Growing up with Italian and Puerto Rican families, for me, provided great expressions of love. This was true not only of female members, but of males as well. I’m 29 years old now and my grandfather still hugs and kisses me to this day—and that dude is like REALLY old; we’re talking 1940’s style, grease in your hair, working 14-hour days so your family can eat kind of deal. Oh, and did I mention he got shot at age 17 while gang fighting in Puerto Rico? Yeah, that kind of manly. And yet still, he continues to refer to his children and grandchildren as “you kids”, despite the fact that each of us—for pretty much decades—have been legally allowed to purchase a firearm without his consent.

My younger years were filled with a pervasive encouragement to express myself. Beyond the “I love you’s” and packed lunches, I was exposed to rich environments of art and culture. My mother, an unbelievably talented writer, singer, and musician, has always been a beacon for me, an example of raw talent which was largely cultivated by her own fortitude. One of the earliest memories of my life is sitting in diapers on a rug next to her piano while she played. My mother also possessed a dynamic personality which afforded her the uncanny ability to simply captivate people with her charm and sense of authority. I remember being in awe at how easily people just gravitated toward her.

My father, a classically trained saxophonist who once made a record with some friends in the 50’s, is a highly educated and well-read man. His easy tone and initially shy nature projects an unassuming quality that instantly disarms those who engage him, and his vast knowledge gives him the stamina to engage in great conversation. My dad is the kind of guy that will always talk to you and listen, having the capacity to allow for different views without needing to insist on his.

Other family members share similar messages of encouragement for expression as well. My aunt Ro particularly comes to mind; her theatrical proclivity often drives her many outgoing displays of dramatic expression. She’s outspoken, not politically correct, and doesn’t much care for etiquette that might cut into the value margins of comedy.

From the moment I could speak I have always had much to say. I speak loudly and often because I have always been encouraged to do so. From this, I had identified with a deep sense of self-confidence by the time I was three. I remember my father filming interactions with me and my siblings where the art of persuasion, charisma, and misdirection were already apparent. At the time they were just clever tools to keep me out of trouble and admitting that I had soiled my diaper. But, they were the seeds of a enduring sense of genuine knowing and confidence: a knowing of myself, a knowing of what makes me happy, and the confidence to pursue my life and happiness as I choose.

In my adult years, some of the most transformative events of my life have been my experiences living and traveling abroad, attending psychotherapy sessions, training as a counselor myself, and engaging in the study and practice of Buddhism. More than any others, these experiences have had a freeing effect on my mind and spirit, helping me to let go of anger, violent tendencies, and judgement. The resulting conclusion of those journeys have also encouraged me to open myself more to everyone I meet.

All of these influences have helped to mold me as a dynamic and expressive male. 

That being said, it’s been a common experience of mine that people become somewhat confused by my expressions. More pointedly, they become confused by my expressions as those coming from a heterosexual male. And despite all other indications that women are my sexual desire, some people continue to struggle with a lingering cloud of uncertainty and genuine disbelief.

Now, let me be clear. This is not a defense of my sexuality— that would be silly. Sexuality doesn’t need to be defended because the only people it affects are those consenting to engage in it with me. What people think about who I sleep with doesn’t concern me; I’m not sleeping with them. If someone believes something about my sexuality that is not true, it doesn’t change who I’m sleeping with. I’m still getting my rocks off either way.

What does concern me is the implication such assumptions about male expression have on straight males. The resulting impact is the continued discouragement of heterosexual males to express themselves freely: to be articulate, to talk about their feelings, to give up violence and physical harm toward others, to ask for help, to give up solitude, to seek friendship and love, to be men while also being human. This is a big problem within American culture, as the dissonance between what our society SAYS and what it BELIEVES creates an impossibly confusing view of heterosexual males, and creates an awkwardly annoying situation for expressive heterosexual males like myself.

