Out and About: Shed the mask of masculinity

By Nicko Bernier

As our recital approaches, my dance teacher scrambles to finish choreographing my class’s ballet number. I’m the only boy, which means I am featured in many of the dances. Paulette, my instructor, wants me to choreograph my part on my own. “Give me Sinatra. Give me West Side Story,” she says, her light blue eyes narrowing in excitement at the prospect of having another number with a boy in it. Paulette says she wants swagger. She wants masculinity.

I have been watching clips of Guys and Dolls and West Side Story to try to identify the look she’s going for: puffing out the chest, exaggerating shoulder movements, scuffing the heels with each step forward. Of course, her definition of masculinity—the strut of the jazzy gangster—is one of many stereotypes encompassed by this term. 

Paulette is one of the smartest people I’ve met. She knows what works for her audience—so why am I overthinking her instructions, grappling with the fact that these simplified dance moves embody masculinity? 

The Mask You Live In, a film by The Representation Project that The Feminist Coalition of Boston aired on May 1 at the Fayerweather Street School, articulated several faults in our collective definition of masculinity that resonated with me: first, that being gay seems to detract and confine masculinity; second, that we as men have to lessen our emotional capacity and ability to express ourselves in order to be more “masculine”; third, that we as humans have instilled the rejection of femininity in the definition of masculinity. 

As a gay male, I struggle with the intersection of masculinity and sexuality. I picture picking the two apart like a dissection of the human brain. Delicate pathways encompass everything; disrupting them disturbs the whole balance of the organ. I have this pathway—this rut—that I’m stuck in. We call this muscle memory in dance class. The paths in the human brain only get stronger over time.  

The reality is, you, readers, might feel inclined to compartmentalize and oversimplify my masculinity and sexuality so that I become this blob of effeminateness. You might lose sight of everything else there is about me because these things bleed together and make you blind to the rest of me. I’m a multi-faceted, sophisticated person. Yes, I love Beyoncé and dancing and blogging; I also love rap and hiking and being outside. Look at me as an amalgam, and you get so much more out of me. 

The Mask You Live In followed an educator and youth activist, and one of the questions he posed to a group of students distilled the complicated questions I have regarding masculinity: what is brotherhood if we can’t share with each other our feelings?

Simple, yes, but so elegantly put. It’s considered macho and masculine to stash away emotions, to blanket how we feel and embody this amplified version of masculinity. I have friends who say constantly that “they’re not ‘romantics,’” who bottle their feelings up because that’s what’s socially acceptable. Think about this: we consider it cooler, more refined, and more cultured to confine our emotional capacity instead of heighten it.

For me, defining my masculinity is like defining myself as a dancer. I dance five different types of dance each week: ballet, jazz, lyrical, modern, and hip hop. On stage, I can lift my weight into my chest and chaîné turn on pointe, or I can let my weight fall into my thighs and propel my limbs in fast, less graceful movements to produce the proper hip-hop arrogance. Overall, though, I am a dancer, and that is the only thing that is final. My skills will only become more diverse over time. My masculinity does not confine me to any subset, and it—like my sexuality—doesn’t define everything that I am.  

Soon, I will be onstage at Regis College for my recital once more. I’ll have a jazzy fedora on, and the girls behind me will snap along to my entrance, rotating their wrists on each downbeat. Paulette has given me creative license. In my thirty seconds, I will make the choreography my own. For me, though, it’s never just dancing on stage. My mind percolates with memories of love, sadness, ecstasy, the way a White-Mountain canopy shaded me on that hike. And as I fly through the air, you will travel into all aspects of my life. You will see more than a dancer, more than a gay boy.

You will see one me: a dense, untouchable brain that leaves you speechless with its captivation.

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