• James Fox Neville

Bros & Prose

When my friend handed me a flyer about an arts project concerning masculinity and mental health in Stoke-on-Trent I knew that Man Up was probably going to be right up my street. My long-suffering friends have listened to me rattle rhyme and verse on the aforementioned topics for many years: as a trans man born in Stoke-on-Trent who works in and wrestles with mental health, there aren’t many ways in which this project could have been more relevant to me. Refusing to be sidelined by society, my mission since I came out as trans has been to take up as much space as possible in the social sphere, sharing trans narratives and contributing to a growing critical awareness of gender. It’s a way of channelling the nervous energy, a social fight or flight. Man Up seemed like the perfect place to tell my story.

I presumed that this would be like previous ventures into cis space; a polite tussle for narrative rights that would end in me probably being a little antagonistic and celebrating the small but important ground I’d gained. Resilience is key and walking into a room of blokes from Stoke was something I had to psyche myself up for. I was more anxious that I thought. Self-reliant, borderline arrogant, I came with a thick skin and a list of offerings that trans men could make to cis men: if I could make them rethink maleness that would be a victory indeed - and the mental health statistics show us that this masculinity thing we’ve got going on clearly isn’t working. Maybe the men who wouldn’t let me in their club weren’t so smart after all. Angered by being socially marginalised and embittered by the realisation that I’d beaten myself up on behalf of the world for 24 years, I was almost a little bit glad that I wasn’t the only one who has wanted to die. It’s defences, isn’t it? Bravado. Maybe I’ve got more in common with the proverbial Billy Big Balls than I thought.

Image by Jenny Harper Photography for Restoke

Meeting Clare from the Restoke team for the first time, I quickly realised that I had misjudged the situation. The points of my experience that I assumed I’d have to get across through retort I was asked about in advance. Not just as a counter argument, but as a legitimate narrative of maleness. I felt validated and safe from the off with Clare, Paul and the other artists, and slowly, my confidence grew and my walls fell.

So now we’re just 7 days away from opening night and the impact these last 8 months working on Man Up have had upon me are genuinely profound. In seven days I will definitely have achieved my objective - I will have told my story to around 400 people at the coal face of masculine culture in Goldenhill Working Men’s Club. But what I have learned about myself and about men I could never have foreseen.

Men can be gentle, kind, quiet, humble, uncertain, vulnerable. Men can be cute. This may seem obvious. It was not obvious to me. At worst, I thought of men as vacuous, arrogant, aggressive, entitled. The problem, not the solution. At best I thought of them as shallow and distractable, an emotional non-event. And of course they can be these things too. But what I was failing to see was men as fully human. I’ve reflected deeply on this. I’m a hopeful person, a proud liberal, a queer activist. Where did I get caught up in such a limited and negative outlook upon my fellow humans? Well, I’m not sure I’ve ever been emotionally close to a man before. Definitely not a group of men. I have been around men, known men. But do I know who they really are? I’m not sure I do.

I thought that my unique route into masculinity left me unaffected by its most troubling aspects. One of the benefits of being raised female is that I have not been punished or humiliated for showing emotion in the way that little lads so often are. But I didn’t realise that the men around me, in their adherence to social expectations, had kept the best of themselves from being seen. Rob talks in his monologue in Man Up about playing the role of the provider, the breadwinner and how it came at a huge cost for his own mental health. I knew the men in my life worked hard, were stoic and rational, but I didn’t know that they felt deeply, doubted themselves, had emotional needs. I didn’t know that they were like me.

My fellow Up Men have showed me exactly how much we have in common. Their stories and mine have many familiar threads. The circumstances are different, but the feelings are the same: we have all struggled with rejection, shame, repression, loneliness. We have all felt unseen, displaced, like the world didn’t want the real us. I still believe that the perspectives of trans men are important and potentially liberating for cis men. What I certainly didn’t foresee is that cis men have a great deal to offer me. Being emotionally close to a group of men for the first time in my life has strengthened my identity in a way that I could never have done on my own. I’ve felt seen as a man, by men. I’ve felt brotherhood, safety, true and deep acceptance. I’ve seen men transformed from stiff and awkward to people who will spontaneously burst into singing Ukrainian folk songs. Man Up has given us a place to thrive. Every Saturday from 10-4pm at rehearsal, I’ve witnessed people loosen up, express themselves, grow. In the last few weeks there is this visceral feeling of what a special thing we have shared together and the beautiful thing that we have created both on and off the stage.

Image by Jenny Harper Photography for Restoke

It’s been wonderful to feel the warmth of a brotherhood. I’ve never had so many hugs. I’ve had conversations about gender, relationships, clothing, intimacy, violence, ethnicity, work, self-care, recovery, disability, medication, art, music, dance, poetry, drugs, prison, love, sex, politics, veganism, loss, family, kids. I can’t wait to share this thing that we’ve made together with Restoke with my family, friends and fellow Stokies. I am left feeling more at home in the world and profoundly hopeful about the future. There is work to be done to broaden our view of gender and build a more emotionally healthy society, but for the first time I truly feel like I’m not in the minority for wanting to do it.


Find out more about Man Up and other fantastic projects from Restoke at www.restoke.org.uk

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