Queer Toughness

I had a really great conversation after today’s self defense talk that solidified a lot of floating ideas I had about why we need queer spaces for teaching this stuff.

One of the things we discuss a lot in the “observation” material of our talks is body language. How unconscious cues can betray a person’s mindset, intentions (especially with regards to the fight/flight/freeze response set), emotional arousal, and capacity for violence. We talk about it both in terms of what others’ body language tells us, and what our bodies communicate to others.

This intersects with gender in many obvious and less-obvious ways. Men and women tend to be socialized towards different clusters of behaviour (dominant vs submissive postures/body language, for instance), and we also tend to equate a certain subset of masculine body language with stuff that makes us a “hard target” for predators. We’re often encouraged to adopt the physical language of dominance — the stuff that communicates “I’ll fight you!” to a potential threat. Square your shoulders. Stick out your chest a bit. Head up, and don’t ever look down after making eye contact. Don’t step out of anyone’s way when you’re walking. If anyone gets into your personal space, push back hard and fast. If anyone challenges you, put them in their place. You could sum up a lot of this advice with the phrase “Man up.”

It’s a common shorthand, and it’s also a bad one. When I think of the toughest, scariest people I know (and my social circle includes a whole lot of police officers, bouncers, and professional martial arts and self defense instructors), I don’t think of aggression or dominance, but of comfort. Their power, and the thing that pings my “don’t mess with them” sense is not that they look like they’re ready to tear out the throat of anyone they consider a threat, but rather that they they almost never look like they feel threatened at all. They’re relaxed. They carry themselves with calm fluidity and there’s no tension in their bodies, no visible signs of adrenaline, even when the situation gets hairy. The scariest ones look bored at the start of a fight, or relaxed and happy, like a little kid at the park.

Saffiyah Khan (left) staring down English Defence League (EDL) protester Ian Crossland during a demonstration in Birmingham. Photo: Joe Giddens

This photo is one of my favourite examples of the contrast between what we often think of as “dominant” body language, and what power really looks like. It was taken at a 2017 far-right protest in Birmingham that ended up attracting a massive counter protest. Tensions were high and everyone was primed for violence. Here we’ve got two people in conflict, and one is clearly amping up for a fight. He’s turning red. The muscles in his neck and shoulders are tense, and his arms are open and back in the “come at me bro!” posture of someone daring their opponent to take a swing. He’s obviously adrenalized, he’s shouting, and is trying very hard to play a dominance game. He’s also losing. The person radiating power in that moment is the young woman he’s yelling at. She’s calm, relaxed, and smiling slightly. There’s no sign that she’s getting ready to fight, and everything about her body language says, “I’m not afraid of you.”

Now, this kind of confidence and comfort under fire isn’t entirely divorced from masculinity. Look at any discussion of “alpha” vs “beta” behaviour, for instance, and you’ll see many of the distinctions I’ve made above being repeated in slightly different terms. There are many who see that calm expression of power as the mark of a real man. To them, “Man up!” or “Be a man!” is not about playing the mad dog who’ll snap at anyone who looks at him funny, but about exuding the calm, unhurried power of someone who knows how to handle himself and rarely feels threatened.

The thing is, though, that this quality isn’t inherent to masculinity either. If it was, you wouldn’t get guys like the angry dude in the picture, who is very masculine in his presentation and gender expression, but is utterly failing the power game. Comfort and physical confidence show up more commonly in men than women for a whole host of reasons, from socialization (the positive and negative pressures of “be a man”, versus the way women are taught to shrink themselves and take up less space), to physiology (men tend to be bigger and stronger), to each gender’s relationship to violence (men tend to have a lot more exposure to social violence and the “monkey dance” dominance game of fighting for status, and are more likely to have experience in full-contact and combat sports, and thus often have a higher level of fighting competence and practical experience on which to base their confidence). That’s not the same as it being unique to men.

And the way that a lot of self defense instruction hitches that comfortable power to masculinity messes up a lot of people. Gender is a huge part of identity in our society, and many women, queer men, and trans and nonbinary people have a complex relationship with masculinity — to put it mildly. If you’re not comfortable with masculinity, and especially if it stands at odds with your own identity, trying to appropriate its body language as a safety measure tends to go rather poorly.

