masculinity

Ticked off

I currently work at Epsom Girls Grammar, a public school with a proud history and one that cannot sit in isolation from our brother school – Auckland Grammar (AGS). After celebrating its centenary last year, EGGS is looking to the future to consider what the next century will ‘look like’ for ‘girls education’ as will AGS for ‘boys’. Perhaps one of the starting points for any educational institution ‘looking to the future’ should be to locate its values and image, particularly ideas of ‘tradition’. By locate I mean what century these are drawn from. Which is why this article about AGS building unisex bathrooms in a bid to be more inclusive of transgender students raised my eyebrows in a way that might have given away my age more than the growing silvering of my hair.

So why the eyebrow raise? AGS has been on a journey toward the rainbow tick. The rainbow tick is a certification process to ensure work places are gender and sexual diversity inclusive. On the surface, this seems ideal and robust, having measurable outcomes sounds like progress. However, I do have some genuine questions for some of the implications of getting diversity ‘ticked off’ as compliance. I am not suggesting bathrooms are a token gesture, but I am a bit cynical about the meaningful impact these will have for becoming more ‘inclusive’. Maybe it raises some pertinent questions about the idea of single sex education.

For a start, why in the 21st century are we holding onto single sex education? The gendered ideas that excluded girls from education then ‘allowed’ them to access seem archaic yet are often still used to justify segregation. I’ve heard it first hand when EGGS staff discuss assumptions about how boys and girls learn differently .

One argument is that parents that want single sex schools and sometimes religious beliefs insist on segregation. I think there will always be a place in the private and special character schools. I wonder if a more accurate statement is one of style and culture. Discipline, hierarchy, power, punishment model and versus relational accountability and mutual respect. Neither is better, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In their polarity form (sometimes mirrored in single sex schools but not always) they are clearly different models of learning. So I think the question of ‘who is peeing where with what plumbing’ becomes irrelevant in an school that defines it’s character on its ways of relating to other human beings. This paves the way for AGS and EGGS to drop their biological criteria for attendance in the future. These schools could then advertise these more openly and allow parents to choose what model of learning and relationships they would prefer their children-young people to be exposed to rather than ‘you have these bits – you go here’ (let’s not even go there for intersex young people…that would blow the sex/gender binary to bits).

When I discuss the idea of attending an ‘all-boys’ school with young trans guys at EGGS there is a lot of face pulling and shoulder shrugging. They seem unsure of the level of support they would feel and their sense is that the gender fluidity present around them would be lost and they would need to comply with a model of masculinity to be accepted. So providing gender neutral facilities does not ‘tick their boxes’ of an inclusive, safe, school. My suggestion for AGS (for what it’s worth) is ensuring you are providing for current trans AGS student needs. The denial of any current trans students is just as problematic for me and I would rather see energy put into ensuring mtf (male to female) trans students needs being addressed, or is that too challenging for notions of maleness and masculinity?

Yes building bathrooms is a step and I want to be hopeful about AGS’s journey toward being more open and accepting of gender and sexual diversity, and I still think EGGS has work to do (uniform especially). My experience tells me one important step for students is to have a support/social group up and running – supported by the principal, student leaders and to have ongoing, genuine consultation happening of the queer AGS/EGGS community – including parents.

Redefining men and masculinity in the 21st Century is potentially the greatest and most challenging building project – the blueprints are all there but if people are determined to keep with the traditional bricks and mortar approach then those bathrooms will be about as inclusive as saying ‘we have ramps so we are inclusive of disabilities’ and I’m not even sure if AGS has ramps.

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Age old question

I’ve been trying to figure out what this aging thing is. I can see visible signs of age, the strands of hair becoming tinsilated, the smile lines etching deeper as do the frown lines although I’m hoping to have less of those. But I’m perplexed by the idea of being my age-gender and I’m wondering about the relationship as well as some intriguing possibilities this offers my penchant for messing with embodiment in general.

It came to me as I looked through photographs of me as a kid, class photos where I might have blended in as one of the boys. And then looking at people in their 70’s and above and also struggling at times to see the bodily clues that define male and female. It occurs to me that past a certain age men’s bodies become pulled toward female and female toward male. I know biology and physiology has a lot to do with this but here is a thought – why fight it? Here is my radical revision of aging-gender.

