A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Ennis Del Mar: This is a one-shot thing we got goin' on here.
Jack Twist: It's nobody's business but ours.
Ennis Del Mar: You know I ain't queer.
Jack Twist: Me neither.
From Brokeback Mountain
It dawned on me recently that many of the gay men, I’ve met over the years had a certain sensibility about them; a wit and intelligence that suggested an awareness of things, things that are not just physical, but things that were just lying beneath the surface in a different realm. I’ve been thinking that its intuition or emotional intelligence qualities that they might share with highly sensitive people. Being men, perhaps there was a common link with highly sensitive men that we as humans might share. A quality more developed in HSMs and gay men. Something decidedly non-sexual, like how our brains might be wired for processing emotional content.
Writing a blog article about gay men or gay culture and being a straight man has some inherent issues. It’s kind of like a white male writer, penning a novel from a black males POV. You can read all you want, do your research, make generalizations, but you will never be sure if you’ve nailed it because it is not your experience. Nevertheless, pushing on bravely, I have a sense, that as a highly sensitive man, that there may be some characteristics that gay men and HSMs do share. And, you have to believe there are intersections between the two groups – such as gay men who are also HSMs. Both groups suffer from some of the same issues with the current prevailing paradigm on masculinity. Both groups know there need to be changes made with our culture’s definition of masculinity.
As an HSP male, I have found myself sometimes balking at the idea of comparing high sensitivity with being a quality associated with females or gay men. It always hits a core issue on internalizing what masculinity is to me. Not easily fitting into the idealized American masculine model, basically means you are either all man and all in, or you are effeminate (acting like a woman) or gay (which by that definition is not a real man).
This disregards the notion that sensitivity is a human characteristic and not a sexually derived or gender trait. We as HSP males need to recognize that in ourselves. We are part of a toxic masculine culture by proximity that downplays sensitivity in males. This definition is narrow and exclusive. Being something by association is not a true definition and fails to understand the complex nature of human personality, which is so nuanced, so wide-ranging, so infinitely complex that simplistic definitions are beyond utility. Individuals want to be recognized for their uniqueness. And so I say, damn the tiny and rigid boundaries of small boxes that small box people want to place people in.
Are there perceived characteristics among many straight HSMs that are shared with gay men? The idea that men of different sexual preferences could share other qualities, such as sensitivity, a difficult quality for many men to absorb about themselves, makes comparisons seem problematic --like if we share one thing, we must share all things. This flies in the face of science, which has over the years expanded the notions about what the human genome is capable of producing. The diversity of humanity where bits on, bits off, in gene expression is mind-boggling. For straight men, the notion that being gay is a contagious condition that too close of an association could make you gay by contact is ludicrous – yet, it makes the simple discussion about shared characteristics almost taboo for straight men in the larger context of masculinity. This could explain why I have hardly found anything online about this topic.
How is sensitivity in men perceived in the gay community in lieu of the traditional American masculine definition, which would include sensitivity as a primary feminine trait? From a straight male’s point of view, I would have thought it would have been highly prized, but perhaps, not as much as I would have imagined.
Traditional masculine values affect how many gay men feel about themselves and their same-sex relationships. These rules include: 1) men should not be feminine, 2) men must be respected and admired, 3) men should never show fear, 4) and, men should seek out risk and adventure. In addition, 5) men should be successful, 6) achieve power and status, 7) compete with other men, 8) restrict their emotions, 9) restrict affectionate behavior with other men and, finally, 10) men should be work and career driven. Sound familiar?
Since all men raised in our culture are subject to the “boy or man” code, we are all influenced by the biases of this masculine codex. Some gay men embrace these very same masculine values. Therefore, there are some gay men who prefer themselves and their partners be “manly” men, causing some to have biases against potential partners because they display traditional female traits, i.e., sensitivity. This may affect the perception of the characteristic of sensitivity as a pejorative trait for those gay men who are attempting to live up to the same masculine role model that highly sensitive straight men struggle with. Now, this might not be true for all gay men, but the effects of these man rules affect at some level all men.
Studies show that men, who have issues with living the traditional male role model, tend to have insecurities, shame and psychological issues in interpersonal relationships (gay and straight). Why? Largely, because, there is a failure to live up to internalizing this value of masculinity, most men don’t see themselves measuring up. Add in persistence in dysfunctional behaviors due to these masculine values or even worse some carry trauma experienced early in life during masculine role socialization. With these cumulative effects damaging psychological wellbeing; you have the making of our current toxic stew.
Many gay men in these studies hardly found any positive characteristics associated with masculine characteristics but, found adverse effects in not living up to the masculine ideals. The subsequent results found that these same men had to “butch” it up to feel adequate. Many gay men feel traditional male role models forced them to objectify their bodies and found a conflict of being masculine enough due to their sexual preferences. Imagine being the subject and object of this idealized masculine role model.