For a lot of women and queer men, femininity is an integral part of their self-expression and relationship to the world. Some women equate femininity with womanhood, and tie their relationship to their own gender to a rejection or avoidance of masculinity. Others appropriate it as a tool for gaining safety and power (both in self-defense contexts and the workplace), or as a way of marking themselves out as queer (which often has the side effect of rendering femme queer women invisible), and consciously sacrifice the social position afforded to women as a result. There’s an implicit loss of sex appeal — at least when it comes to being attractive to straight men — and an opting out of the social capital that comes with that. Many queer men use femininity in a parallel way, as a marker of queerness and rejection of the masculinity that was often forced on them as part of a broader pressure to make them straight. Others are simply more comfortable with more feminine expression, and queer culture gives them the freedom to lean into it without censure.

For all of these people, having to adopt masculine qualities requires choosing between safety and identity. Not only that, but the whole framing teaches them that who they are and how they express themselves is inherently weak. That they are soft targets because of who they are, and that getting tougher requires rejecting or transforming something fundamental to their sense of self. It’s even worse for many trans and nonbinary people (especially trans women and femme-identified folks), for whom adopting elements of masculinity can feel like walking back a transition or betraying an identity that they have had to fight very hard to be able to express openly. When living in congruity with your gender is a matter of life and death, the choice between that and other kinds of safety becomes a no-brainer. It’s also often viewed by those who see masculinity as the only path to physical power as choosing to be “helpless” or “weak”. That’s not true, but it is pervasive and enormously harmful. In that framework, femininity and victimhood become inextricably linked, and choosing the former means resigning oneself to the latter.

For those who do decide to play, there’s still no guarantee it’ll work. Taking on a mode of expression that’s dramatically at odds with your internal sense of self is about as effective as wearing an expensive suit that’s 3 sizes too big and trying to pretend it was tailored for you. Everyone can tell it doesn’t fit. The conscious posture and body language that you’re putting out might be that of a tough guy, but the unconscious stuff that leaks out around the edges will broadcast discomfort. And it’s the unconscious expression that others respond to, and that predators in particular are really adept at reading. If you look uncomfortable in your own skin, and like you’re playing at being something you don’t really believe you are or can be, that makes you into a more appealing target. Insecurity and discomfort are easy to exploit. Just as a way-too-big suit is awkward and sloppy to move in, trying to navigate the world in an ill-fitting identity leaves you more likely to trip and stumble into danger.

There are a couple of ways to fix this. “Fake it till you make it” is a popular phrase for a reason, and it’s not impossible to brute force these things until they become natural. That requires internalizing the elements of masculinity that you’re trying to ape until they become a genuine part of your identity. It’s doable, but requires a serious shift in one’s gender expression that not everyone is prepared to make. There can be heavy costs, and it can change your relationship to everything from your social circle and community, to your love life and your own sense of identity.

Another way — a better way, I’d argue — is to decouple power from masculinity. To find ways of conveying comfort, capability, and the kind of fearlessness that comes from knowing that you can handle whatever gets thrown at you next, that fit with any gender expression. Masculine power. Feminine power. Nonbinary power. To help our students locate a source of power and confidence in themselves, and to carry it out into the world in a way that is natural and comfortable for them. This isn’t a woo-woo hippy thing. I’m not talking about tapping into your chakras or the divine feminine (although if that’s how you frame your relationship to personal power, then go for it). I’m talking about a practical approach to empowerment that starts from the inside and builds on the capability and identity that already exists, instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all model of how to look and act tough.

Queer spaces aren’t the only place where this kind of exploration happens, but they’re a natural fit for it. When your students are already engaging critically with gender and have already put a lot of work into negotiating their relationship to it, they’ve got a great framework for building expressions of power that aren’t unthinkingly tied to a single understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman.

In my time teaching in this kind of space, I’ve learned so much about how many different ways there are to be formidable, powerful, and downright scary. I’ve also had the opportunity to rethink what makes me tough. I’ve been able to lean into my femininity without feeling like I’m sacrificing safety or choosing to be “weak” (a sentiment I would have felt strongly a decade ago), because I understand that power has many different shapes. In finding the shape that works best for me — that fits me like a glove and matches my internal sense of self — I’ve become a lot more impressive and intimidating. I’ve also watched many of my students go through the same process, and end up all over the spectrum of gender expression, from ultra-femme to traditionally masculine. The masculine guys haven’t lost anything by co-existing with people who express power very differently from them, and everyone else has gained a way be safer and stronger without having to saw bits off to fit a mold. They’re all tough as nails, and they’re all still fundamentally themselves. That’s the kind of growth that sticks.