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What does it mean to be a man? A conversation with Dr. Michael Kehler

By Hien Nguyen, October 15 2018 —

The exploration of male identities is a topical yet overlooked aspect of society. Many are quick to write off men as cogs in a patriarchal machine. As a bisexual, gender-fluid male who wears makeup and women’s clothing, I naturally spend large amounts of time contemplating my niche among other men. That’s why I was excited to speak with Michael Kehler from the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, a research professor in the field of masculinities studies.

“Masculinities research is increasingly relevant to current conversations post-#MeToo and within the Kavanaugh hearings recently,” Kehler said when asked about the role his research plays in contemporary society.

He said that in trying to achieve a culture of respect and inclusivity, the exploration, engagement and reconsideration of performed masculinity is a crucial area of study. In fact, according to Kehler, his research heavily impacts his own daily practices and how he acts as a father and a partner, as well as how he approaches issues such as sexual assault and the education of men and boys.

“The more I learn through my research, the more I develop as a person,” Kehler said.

According to Kehler, the recent and rapid changes in the culture of masculinity are tough to qualify, given the range of reactions men have to emerging social movements.

“I don’t think there’s an easy answer. There’s a mix of growth and development in terms of the current climate around #MeToo and Time’s Up in the sense that some men take this shift in understanding as an opportunity to grow themselves,” Kehler said. “Some men see this as a bit of an awakening. At the same time, some men will see this as an attack on men and masculinity.”

He talked about how with every major shift in understanding, there are those who accept the progress and adjust their own understandings, alongside those who interpret it as an attack on themselves and their worldview. Kehler blamed a simplified understanding of the culture of respect and a longstanding imbalance in gender relations for the latter. Despite the push-back, he said he remains very optimistic that society can make a positive change with regard to the perception of masculinity.

A major event that recently sparked mainstream discussions of gender was the hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court.

“What [Kavanaugh] showed was a very linear, limited [concept] of being a boy and a man,” he said. “It does very little to open up and acknowledge a much more fluid, much more diverse, much more complex masculinity.”

Kehler suggested considering male-identifying individuals in our daily lives and recognizing that men are much more complex figures than what people like Kavanaugh exemplify.

When the discussion shifted back north towards Canada’s own political situation, Kehler had fewer critical words, praising Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s heavy investment in issues of equality in both government representation and societal structure.

As a relatively new student at the U of C, I asked Kehler what he thought of the progress made on our own campus. For him, the fact that there are facilities dedicated to the protection of women and support for non-binary individuals that are accessible to students was a sign to him that the university values safety and progress. However, Kehler says more could be done.

“It’s a work in progress. There’s definitely work that could be done to support young men and how we encourage healthy relationships,” he said. “There’s always work that can be done but there’s no sign we’re stopping either.”

Another narrative that emerged through the Kavanaugh hearings was about some men’s fear towards the power that women have to potentially make false accusations against them. However, Kehler asserted that there is another perspective we should be conscious of.

“I would suggest that those fears of false accusation can be set aside by being less defensive and more open to thinking about the long narrative that has brought us to the point we’re at now,” Kehler said.

Only by understanding the long history of forced silence and male privilege can we understand the culture of suspicion and reluctance to change, according to Kehler.

“It’s not a conversation of all men being bad,” he said. “We have a responsibility to think seriously about our actions and our inactions.”

Kehler concluded by relaying the importance of supporting each other by listening, engaging in discussion and working together as a society.

“We are on the cusp of a really important historical time to go forward in a very progressive path and that path can only be carved out when we have people from all gender locations as allies. This isn’t about losing privilege, it’s about enriching and emboldening a way forward so we can be better,” Kehler said. “We can be a country that embraces diversity instead of just hearing diversity.”

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