Men In America
3:43 pm
Fri August 22, 2014

In Changing America, Gay Masculinity Has 'Many Different Shades'

Originally published on Fri August 22, 2014 7:09 pm

Editor's note: This story contains language that may be offensive to some readers.

Life as a gay man in the U.S. has changed in the past decade — the law and cultural attitudes toward homosexuality have shifted. And those greater social and legal freedoms have also changed how some gay men choose to express their masculinity — and their femininity.

That's true for several players with the Colorado Rush, a gay rugby team in Denver. On a warm, breezy Saturday, about two dozen men in vibrant jerseys and shorts squat and lunge their way across a rugby field. Today's practice has the players tackling each other and running drills. With its traditionally bulkier players and brutal man-on-man tackles, the sport can be almost hypermasculine.

After practice, a few players stop to talk about masculinity — and what that concept means to them.

"What makes or breaks a rugby player is their attitude," says Jeremy Ballard, 33. "It's a mental component. It's not, like, how buff they are or how big they are, or whatever. It's all in your head and what kind of attitude you bring to the pitch — and to me, that's masculinity."

But when the conversation broadens from definitions of masculinity on the rugby field, Ballard says, "I would say in a lot of ways, I definitely carry myself as a man, I feel like I'm a man, but I definitely have feminine qualities. Like my voice tends to be more feminine. I'm emotional."

And that's at the heart of modern gay masculinity — it's a spectrum. After he came out, Ballard says, he felt a certain freedom: to hold on to the traditionally masculine parts of himself, like playing rugby, but also to express himself in other ways — ways that might have been off limits while still in the closet.

"There's all different types and shades of masculinity," says player Fabio Castro. "Just because somebody listens to Mariah [Carey] doesn't mean that they're not going to kick your ass on the field. So many different shades of masculinity, and I've learned that ... it's OK to be who you are."

Nicholas Miller, 43, who plays outside center for the team, also appreciates that people who hold stereotypical views of homosexual men may be surprised by a gay rugby team.

"I'm a man that likes men. I want to associate myself with guys that are masculine," Miller says. "And I think that's part of the reason why I like rugby, and being around this group of guys that are playing this rough sport we're not expected to play."

Eric Anderson, who studies masculinity and sport at the University of Winchester in the U.K., says that "what it means to be feminine varies, both by the age that one is and the culture that one grew up in."

And, Anderson adds, "it's changing every year. Femininity is becoming more and more accepted, and as it becomes accepted, it's just not called 'femininity' anymore."

But while mainstream attitudes have changed, homophobia and violence toward gay men still exist. Expressing gender across that spectrum can come at a cost. And embracing a more fluid identity can be a challenge.

For rugby player Skyler Meyer, at 21, the team's youngest player, coming out of the closet meant his sexuality was settled, but his gender — the way he held himself and interacted with others — was still in flux.

"I fell into the stereotypes," Meyer says. "I didn't have any big gay role models. I grew up always wanting to be a lawyer, and I realized I was gay and was like, 'Oh, well now I have to be a hair stylist or something.' And it was just devastating to me," he says with a laugh.

Meyer grew up in a suburb of Salt Lake City and says his family was supportive while he came out.

"My dad sat me down and just kind of had the conversation with me that being gay never had to lead me into the room," he says. "I've always thought of myself as the university student that happens to be gay, the rugby player that happens to be gay. I never want to be the gay man that also happens to play rugby."

Teammate Mike Fuller, 30, says his upbringing in a conservative Florida home played the biggest role in defining masculinity for him. "I had to be a certain way, and if I wasn't that way, then I was gay — I was a faggot," he says of the pressures he felt.

Even today, when people mistakenly think he's straight, or he's hit on by a woman, Fuller says he "can't help but take that as a compliment."

But he doesn't like that he feels that way. While growing up, he says, his family and friends imprinted on him a clear distinction between straight men and gay men.

"The idea that I had in my head of what a gay guy was, was a drag queen," he says. "That's what I thought I was supposed to be. ... If I'm gay, then I'm going to have to start wearing a dress at some point — and I have," he says, laughing.

After the joking around, the guys start plotting out practice dates for the upcoming season. They will be playing rugby teams across the country this year, and while some matchups are against other gay teams, most are with ones that happen to be straight.

Copyright 2014 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://kunc.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Unidentified Character) What kind of man are you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Unidentified Character) I've tried to be a serious man, you know. Try to do right, be a member of the community.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Unidentified Character) I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Unidentified Character) You can act like a man. What's the matter with you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Unidentified Character) You take your knife and you smear. Men smear. Smear - that's it. Yeah.