I’m not sure how this would work but imagine if you get to 60 and your body is changing shape with lumps and bumps moving, again it could be that illnesses such as cancer take hold of particular parts that have significance for identifying the common bodily sexual features (I realise this is a sensitive issue – I am not suggesting mastectomy’s and cancer treatment aren’t traumatic or any other form of body part removal, testicle, ovary) there might be an option to ‘go with the flow’. Doctors could offer hormone treatment to help keep that flow going rather than trying to turn back the clock. Society could create a new form of ceremony or ritual celebration (optional of course) where preferred names and pronouns are used openly.

What is interesting is there is little question about youth enhancing their cis-gendered bodies along normative gender lines. There are plenty of industries willing to increase sizes of particular parts. But when nature gives you the base ingredients to transition, why not make it easier. All I hope for is that I can still ride a bike, surf, skate, and that my pants maintain a waistline that is closer to my hips than my neck.

 

Playing political football

I remember a time when the idea of sport and politics mixing was about as palatable as the concept of raspberry beer. We were split as a nation over playing rugby against South Africa in the late 1970’s and early 80’s due to the countries apartheid policies. I was old enough to remember the images but not old enough to understand the significance. New Zealand wanted the sanctity of its national sport to be untainted by the social policies of other countries that denied certain citizens their dignity and human rights. But many did see the contradiction and through the conflict and protest the public were forced to confront the possibility that there might being an ‘All Black’ in some parts of the world didn’t get you a free drink at the pub.

Fast forward to 2015 and apartheid as a policy has been dissolved. Our love of rugby is no less diminished and Richie McCaw is gearing up to defend the Webb Ellis Cup. There are even calls for our esteem AB captain to enter politics, with whispers of him becoming the next PM. So much for oil and water not mixing. But I suppose it comes down to branding in the end. Richie is perfect, most people either want to be him or do him…well…it’s true – I think there are plenty of people who suddenly find themselves not believing sexuality is fixed.

But if we are going to go down the path of Kiwi athletes having political potential well then lets throw this around a bit a see what happens. I’ve got a few other contenders for the top job:

Cameron Brown is first on my list. This guy knows how to go the distance. 10x NZ Ironman Champ. I’ve seen him run down his opposition in clinical form. If a political party wanted someone who knows how to come from behind and knows it isn’t over until you cross the line.

Lauren Boyle. One of our most understated athletes. As a swimmer she has to do the hard yards in training and again has to squeeze every ounce of potential out of her body in every event. I also get the feeling the best is yet to come from this amazing athlete.

How about Nathan Fa’avae? Here is a multisport guy who can find his way if dropped into the middle of no-where (maybe one of the minor parties could grab him). He can make do with basics and won’t mind burning the midnight oil and running on empty. Throw him a couple of barley sugars and he’ll be good to go.

Any of our rowers – sure they go backwards but when you are out in front you can keep an eye on the opposition and counter any moves. Mahe would do.

Sticking with the water, how about Lisa Carrington – her races might not last all that long but she knows how to win no matter what the margin. Her shoulders are big enough for an entire political party to cry on and have room to spare.

Speaking of powerful women. Valerie Adams has been at the top of a world class event and taken down the cheats. She’ll deal to any dirty politics. Val can also deal with dead weights and would ‘put’ anyone who doubted her out her inner circle.

William Trubridge – the guy going for the world record for swimming to great depths on a single breath. For a political party on their last gasp he could probably help get them out of a dark hole.

Notable exclusions: anyone from Team NZ – Dean Barker might have been an alternative to Richie but no – sorry Dean that epic fail will probably take some serious work to forget. Too soon for the political winds of change Dean.

A couple more who could fit the bill are any of our top cyclists over the years – tactical bunch riding, hiding and then attacking. Cyclists also know at some point they will crash and it will hurt. Maybe someone like Anton Cooper our Olympic mountain bike champ. He would know how to take the spills and deal with varying terrain and conditions. Even better his last name is ‘Cooper’ so it will tap into the deep unconscious of those who know their beer brewing history and so the intimate psychic link to the celebratory consumption of alcohol will fit like a hand in a sweaty glove.

So there you go, some other pickings and perhaps a bit of a reminder that we are successful at other sports not involving balls. And as we learned this week, it’s not always good to be too pumped. If someone puts the boot in and you come apart at the seams well your career might end in a bang. But if Richie had been PM when that rugby ball exploded I am sure there would have a national press conference, referendum on the use of Adidas as a sponsor and perhaps a piece of legislation to ensure no other balls would be deflated under his watch.

