A Trans Priest Wants To Help Men Through the Masculinity Crisis | Sojourners

A Trans Priest Wants To Help Men Through the Masculinity Crisis

Rev. Shannon TL Kearns. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

By now, you may know that men, broadly speaking, are suffering.

Despite the structure of a patriarchal society where men still reap various financial and social benefits, men are regularly facing disparate outcomes on a wide range of measures. Nearly four times as many men as women died by suicide in the U.S., 1 in 7 men report having no close friends, and men see disparate outcomes in mental health, premature deaths, and education.

This, along with gains in LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance, reckonings with sexual abuse, and more, are causing some to fret over the state of men and masculinity. Take a read through your favorite blog, newspaper, or faith and social justice magazine, and you can find articles exploring the problems men face and what to do about it.

There are those who would like to return to a previous era where masculinity was described by domination and power, those who would reform the positive traits of the past while restraining the negative, and those who want to leave masculinity (and femininity) behind as concepts altogether.

Often missing from the conversation, as essayist Phil Christman once pointed out to me, is the perspective of transgender men. Trans men, unlike their cisgender counterparts, are not afforded the luxury of ignoring the questions of manhood, masculinity, and what it all means.

It’s on that prompting that I set out to interview Rev. Shannon TL Kearns, a trans man, priest, playwright, activist for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church, and author who describes himself as a “sacred storyteller.”

In our conversation, I told Kearns that the overarching questions of my interview were: “When we talk about masculinity, what are we talking about and how do we know it?” and “Once we define masculinity, do we want it?”

By the end of our interview, the question on my mind was less about definition and more about formation. Masculinity and men are here to stay; how might we help men become the type of men who can show up for the liberation, freedom, and safety of all people?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: When you were younger, what did you understand masculinity to be?

Rev. Shannon TL Kearns: I grew up in the fundamentalist, evangelical Christian church, and that was where I first had any understanding of gender. We didn’t talk about gender, and yet gender was everywhere.

I never really got a sense of, “This is what masculinity is,” other than it was what men do. In my church growing up, men were the leaders, men were to be the spiritual heads of their families, men were to be — obviously — always heterosexual and strong. Women were, I guess, the opposite of that: weak, followers not leaders, and not pastors. There was this sense of gender norms and gender roles that were very strong in my church growing up, but never really any sense of gender experience. We didn’t talk about how it felt to be a man or a woman; it was what you do.

As you got older — and I don’t know if you use the term “coming out” or something else — what was it about masculinity that resonated with your experience or that you longed for and desired? Does that question make sense?

It does. [Pauses.] The problem is I don’t know that I can answer it. This is something that I’ve wrestled with a lot. And this goes back to your initial thought of why we’re having this conversation. Often, when we sit down and talk about “What is masculinity?” or “What is femininity?” or “What does it mean to be a man?” we list all of these traits. And when I sit and think about those traits, I know there are ways to embody those traits across genders and outside of gender. So, for me, it wasn’t necessarily this sense of masculinity or manhood as something I’m chasing. The best way that I can say it is I just came to a realization that I am a man.

There wasn’t a sense of, “Oh, I want to be like this.” In fact, one of the biggest journeys of my transition was figuring out, “OK, you are a man. What kind of man are you going to be? How are you going to embody that masculinity?” I think that’s one of the real gifts of transness. I’ve had to be intentional about my masculinity.

I’m grateful to be trans. Because of how I grew up, because of that culture, if I had been born a cis man, I would have been an a--hole. I had all of the roles and all of the traits that were prized in my denomination: I was a leader, I was outspoken. But those things weren’t valued because of my presumed gender at birth.

And that helps me answer the other question of “Do we want [masculinity]?” There’s always going to be people who say, “[Masculinity] is who I am. This is what I resonate with.” And for me, it doesn’t help to say, “We’re not gonna have that anymore.” So, a better conversation is to say, “Okay, how do we embody this healthfully?”

What does it look like to embody masculinity in a way that is not oppressive, hierarchical, sexist, patriarchal, and doesn’t put down any other people?

You used the word embody. When you talk about embodying the sense and the knowledge that you are a man, what does that look like? I’m curious about both the internal and social parts of that.

The internal part is a sense of ease. A sense of home, of oneness, that before I transitioned, I never had. When I was moving through the world presumed female, I pretty consistently felt like I was acting, but I didn’t know that I was acting.

Early in my transition, before I was being recognized as male, I was in the space of “I know who I am [but] I’m moving in spaces where I am not always seen as who I am.”

[I had a journey of asking]: What do I have to do in order to get other people to see me as I am? Which led to some, frankly, really embarrassing moments. I went through a phase where I was hyper-masculine and obsessed with the military, because that’s the space that I can be seen in, and people will understand my masculinity. [I tried to] pitch my voice lower; I stopped smiling at strangers; I spoke in one-word sentences instead of being more verbose. What I realized in doing that and trying on these different things, it didn’t feel right. I again felt like I was trying to be something that wasn’t authentic.

