Donald Trump has a clear idea of what a real man is, and it’s not pretty. A real man is someone with the courage to openly disparage people for their ethnic heritage. Someone who will bluster, lie, or stonewall rather than admit to gaps in his knowledge and understanding. Someone who will succeed in business at any cost, whether that means stiffing his contractors, avoiding taxes despite great wealth, or declaring bankruptcy and spinning it as a clever negotiating tactic. But above all, a real man is someone who shows his power by alternately demeaning women and bragging about his conquests.
I’m new to being a man. For more than 30 years of my life, before I decided to transition, I was living as a woman. How to be a good man, and what it would mean to call myself a real man, are questions I’m still trying to answer to my own satisfaction. The rise of Donald Trump—and the backlash against the toxic masculinity he embodies—has made these questions exponentially more complicated.
If there’s one thing I’ve gleaned about manliness, it is that real men must never be anything like women. They must not talk like women, sit or stand or walk like women, enjoy the things that women enjoy, or do the sorts of things that women do. Anything at all can become suspect by being tied to womanishness. Donald Trump and his core supporters take this even further. In their warped view, America has been undermined by a creeping effeminacy making us weak and vulnerable, like women. Trump’s offensive, cartoonish brand of hypermasculinity is what they think we need to make us strong again.
I want to reject this in my own life—not just the caricature embodied by Trump but the foundation of misogyny on which it’s based. I do reject it, for what it’s worth. However, I am left with a conundrum: When demeaning, dominating, and objectifying women has been entirely removed from masculinity, what will be left?
When I first heard the tape of Donald Trump bragging about kissing and groping women regardless of their consent, my initial response was to highlight the differences between Trump’s horrific version of “locker room talk” and the normal banter between men—banter where women are casually objectified and success with them is treated as a signifier of status, but without a predatory slant. I think a lot of men had the same impulse in the face of Trump’s attempt to normalize talk that falls far outside the norm of male banter. However, in addition to calling out the grotesque nature of the liberties Trump believed that he could take, drawing this distinction between a little harmless sexism between friends and Trumpishness serves to wall off normal misogyny, protecting it from scrutiny. Normal men still mock one another for any subtle femininity in tastes or mannerisms, they still bond over the supposed emotionality or irrationality of women, and they still talk as though sex is a competitive sport between men rather than a mutual understanding between a man and an autonomous, equal partner.
While Trump is an extreme outlier, ordinary everyday maleness is tainted with the same sexism that gave rise to him. And, of course, it had to be so. Otherwise, how would Trump have gotten away with it? In a culture that truly rejected macho misogynist posturing, he wouldn’t have found business partners to work with him, contestants for his pageants, or viewers for his reality TV shows. The women he kissed, barged in on, or groped would have felt empowered to spread tales of his bad behavior far and wide rather than quietly among close friends and family. A man behaving as Trump does would be a pariah in any culture that did not actively and persistently enable men like him.
So, how does one become a man in a culture that is learning, and often failing, to root out sexism? I have transmasculine friends who cheerfully embrace their feminine side, rejecting any impulse to curb or apologize for it. I respect this approach, but it doesn’t feel quite right to me. Despite its many flaws and contradictions, there’s a lot I like about traditional masculinity.
Although competing for women as if they were status symbols is wrong, I prefer open, unapologetic competition between equals over holding back to spare another person’s ego. (Come join me in Slate’s comments!) While some people use “straight talk” to excuse speaking in gross stereotypes, forthrightness without apology or sugarcoating still strikes me as something admirable, as long as it’s paired with a willingness to learn and be corrected. I don’t think it’s right to view sexual partners as conquests devoid of independent agency, but nor do I think sex always has to be gentle or tender—there’s plenty of room for healthy, consensual dominance and even sexual sadism with the right partner.
I will now hasten to add that women can also be competitive, forthright, and sexually dominant. But to that I’ll further add a plea for understanding—it’s almost impossible to discuss positive aspects of masculinity without it being taken as denigrating or diminishing women. The result of generations of male supremacy is that referring to a trait as masculine involves the implication that it is superior. The result of a long and ongoing struggle for women’s equality is that this implication no longer goes unchallenged. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet found a way of speaking about masculinity and femininity in ways that are not burdened by that history. I’m left with a vague feeling that femininity is different from masculinity, and that men are different from women, but no language to talk about those differences or why I value them.
I want to be a good man. I want to be a man who embraces his masculinity and makes no apology for it. But, I don’t think I’ll be worrying too much about whether I’m a real man. Real men probably shouldn’t be afraid of occasionally appearing somewhat feminine. They shouldn’t overcompensate for their insecurities by abusing or mistreating others. They shouldn’t equate masculinity with the domination and degradation of women. Too often, however, it seems to me that self-proclaimed “real men” do exactly that. I want no part of it.