Two little bits of advice, practice your handshakes Richie and stay away from pony tails.

Shapeshifting – its morphi-fying

I remember dressing up as a kid, I was convinced my red skellerup gumboots were magic but feeling incredibly disappointed that I couldn’t fly and didn’t have super strength no matter what towel I tied around my neck. That was the 70’s and curiously enough superman has had more reboots than my old 486. The interesting thing is the embodiment of superman from Christopher Reeves slightly androgynous but not so muscular to the mesomorphic Henry Cavill who might easily have passed for the Hulk in the 1970’s. Everyone at some point has a fantasy about superpowers – not necessarily involving masks and capes or other stuff.

My favourite game is choosing an X-Men character. So many options and cool amazing abilities but there is one I overlooked for ages – Mystique. She is a shapeshifter and has the ability to alter her physique to be either gender. But she was always either or – never both/and. So although every other character seems to push the limits of physicality, the one person who could ultimately explore and represent alternative gendered embodiments gets stuck in polarity! The irony is in her ‘natural state’ aside from the deep indigo skin, scales and yellow eyes she has a ‘perfect body’.

So while X-Men push the idea of fear of difference, needing to control, eliminate or assimilate expressions of otherness there are some subtle messages that reinforce usual gendered stereotypes and mystique is a very good example. She is also told people should ‘love her in her natural state’ that she should not alter herself. On one level I agree however why on earth would you stick with one experience of your body if you have the ability to be anyone! Containing her fluidity to me is the ultimate act of disempowerment.

There are probably some other as yet unimagined benefits of shapeshifting. Just imagine how easy it would make shopping for jeans! You could choose any style and morph on into them. Then there is travelling! Gosh you could navigate all sorts of tricky culturally bound gendered norms, or other stereotypes that are currently a barrier to suspicion free international travel. Caught in a fight and someone goes to kick you between the legs – it’s probably going to hurt either way but maybe less in one body.

The only other downer about super heroes is they all so self-absorbed, tragic, angsty and tortured. No amount of shapeshifting is going to make that attractive.

Going To Great Depths

Dark, silent, alone, de-pressed, it might sound like the start of a story about depression but William Trubridge is man who took himself intentionally into a deep dark hole, on a single breath of air. Not just any hole, a yawning orifice in the Bahamas over 200m deep. Looking down through the crystal clear blue waters I had the impression of him entering the pupil of a giant eye. Watching him pack air into his lungs, like some poor fish gasping for air before he attempted the world record immediately sent shivers down my spine, this was a huge physical and mental challenge. We are mammals and our physiology is definitely not adequately designed to cope with the immense hydrostatic pressure water packs on the body, whilst starving your brain of oxygen.

He was attempting a world record, most of us in NZ will have seen the Steinlager Pure advertisements over the last month or so, giving us a sense of what he would be putting himself through. Somehow, I don’t think he would be reaching for a Steiny after holding his breath for nearly four minutes, more like ‘pass me that regulator’ and sucking on some sweet air. He was oh so close to making it. I watched live this morning and seemed to hold my breath…well…at least for 5 seconds at a time just mesmerised by the slow, graceful descent into darkness. I admired his beautiful technique and for a moment it seemed like maybe he was an aquatic mammal. At 102m he had made it, but like those who climb mountains (only in reverse) the ascent was yet to be completed. With 20m to go, he made the call to his support crew – a simple shake of the head, the grabbed him and assisted him to the surface, the record missed.

It was the perfect miss. I was quietly celebrating this courageous surrender. Here was a man who did not ‘macho’ it through to unconsciousness. When thinking about the relationship between masculinity, and sport this could be seen as refreshing alternative, a new relationship with physicality, risk and a strength that comes from respecting limits, and leaving ego at the surface to get to the deeper qualities of being that invite patient, gentle wisdom, and confidence to let go.

As for Steinlager being the sponsor for William, I don’t think the need to worry about their product image being diminished, if anything they got a pure result – and it isn’t always perfect. I hope William doesn’t suck on any of their product unless it’s the pure version, not unless he wants some dry land practice at having his head crushed in a vice. Anyone else experienced the ‘Steingrenade’ effect? Hangover doesn’t even begin to describe the pain and suffering…

You might want to climb into a dark hole after a night on those.