Rethink Masculinity & Power, Get Yourself Invited to the Lesbian Men Club

“To open our hearts more fully to love’s power and grace we must dare to acknowledge how little we know of love in both theory and practice.”

-bell hooks

Gay rights protest, Albany, NY. 1971. Photo by Diana Davies, NYPL Digital Collection. via h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y.

Gay rights protest, Albany, NY. 1971. Photo by Diana Davies, NYPL Digital Collection. via h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y.

Years ago I bought a shirt that says “Eroticize Equality” in sparkles across the chest at a Sarah Jones show. As a lesbian walking around in this shirt at a conference, I attracted the attention of women who wanted to know what this meant.

Straight women who had worked on social justice for decades asked because they didn’t know. I explained my own interpretation—that in order for women to have equality, men may need to feel like equality is their idea. Viewing equality through a lens of sex or power may eroticize it for men, creating more interest.

Now more than ever, and especially with the rise of the #TimesUP and #MeToo conversations and with misogyny spewed all over the public sphere, we need men to go to be vocal for women’s rights. Yet I find that often men (and yes, many women—we’ll address that in another piece) say that they don’t want to be called feminists.

While I’m not a fan of creating another label, we must be willing to use humor to change hearts and minds. So to eroticize equality in such a way that men can internalize what it means to feminist, I think we should start naming and acknowledging lesbian men! And in using Gloria Steinem’s phrase “eroticize equality”, I should say I am simply inviting an approach to equality that employs power with versus power over. Lesbians have enjoyed shared erotic power in the bedroom since the beginning of time! (And just so we don’t get confused, Steinem reminds us erotica is mutual whereas pornography is coercive).

To me, “lesbian men”, showcase and value their love of women. Many men do love women in theory and practice, and clearly, lesbians love women deeply. In fact, we love them so much, we want our lovers to be deeply satisfied! But for too many men, equality is still seen as a zero sum game. “What might I lose?” is the first thought rather than, “How might we all win?” (Campaigns like HeForShe and films like The Mask We Live In are working to change this).

When I speak to my cisgender male friends and colleagues and ask them, “Do you love women? Want the best for them? Want women to be able to fulfill their dreams without limitations or barriers?” they emphatically say yes. So I suggest that perhaps they, are “lesbian men”, too. By this I mean they reject stereotypical gender roles and assumptions in a major way and they respect women.

When I offer this idea, most men smile and guffaw. They seem authentically tickled to be invited into this club. Subversive, but effective. Most men realize that being a lesbian man is a badge of honor and a symbol of living as a powerful ally to women.

Maybe this is because American culture has very few men to follow as archetypes of healthy masculinity and power. Historically, there’s been John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, James Bond…  all virile, swashbuckling, and power-seeking white men. Even my mother referred to one of my stepfathers as a man who just wanted her to “feed him, screw him, and tie his shoes.” It’s not much better now. Just look at the wildly popular show Game of Thrones or observe the global crisis of masculinity. Unfortunately, many white men are happy to live out the patriarchal lineage of privilege which has included dominance over women of all backgrounds and feel no need to question context or impact.

But 21st century lesbian men, now they desire ways to challenge traditional archetypes of masculinity and actually enjoy erotica. They respect women, cherish women, and are in favor of women getting opportunities without judgment, ridicule, or harassment. They believe in their mothers, support and encourage risk in their daughters, and champion their sisters. Truly, they ARE lesbians; they are just stuck in a male body loving women of all types, sizes, colors!  

To truly be a lesbian man though, in addition to disrupting gender assumptions, I believe one must also:

1. Be authentically curious about women and value partnerships with them
2. Call out other men to back off or stop their own misogynist comments or actions, and
3. Want to please women as erotic beings instead of dominating them

When I talk with my lesbian men friends about what it may take for more men to speak up for women’s rights (and challenge other men on their sexism), the conversation gets interesting. One friend said, “Squeeze his balls really hard and demand it!” There is nothing loving about that! Maybe lesbian men better understand softness, empathy, and care. If you haven’t seen this fabulous video on empathy and consent using the analogy of offering tea, watch it here

Other responses I’ve received for how to bring men along for the equality ride? “Ask questions and see if there are mutual spaces for success for all” and “Play to his ego… tell him it is in his interest to participate.” Some of these ideas are more useful than others! Even among “evolved” men, coercive power is a consistent theme. So perhaps it makes sense to offer men the playful concept of eroticizing equality to entice them as new allies in the fight for women’s rights.

Now more than ever, the coercive power that comes along with toxic masculinity has a chance to be totally rebooted and reset.

My journey in bringing more men into women’s rights has always been in the realm of encouraging men to boldly fund women. Why? I believe this is the best way to go to bat for women’s rights because when women are funded—awhether as entrepreneurs, business owners, or leaders of smart social change organizations—it makes smart business sense, leads to better returns on equity, and brings more stability to society. Not to mention, shared power in every arena just feels better.   

For whatever reason, I relate to men who may not call themselves feminist yet are feminist in their behavior. The #TimesUp conversation can remind us to look for and celebrate the men who want to care for humanity and be publicly compassionate and struggle with how to show it. Most men do want to respect women whereas others have gotten confused because of socialization around gender roles, implicit bias, and the over-sexualization and/or disregard of women in the media. 

So let's start by asking each other a few provocative questions:

  1. How can we make paid maternal leave sexy?
  2. What will it take for childcare to be seen as romantic?
  3. What does it take for a man to be turned on by a woman making more money than him?
  4. How do we publicly celebrate men who continually demonstrate compassion, tenderness, and care? (Jane the Virgin male lead Justin Baldoni’s TED talk is a good primer on what this new form of masculinity might look like).   
  5. What will it take for more men to want all women to have the full bounty of the world available to her?

Flipping gender roles around is always helpful in revealing what work we have left to do when it comes to sexism. The beauty of most same sex relationships (not all) is that we have unpacked much of the gender role assumptions in the bedroom and in our everyday life. This shared power can translate to other arenas. 

Shining a bright light on things that have worked historically helps, too. The same insistence that women had in the 60s and 70s to ensure women received pleasure in the bedroom is something we need to bring forth again. Pleasure and equality aren’t mutually exclusive. Think Henry McCord (played by Tim Daly in Madam Secretary…there is a hot, supportive, patient husband who authentically cares about his powerful wife’s career and his family’s success. Shared adoration and respect. (For primers on keeping an erotic and tender presence front and center in your partnership, listen to lesbian comic DeAnne Smith).    

As a lesbian, I’ve heard some men express the fear that lesbians will somehow “recruit” straight women to their team. This generally doesn’t ever happen. But today, in this context, let’s make an exception. We invite all men – straight or gay - to become lesbian men because we need YOU to come out loud and proud about your love and care for women. As the self-designated captain of the Eroticize Equality team, lesbian men, you’re officially invited onto the team! I know you’re out there, and I invite you to invest in women with all of your resources and teach other men how to do the same.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Research where your companies invest money and see if they are doing right by women in terms of leadership and equal pay.
  2. Ask questions about paid leave policies at your company.
  3. Purchase gifts for people in your life that build the economy for women.
  4. Follow the leadership of excellent women leaders in your organization.
  5. Consider using Hollywood models of equity or inclusion ‘riders’ for any projects to insure representation is equally reflected by gender.

Maybe when more men who care about eroticizing equality speak up and act accordingly, we can drown out the misogynist male voices in the boardroom, congress, in our homes, in the locker room, and in the military. And yes, sadly, the White House.