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In Defense of the Sensitive Man

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I originally posted this piece on my old blog, My Name Is Not Matt, in August 2011. I was humbled that it was picked up by, and modified slightly for, The Root. Have we made progress with regard to this issue in the last seven years? I don't know.

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In the past couple of weeks, a friend (who is gay) told me that two people asked him if I was gay. It appears that the common thread is that I am considered sensitive. I guess, more sensitive than one would expect a straight male to be. (more on this later) I didn't have a knee-jerk "Hell no! I'm a women-lovin' straight male." reaction. Instead, I was curious to get to the root of the issue -- Sensitive men. Funnily enough, I've been thinking about writing this blog piece for quite some time. If nothing else, I can credit a couple people asking, indirectly, if I was gay for prodding me to get these thoughts out of my head.For the better part of a year, or so, I've been thinking about gender roles. I've tried to explore why I get so annoyed when a guy is put down for being sensitive. The term, sensitive, is so used generically, that one is left to think that men are not supposed to express or display even a modicum of sensitivity. We're supposed to be hard. The flaw with that line of thinking is that it suggests that sensitivity is weakness. That it makes you, somehow, less of a man. Well…I'm calling bullshit on that!I would argue that a sensitive man is actually a strong individual. A sensitive man is someone with enough security and confidence in himself that being sensitive, compassionate, or even vulnerable, is not a threat. Far too often, I hear the expression, "You're too sensitive." This expression is directed at both men and women. I think when it's said to a woman, it is an attempt to silence her emotions and not deal with issues. When it's said to man, it's meant to deride the guy for caring. He's being soft. Going all Ralph Tresvant. Acting like a little bitch (the bedroom scene from Super Bad comes to mind). Oh…he's acting gay.I think it's too convenient to label gay men as sensitive, because it plays on a stereotype of (all) gay men as sensitive and effeminate. I have been around, or seen, plenty of gay guys that are far from what I would deem sensitive. In fact, many gay guys are just that…guys. They can be dicks just like the next guy. I almost think it's funny that a gay guy would question whether I was gay because I'm sensitive. I, honestly, think he was using that as a cover to play out what was in his head … but that's another story.Anyway, I feel like I am drifting a bit here. Maybe I am venting a bit because I have had more than a few rough patches in my life when I was derided for being sensitive. I think it's worth clarifying that when I speak of sensitive, I'm talking about actually taking an interest in others, being willing to listen more than talk, be empathic, and not have sex running through my head when interacting with a woman. As with anything else, I'm sure there are limits. I'm not talking about people who fall to pieces. That's the extreme side of sensitivity. Hypersensitivity? I do know. I really don't want to put a label on it. I had a good friend once get on me about using the expression "You're overreacting!" She averred that everyone is entitled to his or her own reaction to things, and it's not for me to define it. So, I won't try to draw a line around what I deem to be overly-sensitive, because that would be contradictory and defeat the very point of this post.Look up the definition of sensitive in Merriam Webster. While the string of definitions won't probably surprise you, I think it's very telling to look at the synonyms and antonyms.

Synonyms: delicate, fine, keen, perceptive, quick, acute, sharp.Antonyms: insusceptible, invulnerable, unexposed, unsusceptible.

I am sure there are times when people should be unsusceptible or invulnerable. However, I think in day-to-day interactions with people, being acute, perceptive, quick, sharp, or even delicate, is a more appealing and useful personality trait.I honestly think the way most of us have been conditioned, from childhood, to look at gender roles is the culprit. Girls play with dolls and tea sets. Boys eat boogers and throw rocks. Girls wear pink…boys don't. If that line, even remotely, is crossed, boys are admonished to "stop acting like a girl." It starts early. The funny thing is, girls get conditioned with this bullshit, too. Though I'm not going into any depth about how all this affects women, it doesn't mean I am not aware. I'm just taking time to expand on something I can speak on from personal experience.For instance, though I don't recall what lead up the encounter, something bad happened to me while I was in college. I went over to the dorm room of a woman I was interested in, and confided in her. As we talked, I became more upset and eventually started to cry. I don't remember everything about the exchange, because what stands out is what happened the next day. I walked into the student center and sat down with some friends. It didn't take long before one of them giggled and did a little "boo hoo" thing. I asked what that was about, and one of guys said, "Yeah, I heard you were over in ___'s room crying like a little bitch." Ugh! I was a little mortified, but, quite honestly, I was more upset with the woman that sat with me as I unraveled. I wasn't upset, so much, that she shared that I cried in her room. No, I was more upset by the way she clearly characterized the whole thing. You see, guys are not supposed to cry. We aren't expected to care enough to even reach that point. When we do cry or express concern, it's supposed to be masculine. Cry, but only three tears and you wipe them from your eyes in a manly way. Don't even think about sobbing.Of course, crying and sobbing are at one end of the sensitivity spectrum. The other, more benign, end is simply talking, listening, and sharing feelings. I saw a Tweet a few weeks back by a woman. She said (paraphrasing), "I can't stand sensitive dudes. If I wanted to sit around and talk about my feelings I would've called one of my girl friends. MAN UP!" The first thought that ran through my head is that this woman young, and she is going to get exactly what she asked for in a partner -- a hard, insensitive man. Then, when the guy treats her like shit, she will be complaining that the guy didn't care and didn't tend to her needs. I see a lot of couples that go along with this rigid role-playing. The guys go hang out with their guy friends -- ironically talking to them about personal stuff, often griping about what they're not getting from their significant others. The conversations will get clipped, though, if a guy is veering too far down a path paved with emotions and feelings. Meanwhile, the women talk to their girlfriends about their feelings, dreams and desires -- both met and, often, unmet. All the while, the two are going through the motions in the relationship. Does that mean the two don't truly love each other? No. Most do love each other, but I can't help but think about how much deeper that love would be if they eliminated the gender role buffers. So many couples don't really know what's going on, emotionally, with their significant others. Don't get me wrong here. There are plenty of times when I hit the point where I feel like there's just too much talking. However, when it comes to trying to get to the core of what's going on with my wife, my son, my family members or friends, I need to listen and explore.Ok, I could, honestly, write about this for a long time; but I will bring this to a close. I am sure there will be some that will see this post and scream, "Man up!!" That's ok. I have been slowly moving to a place where I am more confident and comfortable with just being who I am.In my mind, there is something perfectly normal about a non selfrighteous, sensitive straight man.