For men there’s a mixed message happening within western culture, particularly in the United States. On the one hand we have messages which demand that men abandon traditional models, become more hands-on fathers, give up violence, and not bottle-up their emotions. Yet, on the other hand, men continue to be ostracized and socially punished for doing so. If a man gives up a bigger paycheck to stay home with his children, we say he’s not “ambitious enough”. If a man chooses diplomacy and walks away from an physical altercation, we call him a coward and insist that he “stand up for himself” with his fists. If a man asks for help and expresses emotions of helplessness, we remind him of his masculinity, and that he should “stop crying”, “grow some balls”, and “stop sounding like a woman”. But more often than not, when a male acts in ways that do not meet our traditional understanding and expectations, we question who he sleeps with (because obviously that makes sense {insert sarcasm here}.

And so, while the roles and expectations of women have expanded greatly to include the desires and expressions of their male “equals”, the expectations of males and the social consequences of violating such have stayed relatively the same. When a woman takes on a traditionally male role or expression, she’s encouraged, rewarded, and people ask “Why not?” When a man takes on the expression or role of a woman, we still ask “Why?” And inevitably, nine out of ten times, “Is he gay?”

At my office I’m good friends with another dude there, and because he is gay, it’s assumed that he should just know when other males are gay. He once vented to me:

“I hate being the gay guy only because everyone assumes you know when other people are gay”.

He had revealed to me that people around they office had asked him about my sexuality, particularly if he thought I was gay. Knowing me and my girlfriend, he was able to answer with confidence.

This kind of situation isn’t new to me. Throughout my entire adult life it has been nothing short of baffling to people that a heterosexual male be so social, non-assuming, articulate, and physically expressive (I have no trouble hugging others, putting a hand on their shoulders, or standing closely when I speak). Commonly the response to finding out I’m straight is disbelief, which I understand as either a product of traditional male expectations, or an ego that won’t allow people to be wrong. It’s probably a mix of both.

In fact, some find the revelation that I’m not gay so unbelievable, they’ll go as far as to assert their expert knowledge and proclaim:

“He probably just doesn’t know he’s gay, yet.”

That statement is as arrogant as it is insanely stupid. What time period are we living in? Have you turned on the television lately? Homosexuality has its own parade. This is 2014 and I live in the New York Metro area. Being gay isn’t exactly controversial out here. It’s pretty much as common as pizza. But more importantly, as mentioned above, the offense in the assumption that I’m gay isn’t a personal one. I don’t particularly care who I sleep with as long as I can get off—for men, though, my anotomy just doesn’t respond. It’s not rocket science and it’s something you figure out pretty early on. Go figure {insert sarcastic shrug}.

The true offense, though, is in the implication that any progress in the non-traditional expressions of men can be easily explained away by the assumption of homosexuality. The rhetoric effectively becomes a black box that can never give credit to the progression of straight males. This offense is on par with the person who asserts that any woman’s accomplishment in the male realm is, “not bad, for a woman.” The judgement completely discredits the individual and adopts a trite and bigotry style conclusion that hopes to “explain away” the pure value of a person.

But perhaps even more disturbing is that, in the case of myself, a confident and expressive straight male, it invalidates WHO I REALLY am. I am a performer, a musician, an intellectual, a nurturer, a lover, an athlete, a romantic, an artist, a drinker, a counselor, a listener, a fighter, a socialite, AND a man. I am all of those things. Explaining away all of those things with a label because of HOW you THINK I should act, or WHAT I should say as a heterosexual male, is the opposite of progress.

Earlier, I compared this issue with that of the plight women face in their push for liberation from traditional roles. I mention this because what I find to be particularly interesting is that most casual inquiries about sexuality seem to come from women. These are the same liberal women who continue to push for the expansion of female roles beyond traditional paradigms, and yet, they continue to have such a narrow view for heterosexual men. In my experience, I don’t know one dude that was so intensely interested in whether I liked guys or girls. It has always been women who ask or assume.

The Bottom Line

In order to be a truly progressive society, our beliefs and expectations much evolve to match our rhetoric. Screaming into a megaphone that women should have free birth-control doesn’t make much sense when the kind of men necessary to understand that desire don’t exist because women don’t actually believe in them. Men cannot expand their own self-images if society does not reflect the same image back to them. If heterosexual males are to believe that free expression is not only a privilege of women and homosexual men, society must recognize and encourage their new progressive expressions.