I was raised in an environment where masculinity was ingrained in social and emotional development so much that the idea of “being a man” became toxic and misguided. Clothing choices and behaviours were judged severely and anyone who deviated was ostracized by their peers. At the time, it felt like a survival instinct in the social hierarchy of school.
Feminism was something we heard about only in passing or read about in a brief textbook excerpt. It didn’t hold much meaning for me; it was an abstract concept, not a concrete ideology. Now, as a high school teacher, I aim to promote independence and encourage the development of young minds—it is hypocritical of me to remain ignorant.
Through my experiences in post-secondary education and moving away from home, I am learning about what it means to be a good person and to not judge people based on their appearance, whether by race or gender. The environment I grew up in perpetuated the normalization of closed-minded thinking, and did not foster growth and empathetic understanding of others. One way this was consistently propagated was with phrases like “man up” or “be a man”—men had to be strong and emotionless.
When my parents got divorced, my reaction was to shut myself in and to not feel or process any emotions. I had to be the “man of the house” at 13 years old, and I felt responsible for my brother and my mother. I continued to cope using the distractions of sports, video games and school, not giving myself time to deal with my emotions in a healthy way. I kept them tucked away, out of sight and out of mind.
That remained the case until I met my wife during university. Through our time getting to know one another, dating and eventually getting married, I have learned so much. Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to share my feelings with her. I had to relearn how to feel, and she was there to show me the way, not only through conversation but by our mutually supporting one another unconditionally. When one of us is down the other helps them get back up, no matter what. I respect her intelligence, resolve and determination. Our joint experiences taught me that people can change, grow and evolve over time.
In addition to processing my emotions about my past, my wife also helped me to realize that I held a lot of judgmental beliefs. I was unable to see that I was acting disrespectfully towards others through offhand remarks in social situations. It was an aspect of myself that I did not recognize, something that was only hurtful to others and not helpful. I did not want to hurt others, even by accident. Respect goes both ways: if I want to garner respect, I must show respect to others, be it students, strangers or the people I care about.
Outside of my family, tabletop roleplaying games drastically shifted my understanding of feminism and helped broaden my understanding of the human experience. When my wife and I moved in together, we rented an apartment downtown Edmonton. I ran a weekly drop-in Dungeons & Dragons game at a nearby board game cafe. Within two weeks, I met some fantastic people who I now consider some of my closest friends. Our group, four women and four men, still games together almost four years later. Everyone had different upbringings, but we shared similar ways of thinking. I felt a true connection with these people, and with them I also felt safe to express things I had previously only shared with my wife. Together we created a safe place where we could all escape the tumultuous reality that we live in and collaboratively weave a beautiful story. Over time spent with this group, I began to grasp the reality of what life could be like for women. My friends had experienced discrimination, prejudice and sexual assault. For the first time, I wasn’t coming from a place of judgment, but from a place of understanding and support.
Understanding and support are not things I have had significant experience with—particularly with female friends. Before this group, I had a very toxic view of female friends: it wasn’t worth it if we weren’t going to date. Now, I have begun to both consciously and unconsciously break through this barricade of ignorance, and have started to develop an understanding of women’s experiences. Each of the members of our group brings a unique perspective and worldview that I would not have been able to learn about otherwise. Playing Dungeons & Dragons with them created a gateway to friendships based on understanding, learning and trust.
It’s taken me a long time to realize how different life can be based on your identified gender. As a cis-gendered man, I had been wholly ignorant of this fact for most of my life, and that is not something I am proud of. The time that I have spent with women has helped me to grow and flourish as an individual. Empathy and understanding lead to acceptance and these experiences have encouraged me to be more supportive of those who need it, including myself.