There was a point in my life where I was going to study to be a Roman Catholic priest. After a pretty miserable first-year experience in college, I turned to my most salient identity as an escape from what seems in reflection to be a depressive state. In this vulnerable mindset, I allowed myself to be molded into something that never quite sat right with me. You see, the people I knew at church believed in “traditional” masculinity.
Part of my formation towards the seminary involved going on a trip with the other people studying to be priests. We went on a trip to learn about what it meant to be a man. During the “most manly” trip you can imagine, I learned about how modern society continues to attack what it means to be a man. Society continued to move away from the biblical and traditional forms of manhood. Men were heads of their families who led with justice, men worked hard (often with their hands) to provide for their family, and men took charge. To complete this, we went to King’s Canyon National Park in the High Sierra Mountain Range to clear trail for the forest service. Grueling, challenging work that I was not ready for. However, the “traditional” masculine ideals came through and pushed me to work harder because I did not want to be seen as weak. These ideals continued to haunt me, as it made making critical decisions very challenging.
As you can tell, I did not choose to go to the seminary. I instead chose to return to Indiana University to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. For the entirety of my undergrad, I bought into the myth of “traditional” masculinity and the attack on being a man. This led me to shun people and be ultra-assertive about my religious and gender beliefs. It was not until I began to look into graduate school that I began to think about gender in different ways. It was not until I began to critically analyze my own religious beliefs that I began to truly explore what it meant for me to be a man.
Due to the sensitive nature of religious beliefs (especially at public institutions!), I feel that we are often afraid to talk about them. Eboo Patel at the National Convention in 2015 challenged our field to discuss religion and spirituality more since it is such an important identity to many of our students. I feel we need to discuss it for a different reason: it gets a free pass. We are slow to discuss how the intersectionality of religion and a variety of identities shapes how our students truly do interact with each other. For me, most of my undergrad experience was defined by religion, and how that intersected with my other identities. Due to a lack of discussion, I never really analyzed how my religion impacted my gender until graduate school. I continued to utilize religion to justify harmful attitudes and words towards women, people who identify with genders not on the spectrum, and people with “nontraditional” identities.
Here is the thing, I know that I am not the only one who fits into this category. Many religions propagate a form of traditional masculinity. Christianity, for example, considers the bible a holy book for instruction. The bible has all sorts of gems, like,
“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” – 1 Timothy 2:11-15
“The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” – 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
There are many other verses of similar themes that clearly tell a story of traditional masculine beliefs. As someone who does not believe in traditional masculinity, it becomes increasingly difficult to exist in a church environment that propagated standardized versions of what people should do based on their gender. However, I was stuck in a place where I felt that living a “traditional” lifestyle was the only option for me. It was all I knew. What do our students know?
It was only through student affairs professionals who taught me general tenants of social justice and inclusion that I began to think about myself, and myself in relation to others differently. Rarely were the questions direct, but they at least started my mind going down different directions. While learning helped me in this way, I believe we are doing our students a disservice if we are not asking the hard questions about how their religious or spiritual belief impacts their identity growth. It was not until late into my undergraduate career that I began to really explore what my religion meant to me. Upon seeing the damage my actions based on my religious identity caused, I realized I needed to walk away. I could not continue to listen to words that cause so much harm to others.
Note, I am not saying that religion is bad or evil, merely that we must continue to help students understand all of their identities and provide challenge when they seem to be allowing themselves to be narrowly defined by others. Only by talking about all identities (yes, even those we may be uncomfortable with ourselves!) can we begin to help our students truly understand their holistic self. Religion and gender are an interesting study in intersecting identities, let’s explore what that means to us and our students.
Colin Byard is an Area Coordinator at the University of Central Florida in the Department of Housing and Residence Life. He is a recent graduate of the Indiana University Higher Education and Student Affairs Program, where he discovered a passion for social justice and having difficult conversations with students. If you wish to contact Colin, you can find him on twitter at @ColinByard.