“It is extremely important to create spaces in which students have the opportunity to speak.”
Nicholas Lee, a junior on the men’s tennis team, took the initiative to create such a space to start a conversation about masculinity. The talk was titled “Deconstructing and Reimagining Masculinity,” and featured four speakers who shared personal stories about their experience with masculinity in many aspects of their lives. The topics of the event, held on Tuesday, April 17, included Trans & Masculinity, Queer & Masculinity, Athletics & Masculinity and Mental Health & Masculinity.
Lee came up with the idea after meeting with the head of the Women’s Center and the LGBTQ+ Center Jodie Castanza, who expressed concern regarding the lack of discussion about masculinity on campus. After doing some thinking, Lee decided that creating an event in which people could share their stories would be an apt starting place.
“My intention was to create an event that attracted students on varsity athletic teams as well as students not on varsity athletic teams,” Lee explained. “By creating a space where the speakers were very open about their stories, I thought that students [who] may not typically interact would at least be able to share a meaningful experience by being in the same space and possibly even engage in discussion.”
Lee opened this event to all members of the Vassar community in order to help create a bridge between the athlete and non-athlete community. Lee noted that expecting attendees to become best friends would be unrealistic. However, he hopes that events can help both groups of people understand each other more deeply and hopefully be more patient and compassionate with one another.
Lee wanted to include men of different identities in order to reach a wider range of perspectives. “By including men of different identities, we hoped to share a wider variety of experiences with masculinity,” Lee explained. “To be clear, none of us can speak for all those who share an aspect of our identity. But by having queer men, a trans man, men of color, heterosexual men and a heterosexual cisgender white male (who could unfortunately not come), our goal was to show a wide range of stories around masculinity and expose people to narratives that they may have never heard before.”
Arranging for a diverse array of men to speak on their experiences helped bring light to how different individuals experience masculinity. Lee expressed that although the speeches did not resolve the issues around Vassar’s problematic masculine culture, they provided a space for the men to share their stories in front of others. “While no one had an answer for toxic masculinity or hypermasculinity in their speeches, we were able to create a space where men were willing to be vulnerable in very intricate and articulate ways,” Lee mentioned.
Lee not only set up and ran the event, but he also participated in it. As an openly gay man on the tennis team, Lee spoke about his struggle with masculinity as it related to sports. “Athletics has been and will continue to be an essential and positive part of my life,” Lee stressed. “But, throughout my past there were many times in which I did not feel comfortable nor safe in a sports environment.”
Lee spoke of his struggle with coming to terms with his identity while playing sports. Societal norms, especially as they pertain to masculinity, kept Lee from feeling safe in the hypermasculine environment that sports often create. “I was socialized to believe that being gay was a bad thing, and that it meant that I was weak and less than everyone else,” Lee explained.
“I do not want to send the message that tough=- ness, adversity, intensity and competition are inherently bad things, nor that we should all just chill out, indulge ourselves and not take anything seriously,” Lee remarked. “Instead, my point is that when masculinity leaves no space for vulnerability, sensitivity or communication about our fears and anxieties, then a masculine environment can become toxic.”
Louie Brown, a junior on the rugby team, was another speaker at the event. Although he admits that he was unsure when he first agreed to sit on the panel, once he found out the potential impact of the event, his uncertainty turned to excitement. “I went to an all-boys school for my entire childhood and adolescence, so I’ve been participating in conversations and discourse about masculinity and especially its dangers and harmful effects for a long time,” Brown explained. “I’ve sort of missed that kind of work, and especially felt the lack of it at Vassar coming from my high school.”
Brown commented on the courage of the other speakers who shared their stories, and was especially moved by Emmett Weiss ‘18. Brown explained how impressed he was with other participants for sharing their stories with others, many of whom they have never met before.
Speakers standing up and telling their stories is a way in which the stigma surrounding vulnerability can be addressed. Brown mentioned: “I think the inability to be vulnerable is a huge issue not only in addressing community concerns regarding men on campus, and by extension the student athlete community, but also in learning to address larger issues of masculinity and whiteness.”
Said sophomore attendee Adele MacEwen: “It was a privilege hearing my peers’ stories. It felt really good to just listen and appreciate the beauty of people’s vulnerability.” MacEwen believes that these types of events are incredibly beneficial for the broader campus community, including both athletes and non-athletes. She commented, “Events like this create spaces where individuals can share their stories and are so important in cultivating a strong community. I hope we can continue to nurture these types of conversations.”