What I’ve now learned is that I thought what I was going [through] was unique. We all think we’re unique. But no, other men have had this [journey]. After having talked to a lot of men, there’s lots of men who are like, “I am trying to move through the world in a way that makes me recognizable to other people.”

That’s another place where trans men can really help in this conversation. What would it look like if instead of all of us play-acting what we thought men were supposed to be, what if we could make space for each other to have that ease and sense of oneness?

How does safety play into all of this? As we talk about what masculinity is, it occurs to me that so much of masculinity is a space for people who feel masculine to be safe.

The research around men and friendship is dire. Men do not have friends. Many of them, when they do have friends or people they confide in, they are not confiding in other men. What is it about the way that we are teaching men and boys to be in the world that doesn’t allow us to feel like we can have these deeper conversations with other men?

A sense of safety has to be — obviously — freedom from physical violence, but also a safety to be emotional, to have a deeper conversation, to share what you’re actually thinking, feeling, and going through.

I don’t think we have a lot of settings right now that are cultivated for that. Or men are not partaking of the settings where there might be that kind of cultivation.

[As far as physical safety]: There was this whole online conversation about whether you’d rather run into a random man or a bear in the woods. And everyone is going to choose the bear. And… men need to deal with our own defensiveness about this. This is not women’s problem. This is our problem. We need to figure out how to show up to the women in our lives to let them know that we are trustworthy. And that means that we have to actually be trustworthy, not just make them think we’re trustworthy.

If enough men do that work, then I think society starts to change. But we’re so far away from that.

When I think about what it looks like to cultivate healthy masculinity, we really have to think about the systemic work that needs to be done. We can look at data and see that men are falling behind in school. Men are having mental health crises. Men are having bad health outcomes, like physical health and friendship.

And there is an individual level. Each of us has to do this work to figure out: How do we show up for one another? Often, the solutions that are posited by other people are either all systemic, or all, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

And all of this work [on masculinity and men] should in no way take away from, sidetrack, or denigrate work that is being done for the freedom and liberation of any other marginalized community. The problem is: Because we still live in a patriarchal, hierarchical society, when men fail, we take everyone else with us. So, we have to do this work, but then also show up in the fight for the liberation of all people. It’s not a competition.

In fact, the reason men are struggling so much is that they have lost power and privilege and don’t know how to handle that. We haven’t done a very good job of helping men be in solidarity with other communities. And I’m talking specifically as a white man in the U.S. Obviously race, class, gender, ethnicity, all of that plays in as well.

Are masculinity and manliness the same to you? Are they two words for the same thing, or do they feel different?

They feel different. Manliness feels, to me, like the thing we do to try to make other people convinced of our masculinity. For me, masculinity just is. It’s who you are and how you move through the world as a man. Manliness feels very much like, “We do this so that we are perceived by others as men so that we can win favor.” That feels very hierarchical.

What type of man are you trying to be?

I want to be gentle. I want to be in solidarity with people of other genders. I want to be healthy — both for myself, but also healthy in society. I want to be part of building something that leads to the flourishing of all people. And I want to do that with a sense of ease in my body.

My cards on the table: I’m not sure masculinity is worth saving. I suspect we won’t get rid of it, but I can’t seem to find any physical, emotional, or social traits that I am comfortable defining as strictly for men — or women, or nonbinary people for that matter.

I have a book coming out next April on masculinity, and the first part of the book is basically me refusing to define what it is to be a man.

When we start to say, “This is what it means to be a man,” we quickly find that many men are outside of that definition. Then the goalposts keep moving. We start to say, “Unless you have these body parts, these biological abilities, or whatever, you don’t get to be a part of this community.” And we’ve seen how that obviously affects trans people, but it very quickly starts to affect cis people as well.

I also don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to be [gendering] traits or characteristics. When we talk about being brave, for instance, that is going to look really different depending on who you are, how you show up in the world, and what the situation is.

For me, the conversation is about the things that — because of the way society is currently structured — men might need to unlearn in order to show up more fully in their relationships, in the world, and in their own bodies and selves.

I keep thinking about the small group model of my evangelical church growing up. On the one hand, that small group was a space — from what I’ve been told, because I was in the women’s group — for men to show up and be vulnerable with one another and share what they were struggling with, be honest, and create space for each other. But then, what I’ve heard, is men were told to buck up and be the spiritual leader; don’t ask questions and get back out there and lead your family. And that didn’t actually help those men unlearn things.

I’m still looking for those [spaces] where men can show up and encourage one another. The first step is that men have to figure out how to have friends with other men and to be able to have those conversations that are more intimate and vulnerable. And this is where I think many queer and trans men, not all, obviously, but many queer and trans men have started to do this work.

Are there any ways that the church can be a part of fostering that space?

Starting to even open up these conversations is a huge way. For churches to look at how patriarchy has been propagated in our systems, how it’s playing out in our churches today, and how it’s impacting men.

We often talk about how patriarchy hurts people of other genders — it absolutely does — and it also hurts men. It is not good for anyone.