In January of this year, Gillette twisted its slogan to ask, “Is this the best a man can get?” in a powerful ad that confronted sexist behaviour and harassment. The ad simply asked men to hold each other accountable in preventing abusive and sexist behaviour.
Many men responded by throwing out their razors and calling for boycotts of the brand.
Toxic masculinity may seem like another buzzword, but its effects can be seen in the response to Gillette’s ad, and felt when men are asked to act outside of a traditional idea of masculinity: One that compels men to be tough and in control and leaves no space for vulnerability.
This stereotyped idea of what it means to be a man oppresses gay, bisexual, queer and trans (GBQT) men who define their masculinity in non-stereotyped ways, and can affect their searches for healthcare providers when they may fear discrimination for the ways they express their genders and identities.
Though Gillette was effective in bringing large-scale attention to the idea of how healthy masculinity looks and behaves, this important conversation has been going on in grassroots organizations and communities long before — and will continue long after — the brand moves on to a new marketing tactic.
The Edmonton Men’s Health Collective (EMHC) is a local health organization run for and by GBTQ men that addresses their specific health needs. In a recent survey of Edmonton GBTQ men conducted by the group, less than two-thirds of respondents were satisfied with their healthcare provider’s understanding of gay sexuality and less than 50 per cent were satisfied with their healthcare providers’ knowledge of gay health. Further, according to EMHC, in a 2015 review conducted by Martin Plöderl and Pierre Tremblay of nearly 200 studies comparing the mental health of sexual minorities to that of the heterosexual population, they found that sexual minorities experienced an elevated risk for depression, suicide, anxiety disorder and substance abuse.
To fill the gaps in healthcare for GBTQ men, EMHC has led many conversations about these issues through education, support, professional development and community-based research. Most recently by working alongside community partners Totally Outright — a leadership program for young gay, bi and queer guys — and HIV Edmonton, EMHC explored in a photo series how someone’s masculinity intersects with other aspects of identity and how to push the definition of what it means to be masculine.
Thomas Trombetta, a staff member of EMHC and a former community education facilitator at HIV Edmonton, explains, “[The photos are] a local way of responding to this global conversation that we’re having in the prairie with community members.” Alongside photographer Liam Mackenzie, Trombetta coordinated the shoot by reaching out to key community members directly and putting out a call on social media asking for a diverse group of queer people to participate. They received a large and enthusiastic response from friends across the spectrum, including important community organizers such as Rohan Shyne Dave and Nicole Jones-Abad of Shades of Colour, which works to connect queer and trans Black, Indigenous and other people of colour with support and resources.
In order to show how people have agency over their identities, Mackenzie and Trombetta instructed the participants to come dressed and present themselves in ways that are powerful to them. They both wanted the photos to be non-traditional and talk about men’s health issues — including mental, physical, sexual, and social health and substance use — in fun and unexpected ways. The models challenge traditional images of masculinity by showcasing their soft and feminine sides in photos and by expressing the sexual power that all body types have. Influenced by the colourful and abstract work of artists Keith Haring and Hattie Stewart, Mackenzie further accentuated the quirky and queer identities of the models by borrowing their doodle techniques to further lighten the tone of the photos. Mackenzie says that health topics are traditionally discussed too seriously, such as, “If you do this, you’re gonna die! We wanted to show queer problems in a fun way so that people are not afraid to reach out for help.”
Mackenzie hopes that the photos share a narrative about a diversity of queer health issues and identities that many cisgender and heterosexual people may not think about. “We need to remove the stigma and educate people who don’t understand that queer and trans men have different needs and health issues,” he says. “It’s like me not knowing about what it’s like to be trans — I have to constantly educate myself about people and check in on other queer issues.”
Trombetta believes in an evidenced-based approach when it comes to educating those inside and outside of the community about men’s health. He explains, “There are papers to back up that trans acceptance, accepting queer and trans people of colour, having nuanced discussions about race, engaging with inclusive language — all of these things have positive outcomes for our health, and not just our sexual health, but also mental health, social health, and physical health.” By representing these diverse expressions of masculinity, he hopes that the photos raise awareness and acceptance of queer people and the validity of their identities.
As cis, trans, queer and straight men — along with every other gender — reflect on these photos and what masculinity means to them, it’s important to note that we’re at a critical moment in our society and how our response to campaigns such as this or Gillette’s can impact future identities. “We have the power to define the generation following us and what gender will be like,” Trombetta says. “Are we going to be spending our energy resisting queer and trans people’s existence, which we know is not going anywhere? Are we spending our energy to talk about how masculinity should be, or are we opening it up so that it can look so many different ways? We have the power to determine healthy ways to express our gender and healthy ways to let people exist.”
“I feel like for most of my life I’ve had people tell me what a man looks like or should be, and I feel like a new masculinity is just being grounded and being authentically you. It’s more about standing up for what you believe in than being an aggressive or macho person.”
“[My masculinity] is resisting ways of understanding gender that are based in violence, that are based in oppression. It resists false premises of liberation that in reality uplift only cis, able-bodied whites. So to me, my masculinity goes hand in hand with my femininity.”
“Everyone has masculine traits and everyone has feminine traits, and, even if they’re someone who identifies as male but don’t typically ‘appear’ male, that identity is still valid. And there are so many different body types and body shapes and the way people look, and it’s all totally valid. People are still going to remain in their gender identities even if you don’t validate them.”
“Masculinity to me is expressing love and admiration for everyone in their lives, including men and women and people who are gender-neutral. Most of all I think masculinity is just being comfortable in who you are and in the dislikes and likes that you have for yourself, and just being accountable and responsible.”
I see masculinity as a western concept; it’s not indigenous to these lands here. Although from a cultural perspective, masculinity would belong to a warrior and the protectors of the tribe. I want people to see that there are Indigenous LGBTQ people, and if they think they’re alone, they’ll know they’re not.”
I think when we perceive masculinity, there are these traditional values that we need to be proud, stoic, but I don’t think that’s true. When it comes to my masculine identity, I think that involves being kind and vulnerable and showing emotion.”
Masculinity is a made-up thing to force people to be a certain way. I think you can be masculine and embody many, many different things. Sometimes people would try to make me look less masculine or more feminine, and I am feminine in my masculinity.”
I feel like when I was first entering the trans community and exploring my gender, I thought I’d have a very solid idea of what masculinity was: a certain set of clothes, a certain way of being. But the further I got into the community, the more obscure and flexible masculinity became. I think there are healthy ways to express it, and I know there are people in my life who are working hard to do that work.”