CORNISH: Masculinity, how to be a man. We've been hearing about that this summer and today we're going to hear from gay men. Life for them in this country has changed a lot in the last decade. Cultural attitudes have shifted and so have laws. As Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports, greater social and legal freedoms have changed the way gay men express their masculinity and femininity. And a moment of warning - this report contains language that some may find offensive.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: On a warm, breezy Saturday about two-dozen men in pink jerseys and shorts squat and lunge their way across a rugby field in Denver.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Lunges. Ready. Running.

RUNYON: Today's practice has the players tackling each other, running drills and jumping on each other's backs. The sport can be almost hyper-masculine with its traditionally bulkier players and brutal man-on-man tackles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I got one. I got one.

RUNYON: They play for the Colorado Rush, a gay rugby team. And they range in age from millennial 20-somethings to 40-year-old gen X-ers. After practice, I pull group of guys aside to talk about masculinity and how gay men fit into it.

JEREMY BALLARD: My name's Jeremy Ballard. I play scrum half. And I'm 33. What makes or breaks a rugby player is their attitude. It's a mental component. It's not, like, how buff they are or how big they are or whatever. It's all in your head and, like, what kind of attitude you bring to the pitch. And to me that's masculinity.

RUNYON: So that's Ballard's definition of masculinity confined to the rugby field. But when the conversation broadens out to his daily life his definition broadens, too.

BALLARD: I would say in a lot of ways, like, I definitely carry myself as a man. I feel like I'm a man but I definitely have feminine qualities, like, you know, my voice tends to be more feminine. I'm emotional.

RUNYON: And that's at the heart of modern, gay masculinity - it's to spectrum. Ballard says, after he came out he felt a certain freedom to hold on to the traditionally masculine parts of himself by playing rugby but also to be open to expressing himself in other ways. Ways that might have been off-limits while still in the closet.

FABIO CASTRO: There's all different types and shades of masculinity.

RUNYON: 25-year-old Fabio Castro also plays for the Colorado Rush.

CASTRO: Just because somebody, you know, listens to Mariah doesn't mean that they're not going to kick your ass on the field or, you know. There's so many different shades of masculinity. And I learned that it's OK, you know, it's OK to be who you are.

ERIC ANDERSON: What it means to be feminine varies both by the age that one is and the culture that one grew up in. And it's changing every year.

RUNYON: Eric Anderson studies masculinity and sport at the University of Winchester in the U.K.

ANDERSON: Femininity is becoming more and more accepted. And as it comes accepted it's just not called femininity anymore.

RUNYON: Even though mainstream attitudes have changed homophobia and violence towards gay men still exists, granted in some parts of the country more than others. Expressing gender across that spectrum comes at a cost. And embracing a more fluid identity can be a challenge. For 21-year-old rugby player Skyler Meyer, the youngest on the team, coming out of the closet meant his sexuality was settled, but his gender - the way he held himself and interacted with others - was still in flux.

SKYLER MEYER: I fell into the stereotypes. I didn't have any big, gay role models. And I grew up always wanting to be a lawyer. And, you know, I realized I was gay. I was like, oh, well, now I've got to be a hairstylist or something. And it was just devastating to me.

RUNYON: Meyer grew up in a Salt Lake City suburb. And says, his family was supportive while he came out.

MEYER: You know, my dad sat me down and just kind of had the conversation with me that, you know, being gay never had to lead me into the room. You know, I've always thought of myself as the University student that happens to be gay, the rugby player that happens to be gay. I never want to be the gay man that also happens to play rugby.

MIKE FULLER: I had to be a certain way. If I wasn't that way, then I was gay. I was a faggot.

RUNYON: 30-year-old player Mike Fuller says, his upbringing played the biggest role in defining masculinity for him. He spent his childhood in a conservative, Florida home. Even today when people mistakenly think he's straight or he's hit on by a woman...

FULLER: I can't help but take that as a compliment.

RUNYON: But he doesn't like that he feels that way. While growing up, Fuller says, his family and friends imprinted on him a clear distinction between straight men and gay men.

FULLER: The idea that I had in my head of what a gay guy was was a drag queen. That's what I thought I was supposed to be. That's what I thought that - if I'm gay then I'm obviously going to have to start wearing a dress at some point. And I have.

(LAUGHTER)

RUNYON: After the joking around, the guys then start plotting out practice dates for the upcoming season. They'll be playing rugby teams across the country this year. Some matchups are against other gay teams, but most are with ones that happen to be straight. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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