Culture & Society

How To Become A Man!

The discourse on masculinity needs to include disabled masculinity

Intangible World of a Stranger - II by Tito Stanley SJ; Image courtesy of Anant Art

I still don’t know

how to handle

good news

Every time I hear

my mother discussing

some cousin’s newborn

I feel like Darwin

has personally

failed me in

an exam

Back in school, boys hung out with boys and girls hung out with girls. Any boy who was seen spending too much time with girls was called out in derogatory ways. It wasn’t unusual, growing up in Patna, girls of your age were either your sisters, love interests or bhabhis. Maybe this was the fault of our parents who made sure that every girl tied rakhis to every boy in the neighbourhood, sanctifying their relationship to discourage any of the sexual stuff. Not that it stopped sexual stuff from happening. We saw plenty of rakhis being tied one year and the same people exchanging roses the next.

While this gender bifurcation was visible, the differences within a group of boys that hung out together were not obvious to the outer world—differences that were built around body, size and masculinity. There were always boys with feminine traits who were the subject of many sexual innuendos and even physical advances. It was always the bigger, more masculine men who constantly had the urge to touch other men and make jokes about them. Short men, fat men, slender men or every physical trait—people had something to say about the person’s perceived sexual prowess. This generic form of bullying was generally accepted as a rite of passage. To belong, you had to know how to take a joke. As a chubby person, there was always a joke floating around my male body and the sex position best suited for me. In my 10th standard slam book, a friend’s answer to the question, “How would you best describe Abhishek?” was: “Look any girl in the eye and say, go to hell!!”

All the men, even the feminine ones, are now married and many of them have kids. They grew up to fit into the normative ideas of masculinity as it is defined within the boundaries of patriarchal heteronormativity. It must have been the easiest option. Or maybe, some of the gender roles we play as adolescents are experiments in which we willingly participate. I don’t know. I don’t think I can pose any questions on masculinity to friends who are now married and have kids. I, of all people, don’t have the right to do that because I am an outsider, someone who ended up being the odd one out. Moreover, every such question becomes a question on that person’s ‘manhood’ for some reason, and these conversations never have pleasant endings.

What happens to disabled men? Their vulnerability goes unnoticed. They can’t fit into hegemonic ideas of masculinity.

As a late 30-year-old disabled and chronically ill person, I often struggle with fitting into the idea of normativity, or even masculinity for that matter. Although the idea of queerness comes as a relief, as a way out of this suffocating normativity, that too remains an unfulfilling project due to my inability to fit within any of the categories in the open catalogue of sexual orientations. It is also not easy to simply reject heteronormativity. The urge to belong is always there—to society, to normativity, to certain types of masculinity. After all, this decides who you hang out with, where you are invited to and by whom you are avoided, especially in a city like Patna, where family life is built around heteronormative ideals of marriage and procreation. And sometimes, you start believing, almost foolishly, that fitting in might be the only way to find love, if at all.

As someone who has pondered over the questions of disabled masculinity personally and academically, I can confidently say that masculinity is much more complicated than it seems in the popular discourse and although there is no one way to practice masculinity, some forms of masculinity bring much more validation than others. With disability, this choice of masculinity becomes even more complicated and disabled men choose different paths, all equally affirmative and yet none of them seems validating enough.

Some disabled men choose to embrace patriarchal heteronormativity. Get a job, and let the normative societal system take care of them. Even if they will never have the same respect as their able-bodied family members or peers, marriage and kids make one optimistic about the idea of becoming ‘normal’, to belong. Some others choose to walk away from heteronormativity, and either embrace queerness or affirm it as an identity. Either way, it becomes a powerful way to reject normativity and find belongingness in other spaces. It’s not easy—to be queer and disabled closes many more doors than it opens, especially if you don’t live in a metro. Queerness is seen with much suspicion in most parts of India, and being a queer disabled man can often result in aggression, leaving the person vulnerable to not only emotional violence, but also physical violence outside their homes.

Apart from these two categories, there is a third category of disabled individuals who want to embrace masculinity, but masculinity doesn’t embrace them. This includes a large chunk of severely disabled and trans-disabled men. Performing your masculinity and seeking acceptance is sometimes the only choice for them to validate their identity. A heartbreaking process which entails everyday rejection and desperate attempts to fit in. On dating sites, in offices, at home. I am a man. I am man enough. Does the world pay any attention to them? Not really.

In the years of panels and podcasts on masculinity that I have heard, it’s mostly cis heteronormative women and some happily married men who get to talk about masculinity. And when they talk about masculinity critically, they are talking about hegemonic masculinity, an ideal form of masculinity, as defined by sociologist Raewyn Connell, with focus on men’s subordination of women. Connell’s hegemonic masculinity depicts men as unemotional, independent, non-nurturing, aggressive, and dispassionate. One could argue that it is the dominant form of masculinity in our society, but has anyone wondered why there is never a discussion on masculinity of disabled or trans men? Surely, most of them don’t fit into the hegemonic ideas of masculinity. One can assume that due to their numeral and political insignificance, it becomes easy to ignore certain categories of men in mainstream discussions on masculinity. In the modern discourse, vulnerabilities also come with hierarchies. And due to this hierarchy, any discussion on disabled masculinity is seldom seen from the lens of vulnerability. In most cases, people try to squeeze them into the critical gender discourse without asking enough questions about their social position. This lack of empathy reflects the indifference with which disabled people are looked at, which is performative, at best.

So, what happens to disabled men? Their vulnerability goes unnoticed. They can’t fit into hegemonic ideas of masculinity. With their caregiving requirements, questions around the legitimacy of their sexual desires and general indifference about their status as men, what choice do they have? Embrace queerness or aspire to hegemonic masculinity? No matter how much people criticise hegemonic masculinity, it is not only idealised, but perhaps the generally accepted form of masculinity in heteronormative society. No matter how much we celebrate queerness, queer men remain vulnerable to violence and harassment. This binary perhaps doesn’t work for disabled men, and we need to find a path where they can be themselves and are validated for who they are. For that to happen, the discourse on masculinity needs to include disabled masculinity.


(Views expressed are personal)

Abhishek Anicca is the writer of The Grammar of My Body. He identifies as a person with disability and chronic illness, and is based in Patna

(This appeared in the print as 'How To Become A Man!')