To add further complexity, some studies suggest that gay men have many common biological traits with heterosexual women: spatial reasoning, hearing and voice cadence and tone, finger length (index and ring finger) and other biological markers. Many gay men prefer female-oriented occupations (this may include teaching, counseling, fashion, etc.).
Gay men’s brains are more like straight women’s in that they have common wiring. The anterior commissure is bigger in gay men’s brains versus straight men’s. This serves as a link between the temporal lobes and with a more active amygdala, produces more intuitive, empathetic and spiritual natures, not to mention more emotional processing. In addition, gay men and straight women may have more symmetrical shaped brains than straight men and lesbians.
What does this mean? Are gay men, masculine versions of the feminine? Of course not. None of this is to suggest that gay men are not masculine or should be perceived to be more feminine. My point in bringing this to light is actually looking at commonalities and shared problems with highly sensitive men, who are often seen because of their sensitivity as being more feminine. Frankly, I wonder if the characteristics of sensitivity, truly a non-gender characteristic, may have found through genetic expression, more ways to express itself in the population. Brain wiring for sensitivity maybe something that needs to be further explored.
Some of the biological markers gay men share with straight women are flipped in lesbian women. Lesbians have more in common with straight men. These biological anomalies are just another example of how nature creates diversity by the expression of utilizing a rich palette of human genes. It should be noted, that all HSPs have the characteristic of a hyper-responsive amygdala. Incidentally, there is no research that suggests that there are higher incidences of HSMs that are gay than there are in the general population, although you would think there might be. Although I don’t know that studies are now available determining the brain differences between HSP males and non-HSP males, it would be interesting to see, what if any there are in the wiring of the brains.
If you have been following this blog, you can clearly see that some of the highlighted characteristics that are often associated with women (intuition, empathy, and sensitivity), gay men (in a general sense) and highly sensitive males are quite striking. These are higher levels of emotional processing, greater intuition, higher empathy and a greater level of spiritual focus.
Now granted, none of this is evidenced-based or backed by studies, but I would suspect that a population of HSPs, gay men, and straight women, would be a significant amount of humans sharing these common characteristics of empathy, intuition, compassion, and emotional processing. This would also be a group of individuals that would have been impacted greatly by the current masculine role models espoused by the U.S. and the U.K.
Why is this significant? We are all subject to and live within the domain of the current toxic masculine milieu, which has been tolerated by all of the aforementioned communities. At the root of this is the idea of hegemonic masculinity, which legitimizes, white male dominance and justifies the subjugation of women and minorities of all stripes. This would include the gay and lesbian communities. This has been the role model for centuries with its characteristics of violence and aggression, stoicism, risk-taking, emotional suppression, lack of empathy, competitiveness and subjugation of women, gays, and people of color.
This toxic masculinity views gender roles as binary with no grey areas. Gender roles or for that matter sexual preference, as we now know are not polar, but rather lay along a continuum with much diversity and variation. Role models for men need to reflect that. Hegemonic masculinity is not a reality for most modern men, and the consequences of continuing to follow this paradigm are to risk physical and mental health for a large swath of men.
Since gene expression influences so much of our personality and preferences and the emerging science of epigenetics tells us that expression can be influenced by environment, we are going to continue to see the expression of a variety of male/female roles elaborated as our culture’s needs dictate and as we evolve as humans. Rigidity is not the answer.
These stereotypical labels we associate with feminity, sexual preference behaviors, masculinity and gender roles are almost becoming archaic. The labels have been defined by historical and sometimes religious rules and should now be seen as the variegated expressions of the human genome. What is it mean to be human -- is the question we should be asking.
How can gay men and HSP straight males ally to help redefine masculinity in a new way that is relevant to our world? We could start with new boy codes for our young men. One in which we allow them to tell us where they fall on the continuum. No shame, no guilt, no fitting into narrow boxes. Let them grow into what they are. Some will be traditional; others will not. But let them find themselves with wise guidance from parents and responsible feeling adults. By doing this can we aid women, and others that have been victimized by this toxic masculinity, by allowing boys and men to choose a more beneficial form of masculinity. By eliminating toxic patriarchal masculinity to free men from a role model that chokes us all, would allow us as men to be more empathetic, less hung up on dominance and focus on cooperation and rejuvenation.
In the end, it is all about power. Your power comes from within you. You express it with your life. However, to use that power to squelch someone else’s power is toxic, not only to them but to you as well. Men, we need to wake up to this. We can brand a new type of masculinity, a masculinity that expresses the male energy (yang), but recognizes and embraces the balancing female energy (yin) within us. It is not weakness, but strength. Our innate human strength.
Jack Twist: You know friend, this is a god damn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation.
From Brokeback Mountain.
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.