Boys must learn to become men. The shot of testosterone that triggers the chaos of adolescence, with all the wonder of beards and bulges, is not enough. Boys need heroes.
The fact is we humans learn by imitation, an instinct so strong that we will even mindlessly repeat self-defeating beliefs and self-harming behaviour so long as they are our familial or social norm.
I certainly grew up knowing I was on the hunt for heroes who might reflect the man I wished to one day be. However, my own culture’s offerings – James Bond, Bulldog Drummond, Sherlock Holmes, Mr Ben – left me deeply disappointed.
Yes, I wanted to look up to and learn from strong and noble men who would defend the vulnerable, right injustice, yet still be kind to animals. But I was in search of male heroes who also had the courage to love each other with intense passion and devotion – none of which the world I knew was able, or perhaps willing, to provide.
It was not until my teens that I discovered others had terms for who – or what – they judged me to be. Terms that implied I was not ‘man enough’ to be accepted by my parents’ church, my schools, sports teams or peers. Terms that told me I was some sort of gender half-breed, a perverse ‘unmanly’ mistake condemned to a lonely, loveless life of little more than furtive, self-indulgent assignations.
In response, I grew increasingly self-loathing, withdrawn and dangerously depressive.
It was in libraries that I eventually found sanctuary from the relentless bullying and bruises.
It was also where, to my wonder, I finally discovered in the history and myths of Ancient Greece and India bright galaxies of heroic men who had indeed loved other heroic men. Men who had together fulfilled impossible quests, overthrown tyrants, vanquished dragons and, hand in hand, had ultimately saved the day. Men who began to teach me that, in spite of everything I was being told, my life was in fact worth living.
For it was these men who proved to me that I was not ‘feminised’ by my emotional nature and physical attraction. That I was just as much a man as any other. A man worthy of the hero of whom I had so long dreamt. The hero who would teach me to be strong, courageous, honest, self-respecting, compassionate, loyal, wise. The hero who would teach me how to love and be loved for a lifetime.
We all grow up needing to see ourselves reflected in the world, to know that it’s alright to look, sound, feel, think and love the way we do.
But considering the alarming levels of self-harm, homelessness and suicide amongst young gay men, never have the heroes I discovered for myself been more important. Especially when 2.7 billion people are living in countries where loving your own sex is still punishable by imprisonment or death.
It is a principal reason that I am proud to represent the charity Diversity Role Models, which works in British schools to challenge homophobic language and bullying. And why such ancient myths as that of Shikhidhvaja & Kumbha already posted here must not be lost to modern conservatism or indifference.
Over the coming months, therefore, I’ll be sharing yet more of the stories that revealed to the boy I once was the heroes best suited to my nature – heroes through whom I gradually learnt to believe that I could be the self-confident, happy-hearted, loved and loving man I have ultimately become.