Note: This is one of a series of interviews originally published on the TLaM tumblr. The blog seems like a better home for this material, so in the coming weeks, I will be moving these interviews over (and hopefully publishing a couple of new ones).
Al Vernacchio teaches at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, PA, where he is the N-12 Sexuality Education Coordinator as well as chair of the Upper School English Department. As a sexuality educator and consultant, Al has lectured, published articles, given TED talks, and appeared in local and national media. He is the author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Young People About Sexuality, Values, and Health. A native Philadelphian, Al and his husband, Michael, live in the Germantown section of the city.
How would you say our culture defines masculinity?
I have a pretty negative view towards the cultural definition of masculinity. As I see it, it’s all about an attempt to hang onto (perceived or actual) power, dominance, and control. To be a man in American society is to be strong, stoic, hard, sexually aggressive and unyielding. It forces boys and men into a very narrow box of expectations and punishes them severely if and when they stray from that box. As someone who never had a chance at fitting into that box (and, as I grew older never wanted to fit into it) I’ve always viewed traditional masculinity from the outside, and with a pretty jaundiced eye.
The great paradox of this cultural definition, of course, is that it’s rooted in fragility and fear. There is nothing more fragile than a man who is holding onto toxic masculinity for dear life. He is afraid of so much, including his own thoughts and feelings, that he tightens himself into a hard ball and loses the ability to be flexible, to breathe, and to relax into his true self. One only has to look at the current inhabitant of the White House to see a perfect example of this.
How do you define your own masculinity?
I’ve always been a lover of superheroes, and, to this day I maintain an extensive collection of comic books. My favorite superhero has always been Wonder Woman. She is strong, powerful, led by love, fights for justice, and champions the oppressed. She has all the power of Superman but none of the bravado. She’s certainly focused more on leading with and from love than he is. Wonder Woman is exactly the kind of man I aspire to be. As a kid I invented my own superhero, Wonder Boy! He was Wonder Woman’s younger brother and followed in her footsteps. I spent hours imagining I was Wonder Boy, fighting evil and spreading peace and justice. Strength fueled by love and channeled into seeking justice; that’s still the kind of masculinity I aspire to.
How did you learn about gender?
I grew up in a very traditional, Italian-American, Roman Catholic family in South Philadelphia. The gender scripts in our house were incredibly traditional and upheld a strict notion of binary gender. I always had an interest in learning to cook, but it was frowned upon for a boy to be in the kitchen with women. Sadly, the only time I was allowed to cook was when my mother was dying from cancer and was too weak to prepare meals. It was only then that she shared her recipes with me and encouraged me to make sure my father would be well fed.
In your opinion, what would be the best way for young people today to learn about gender? What should they be taught about masculinity in particular?
I love the Swedish model where all children are referred to with the non-gendered pronoun “hen” until the child expresses a pronoun that fits their authentic self. It’s not that I’m interested in a genderless society. I just wish we could stop creating hierarchies out of gender differences. Why can’t we teach children that there are many ways to name their gender and that no one is better or worse than another – and that all of the identities are far more expansive than they are restrictive.
Have you ever felt insecure in your masculinity? How did you react to that feeling?
I’ve never felt insecure because I never wanted to be the kind of man that was modeled for me as “typical”. I was more intellectual and emotional than physical, and preferred imagination to reality. Boys constantly made fun of me; girls seemed OK with me. I never doubted that I was a boy and I liked being a boy. I just couldn’t find a lot of models of the kind of masculinity I aspired to, until I found Wonder Woman.
How does your sense of gender relate to your sexuality?
I figured out pretty early in my life that I was gay (long before I had a word for it). One of the blessings of being gay for me is being, in some ways, freed from the cultural strictures of traditional and toxic masculinity. A guy who is sexually attracted to other guys breaks the cardinal rule of traditional masculinity. Once you break that rule, you’re out of the “man” club. While growing up gay in the 1970s and 80s was hard, it allowed me to sidestep a lot of the b-s about “being a man”. Some gay men certainly embody a traditional masculine role, and that’s fine, but you don’t have to if you’re gay. The definition of masculine is much more broad and allows for a wide variety of ways to be a man.
How does masculinity relate to other aspects of your identity?
I am keenly aware that as a white man I receive enormous unearned privilege in society. I have to work to be aware of that and think how best to use that privilege to subvert policies and practices that are discriminatory.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any projects you’re working on that you’d like us to know about?
I fear people will read this and think I don’t like being a man, or that I wish I weren’t a man, but I love being a man, and I love men. What I don’t love is how narrow society’s concept of masculinity continues to be. As a high school teacher, I see how savagely toxic masculinity is pressed onto boys and how much it hurts them and everyone around them. I wish men could stop being so afraid.