, I’m happy with the results, and I’m glad finally feel like a man — just not in the way I thought I’d see it.
To me, the idea of masculinity is much more nuanced than how I viewed it a year ago. When a friend asked me what I thought it meant to be a man last semester, my views began to change radically. In retrospect, I hurt a lot of people, including myself, in my attempt to meet my own, unrealistic expectations of being masculine.
Three fundamental traits of masculinity are courage, independence and assertiveness. To be a man in the 21st century does not mean that you have to be hypersexual. It does not mean you can’t cry. And it does not mean that you have to mask your feelings or your true self. True masculinity embraces these three traits in all different, encompassing ways.
To every guy who felt like suppressing his emotions — It’s OK to be vulnerable because that makes you human. And it makes you more masculine than ever to be confident and aware of your emotions.
To every guy who felt afraid to come out — it’s OK to be yourself because your happiness does not stem from other people’s perception of you. You deserve to be liberated, accepted and celebrated for who you are — straight, bi, gay or trans.
And to every guy who ever doubted his own masculinity — it’s OK to feel that way because in the end, you will learn to live by your own definition and standard. Be proud of who you are, stand up for what you believe in and don’t hide yourself in the shadows. You are masculine in your own right, in your own way. And you will be the man you want to be. I believe in you.
Allen Pham is a sophomore majoring in public relations. He is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “The A Game,” runs every other Monday.