For the longest time, I never had boyfriends, if that’s what you even call them. Maybe it’s bros? Friends who are guys? Guy best friends? See, I don’t even have an appropriate word for that kind of friendship.
Growing up, I was constantly involved in male-dominated activities, particularly soccer and church-related groups. I was especially passionate about soccer: I was on club teams from practically the second I took my first step. I loved the rush of being on the field and so badly wanted to be the best. But my love of the game was eventually choked out by the bullying I experienced from my teammates.
It’s hard to be on a team when it feels like your teammates are against you. The problem started when the other guys realized I wasn’t playing the same style of soccer as they were. While I chose to play a more tactical game and attempted to create opportunities on the field, they chose a more aggressive, battle-like mentality.
But the disconnect was even worse off the field. My teammates embodied hypermasculinity at its worst by constantly degrading women. I remember as we were warming up near a girls team at a tournament one time, the guys catcalled them and then picked apart their appearances like they were buffet items. These guys thought they were entitled to women, and the most homophobic ones seemed to assume that all men were targeting them sexually as well. I wouldn’t engage in these conversations because I have two sisters and it made me sick to think that this was the type of behavior they would have to deal with. My refusal to do so made me the target of my teammates’ belittlement, and I eventually felt forced to quit.
Their words still had an effect on me afterward, following me through high school and into college. I struggled with the idea that in order to be a “real” man, I should be sleeping in a different bed every night, listening to different music, not going to church, looking down on women, and essentially be an emotionless “fuck boy.” I think this struggle caused me to steer away from even attempting to make male friends.
I’d like to believe that my life is scattered with many different “aha” moments, but two in particular stand out. One of them came this past summer when I volunteered at a boys’ camp. It was a small camp for which I’d previously volunteered, but this time was different: I got a wakeup call. When I arrived at camp, I was surprised that the campers not only recognized me from the previous year, but that they also respected and looked up to me. They weren’t picking me apart or trying to cram me into a narrow perception of masculinity. They saw me as someone they wanted to be, which was something I’d never expected to experience.
The other moment came thanks to another counselor at the camp, a guy close to my age. He managed to balance a love of superheroes, musicals, sports, and faith. Until I met him, I thought guys couldn’t be into all of these things. What’s more, he wanted to be friends with me — the real me.
A few months later, I was having a conversation about these experiences with a friend from my church with whom I’d grown up. He shone a light on what I knew about these things but hadn’t acknowledged: The only way I’d ever be the guy I needed to be was by just being. I didn’t have to change anything about myself or live a pretentious life in order to have guy friends. I was capable of having guy friends while still being myself.
The guys on the soccer team had made me feel like I was the reason they weren’t friends with me — that I was the problem because I was different from them — and they turned against me based on that perception. Now, 10 years later, I’ve realized that I was indeed the problem, but not for the reasons they thought: I was approaching male friendships with preconceived notions about men based largely on this past experience. I assumed all guys were clones of the boys who had made my life hell. I was judging them before even getting to know them.
Of course, there are plenty of guys who act this way — and not all girls are perfect, either. But I have realized that nice guys don’t have to finish last like I once thought. Instead of coming to all potential friendships with my defense mechanisms activated, I have recognized that making friends should be an organic occurrence. In fact, the male friendships I’ve formed since realizing this have only occurred because I rid myself of my formerly biased perspectives.
You can’t move forward if you keep dragging the past with you — and that’s what I was doing, dragging the bullies and jerks from my past into my present. It turns out that sometimes people surprise you. I’m glad that I finally allowed myself to believe that.
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