Opinion: Disability and Masculinity

By Alexander Goldsmith

Alexander Goldsmith explores what is means to be a male and live with a disability.

Alexander is one of the recipients of the Attitude Trust Communication Scholarship. In this blog, he write about masculinity and disability.

What does it mean to be a man? It’s a simple yet complex question. Masculinity is something some men take for granted, it comes naturally to them. For others though, including myself, it can be tough to try and conform to the expectations society has on me because I am male. But twice as many young kiwi men are killing themselves than our Australia counterparts, it’s hard to ignore. All the suicide statistics show men are more likely to commit suicide, especially Maori males. It’s hard to see the causes as to why this trend is happening.

Part of it is that we need to look at the role that masculinity plays in society and the expectations we put on men, especially in the disability community.

As a little boy, I definitely had an image of a man to be physically strong; someone who can handle manual labour, who is good at sport and exercise and most important, someone who isn’t emotional and isn’t in touch with his feelings because he is tough and brave. When following this criteria I had the perfect role model to look up to and aim to replicate in order to be become a man. My father was an All Black in the late 1980’s. He played for several clubs both here in New Zealand and in South Africa.

Masculinity-wise I had hit the jackpot. Being the son of a former All Black which is seen is the image of male dominance in our country, there is a lot of pressure put on you to replicate this masculinity. This was an idea I had fixed in my mind of what was expected of me because of my gender and that was to be like my dad. Only problem was… I couldn’t live up to my expectations of being a male. I learnt from a young age that my father had not passed the rugby genes down to me, considering I hated the idea of getting tackled and didn’t really want to get dirty playing on the grass

Sport in general didn’t seem to go along with me, causing a self-doubt about my masculinity.

What I have really struggled with overtime is the emotional expectations put on men by others. This idea that men are meant to not show emotion, don’t show affection towards other people especially other males, don’t wear clothing that causes people to think you’re a “poofter.” You’re only allowed to like certain interests, hobbies or again your masculinity might be called into question and you might be seen as effeminate or even worse… a homosexual. This amount of stress and pressure that young males have to carry around wherever they go can really affect a male’s self-image and self esteem of themselves. Growing up as a young male is tough, puberty is going on, you are still trying to figure out who you are as a person.

When looking at males in the disability community, many of them because of their disability, especially when it comes to a physical disability, men feel like they have to in a way make up for this threat of their masculinity. They feel they have to be macho. Part of the problem is that we encourage this type of behaviour, we encourage young men to man up, to grow some balls and it’s killing them.

What we need to teach men is about compassion and empathy. We need to teach them that it’s ok to be emotional, affectionate and that’s okay to ask for help. 

Sport in general didn’t seem to go along with me, causing a self-doubt about my masculinity.

By showing emotions it doesn’t make you any less of man. For me personally whenever I see one of my mates show their vulnerability to me, I grow respect for them as it tells me they are in touch with their emotions.

A few weeks ago I went to my first drag queen show, way out of my comfort zone. Although a bit nervous going in what I saw that night was truly beautiful. I saw men being 100% open and authentic to themselves. I saw men dressed in beautiful outfits with high heels, hair and makeup and being so proud of the way they looked. For me there is nothing less masculine between a drag queen and an All Black, they both have the same body parts! but for me personally it takes a lot of balls for a man to go up on stage in front of an audience in really a vulnerable state. For these men though it’s more important that they are being true to themselves than conforming to society’s expectation of them.

Now I’m not saying all men should put high heels on and skip along Karangahape Road. What I am saying, however, is we need to look at ourselves and think about what kind of messages we are sending to young men. This is in the media, at work or school, and in the household where the father-son relationship is very important in a male’s upbringing. This image we currently have of men in New Zealand in reality is a big generalisation and stereotype that most men can’t relate to.

It’s important for men to look out for each other, provide emotional support for one another and be more authentic to themselves and emotion. Because to me that is a true man and they have definitely got some balls.


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