The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Help a Brotha Out?

Via Matt Yglesias comes this interesting bit from Ann Friedman on straight men and support networks.

From an early age, most women are socialized to be more nurturing and relationship-oriented than men, so perhaps this isn’t surprising. My guess is that homophobia also plays a huge role. Men are taught to perceive intimacy with other men as gay. You can see it in trend stories about "man-dates" and movies about male friendship, which often veer pretty quickly from depictions of platonic affection to defensive homophobia. There’s even a social stigma attached to cross-gender friendships. Just ask Slate‘s Juliet Lapidos and her best friend, Jeff. Or me and my bestie Josh. (No, he’s not gay. No, I’m not gay. No, we’ve never dated. Yes, we are super tight.) If all of these relationships are socially off-limits, who’s a man to befriend?

I thought about this gender gap in support networks when I read the Times article about Jared Loughner. For all of the explanations that have been offered for his actions — a culture that glorifies violence, easy access to guns, poor access to mental health care — Loughner’s lack of a strong emotional and social support network has not been a prominent part of the post-tragedy narrative. It’s been taken as a given that this young man was a loner. We’ve come to expect that perpetrators of headline-dominating acts of violence will be young, single, heterosexual men like Loughner.

There are consequences to the fact that many men don’t have the social support they need and deserve. I think this is changing as our societal understanding of gender evolves. But it’s changing slowly. I, for one, can’t wait until bromance is not just a punchline but a part of every dude’s life.

As a gay man, I find myself on both sides of this one.

It didn’t occur to me though, until I read what Matt added on his post.

I thought of this today when I was getting ready to be anesthetized and have my teeth pulled. I had put down on some form that Kate Crawford was going to pick me up, and from there basically everyone just assumed (accurately) that she’s my girlfriend. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption, per se, but it’s emblematic of the phenomenon Ann’s talking about here. In practice, a straight single man who reaches out for help will almost always find that people are ready to be there for him. But there’s no socially validated way to do so.

I think that’s in part because "reaching out for help" is still stigmatized for men. Psychologist Jeffrey Kropp, referencing an article about Denver Broncos wide recieve Kenny McKinley’s suicide, puts it rather succinctly.

On September 20, 2010, Denver Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley took his own life. Denver Post columnist Woody Paige addressed the tragedy by discussing his ability to empathize with the struggles of McKinley based on his personal experience with contemplating suicide. Paige addressed the significant amount of shame and reluctance to ask for help that people who consider suicide often experience. Our society’s all too frequent masculine beliefs that view depression negatively by somehow relating negative affect to that person’s "toughness" make Paige’s discussion of his past experiences even more admirable.

Being the "strong silent type", it turns out, isn’t good for your health.

When a man is lost while driving and refuses to ask for directions, he runs the risk of becoming hopelessly lost.

When that man refuses to seek preventative health care, asking his doctor for direction, he runs the risk of an early death.

"Deep-seated masculinity beliefs are one core cause of men’s poor health," according to Kristin W. Springer, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University, who presented her research Monday at the annual American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco.

Though it will never be found on a death certificate, her study suggests a contributing factor to a successful man dying could be was "too macho."

As men with strong masculine beliefs gain more education and higher job status, Springer found, "The likelihood that they will obtain preventative health care declines significantly."

The research, she said, provides a clue as to why men die earlier than women. The life expectancy at birth is five years less for men than women and men have higher rates in 12 of the 15 leading causes of death in the United States

I’m hardly the "strong silent type," especially when it comes to mental health. My first experience with a therapist was such a positive one that I’ve never hesitated to seek out help in that department. But years ago it was pointed — correctly, I might add — out to me that I had a tendency not to ask for help when I needed it at work.

When I thought about it, there were other areas in my life where I resisted asking for help until I "hopelessly lost" or on the brink of disaster. Some of that was probably related to my ADD. Sometimes asking for help meant revealing how far behind I was or how deficient I was at some aspects of my job.

Come to think of it though, perhaps that too was related to the whole masculine stigma against asking for help. A "real" man, after all, "ought to" be able to "fix it" himself. (Whatever "it" is.) If he asks for help, it may be a sign of weakness, incompetence or both. Because we’re supposed to have all the answers, and if we don’t then we’d better at least act like we do."

Never mind the rise of the "Beta Males." In some small part of our psyche, maybe we still want to be Alpha Males or at least look the part. On some level, many of us are still trying to be John Wayne.

It also ties into the hyper-masculinized American mythology of "rugged individualism" and the "self-made" American, which idealizes total "self-sufficiency." Boiled down it means, "No help." There’s no help, no asking for help, and needing help or even appearing to need help is the worst transgression. (You can see this playing out in our politics, and our response to the economic crisis.)

It gets to be a painful, lonely place, though. Bringing you back around to mental health.

On the other hand, as a gay man I haven’t experience the lack of a socially validated way to seek help. Perhaps that’s because, as a gay man, my primary relationships were never socially validated. Not having social validation, it’s not something I had to worry about losing. Likewise, having never quite lived up to the masculine ideal, living up to it has become less important to me than it might be to straight men.

Part of it my be due to the social reality that gay men have lived with for generations. It may be changing now, but even for my generation of gay men, there was a certain amount of distance from our families of origin that was often an unavoidable part of coming out. In some cases, upon reaching adulthood many of us move away from home in order to find a place to finally "come out." (I went off to college and then moved to D.C.) If you were closeted, there were certain aspects of your life — even major ones — that you couldn’t share with your family.You had to find support elsewhere. Likewise, if you were out and rejected by your family, you had to find support elsewhere.

In many cases, we turned to the only people who could understand because they were largely in the same boat: each other. We created "families of choice," made of of friends and former partners in some cases. Not all were exclusively gay, but many were primarily so. We reached out to other gay men for emotional support, and for help at times when some might normally turn to family or spouses.

That was especially true i the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when many men who were sick and/or dying were still rejected by their families of origin (many of whom showed up only to collect the corpse, and seize the estate). In fact, it could be argued that the first HIV/AIDS service organizations grew out of those very networks. We long ago learned how to take care of each other, and it became a model for more people as the crisis grew.

I remember being in a similar situation as the one Matt described. I had to be put under for an upper G.I. endoscopy, and couldn’t be released on my own. Someone had to come and pick me up. I called on my support network and a friend picked me up and drove me home on his lunch break. Years later, when my wisdom teeth came out, it was my husband who picked me up and took me home.

I don’t know if these means I escape some of the mental health pitfalls of "strong and silent" "self-sufficiency." There are still times when I find myself resisting asking for help, and I’m trying to "unlearn" that tendency. I see it sometimes in Parker, and we’re both trying to show him that it’s OK to need help and OK to ask for help, and that we want to help him when he needs it. (And, no, I don’t always wait for him to ask. Why wait until things reach a crisis point?)

Bottom line, guys: there’s nothing wrong with helping a brotha out, or letting a brotha help you out. Life is too short to suffer in silence, and suffering in silence can make life even shorter.

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