Students Discuss Masculinity and Gender Identity

More than thirty students gathered at Ticknor Lounge Thursday evening for “Boxers, Briefs, or Neither?”—a discussion on masculinity and its expression and perception at Harvard.

At the event, which was co-sponsored by the Harvard Women’s Center, the Black Men’s Forum, and the Asian American Brotherhood, students addressed gender stereotypes, “manly” behavior, and the binary between “male” and “female” categories.

Interns at the Harvard College Women’s Center said that the office rarely hosts events that attract such a diverse group of students. A majority of the audience at Thursday’s event were members of the Black Men’s Forum or the Asian American Brotherhood.

“It was definitely a reach for us to organize this event,” Women’s Center intern Bex H. Kwan ’14 said. “It’s rare that we have this type of audience, so it was really refreshing.”

“This is an important conversation for the community to have,” said Chesley R. Ekelem ’16, who said that issues surrounding gender have become more obvious to her since she started attending Harvard. “I realized that [ideas of] gender and masculinity are present among so many groups on campus, so it’s essential to talk about something at the forefront of students’ minds.”

During the conversation, students spoke about their personal experiences with masculinity and gender identity. Many said that the concept of labels—male, female, gay, lesbian, transgender, and others—create unnecessary expectations and perceptions of individuals, many of whom do not fit neatly into these particular identities.

“People always used to ask me, ‘Why are you standing like a man? Close your legs,’” Lindiwe-Claudia Rennert ’14, an intern at the Women’s Center, said to start the conversation. “I’m not inviting anyone anywhere. I’m just comfortable this way.”

Students discussed the particular idea that men, when upset or angry, are expected to resort to alcohol and aggression. But Kasey A. Leblanc ’15 said that this is largely due to the way men are treated in society.

“Women are normally comforted when they’re upset, but not many people sympathize with men. No one hugs them or tells them it’s going to be okay,” she said.

Students were also shown a clip from the Disney movie “Mulan,” where the characters sing a song called “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Rennert, who listed all the adjectives mentioned—including “swift,” “strong,” and “forceful”—said the song implied that women could not have any of these traits.

In response to the video clip, Chika-Dike O. Nwokike ’15 said that traits people normally attribute to men or to women do not apply only to people who identify with those genders.

He added that many of the traits deemed “masculine” are qualities that he feels his mother has. “But the fact that she’s able to be this way shows that it really depends on the person and the culture,” he said.

At the end of the event, students were asked to write something they had learned on a piece of paper shaped like a necktie.

One student wrote: “Men have feelings too! It’s not all about muscles and beer.”

“Don’t just hold the door open for women, hold the door open for everyone,” Malik L. Knox ’13 said at the end of the event. “Don’t interact with people based on labels. Treat people the same.”

—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at mferreol@college.harvard.edu.

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