Content warning: This article mentions sexual violence and abuse.
I learned to be a man at 5 years old, in a homeless shelter for women affected by domestic violence. I learned that masculinity was like carrying a bucket of salt filled to the brim and that any mishap could spill into the open wounds of the women around me. Women who showered me in adoration to ensure I would be a man of love and not a man of violence, that’s the concept of fatherhood I had. Not a concept of what kind of man I wanted to be, but a concept rooted in what kind of man I vowed I would never be. My journey of self-discovery was not easy.
As a victim of sexual violence, self-discovery became a much larger mountain, and I had to address masculinity and sexuality at base camp before I could even ascend. Eighty-seven percent of male victims (completed or attempted) of rape reported only male perpetrators. I was sexually abused by a man at a young age. I didn’t know anything about anything, let alone anything about the socially dense intricacies of sexuality. I struggled with my sexual identity because of this abuse. The waters of my own sexual identity were forever muddied by this nonconsensual act. It wasn’t till college where I was able to embark on my own self-defined, self-prescribed journey and discovery of my own identity.
The fact of the matter is that I’ve sat in too many circles playing “Never Have I Ever” wherein someone asked something that made me wonder if my abuse counts. The reality is it doesn’t. But at the same time, it happened to me and is forever part of my story and thus part of me. I’m ok with that. The journey to this point wasn’t easy, I mostly seek healing in the context of the relationships that feel equal to me. Equity. That is what I look for in all my relationships, especially my peers. They will be the ones sitting next to me. So friends, mentors, therapy, and a whole lot of self-reflection, that’s the start of your journey to being free from the burdensome weight of yesterday.
In fact, sometimes, I even joke about the past when it seems like the people around me can handle the dark humor. It’s not forced humor, it’s just that every emotion is welcome at every moment and sometimes humor is what feels right to me. I’m at a point now where I’m free. I no longer have to feel anything I don’t want to when I revisit those memories. So if you or someone you know feels weighed down by the way those thoughts make you feel just know it doesn’t always have to be that way, and the road to healing always welcomes nomads like you. Everyone copes in their own way so there’s no rush.
The real epidemic here is in the fact that we have a very hostile psychosocial environment and it’s hard for people to feel free from pressure and just be. Outside of my experience with abuse, the other thing that made my journey of self-discovery so difficult was the absence of my father, who died when I was a teen.
When he died, I didn’t cry, it was hard to feel something for a stranger—queue Dear Mama by Tupac Shakur. An ode to a mother who played mother and father. This was my reality too. In fact, when he died, I couldn’t even recall what he looked like. But I met him after death in the occasional photograph that surfaced out of the ash and gave me a glimpse of him. He who was battered, broken, and bruised just like me but full of life and smiles. A Spanish-speaking Afro-Cuban used to the warm, loving, unconditional cultural bond of his people. He was now navigating the US with nothing but his two hands, a language barrier, and the loss of his family. The stress got to him, he cracked and that led him down the bottle and into his grave. The psychosocial supports that could have mitigated his spiral are largely studied and are straightforward, so for brevity, I’ll leave you to Google them.
Eighty-five percent of children and teens in prison have an absent father. There is a large amount of literature out there that supports the claim that youth who come from fatherless homes face higher rates of behavioral and mental health disorders—and worse outcomes overall when compared to their counterparts. Clearly, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
In this day and age the discourse on gender and identity is a minefield where political wars are being waged. The frontlines are lined with heavily armored claims and the stress we feel is piling on top of already existing stress, a lack of confidence in our sense of self, and the psychosocial effects of complex trauma. But from the other side of the coin, I refuse to be the stereotypical man, emotionally stunted, grounded by a false sense of security in a seemingly blasé attitude and I choose to lean into love. I invite you or any of the men in your life in this moment to be free and to give yourself a little time and space from all the social pressures that be.
In other words, say I love you. Say it again. Never stop saying it. Love yourself. Love others without an ounce of caution because love is meant to be free. Be vulnerable. Be the first person to share your feelings. Ask others about their feelings and make space for those feelings. Don’t get lost in those feelings, pause, give those people and feelings space and acknowledgement and move forward gently–keeping those feelings in mind—this is the hardest part and I still haven’t mastered it. We live in community, not alone, so we must experience our feelings in community; only then can you be as privileged as I have been to be a man amongst men with no father. With all the tenderness and compassion a loving mother can muster, you are loved.
And to all the father figures I had in strange places, I love you, I adore you. I ask nothing of you and give it all back, to you and to others in the currencies that mean the most: time, energy, patience, and love without conditions.