I watched this video from Christopher Olwage’s Black Swan Project after he told me the story behind it.
In a world swimming in macho testosterone-oriented athleticisms (and suffering grandly for it), we need these courageous masculinities that pull power and grace together. We need to hear stories of embracive personal truths. We need to ease off our old heroes, our much-loved “men’s men”, and look for a new kind of man.
Through the Black Swan Project, Olwage volunteers.
This instance of Olwage’s craft depicts the “portable closet” carried around like a cross by young gay boys and other people who don’t fit heteronormative gender expectations. “Do you remember the story of the Ugly Duckling?” he asks. “The story goes that he was the last duckling to hatch from the nest. Ugly and grey to behold, he was pecked at pushed about; made fun of by the other ducks and farm animals.
“So tiresome he became of his wretched existence he decided to throw himself to the beautiful swans to be pecked to death.
“Upon bowing his head to his fate, he glimpsed his reflection. He wasn’t an ugly duckling at all, but a beautiful swan.” He bridges the Brothers Grimm fairytale to his story with the succinct confession, “I was an Ugly Duckling.”
In an article titled, “Five Strategies to Prevent your Sensitive Son from Being Bullied”, author Ted Zeff states that 20% of men possess a “finely tuned nervous system” that makes them highly sensitive. He also writes that 160,000 children “miss school every day in the United States for fear of being bullied and more than 50 suicides have been linked to prolonged bullying: “Societal values emphasize that males should be aggressive, thick-skinned, and emotionally self-controlled, which is the opposite of a sensitive boy. When boys don’t conform to the ‘boy code’ and instead show their gentleness and emotions, they are often ostracized and humiliated. Bullies tend to target kids who seem different from others.
“Bullies also target kids who don’t fight back and who react deeply to teasing. Research shows that 85 percent of [highly sensitive boys] avoided fighting and most sensitive boys become more emotionally upset from bullying than other boys.” Christianly turning the other cheek incites more violence.
Highly sensitive boys buffer violence but they pay a very high price for it. Their experience of bullying is more personal and traumatizing than an innocent rite of passage, or a toughening up and formative experience. But what if bullying never was anything but toxic malice for anyone? In another piece, Zeff says, “We are at a turning point for the planet in which our male political leaders can either continue acting in an insensitive, belligerent manner, risking the destruction of humanity, or choose a new, collaborative, understanding approach to foreign, economic, and environmental policy.”
That’s an outside-in report. The voice-over narration in Olwage’s tour de force gives an intimate insider’s look: “When I was a young boy I found myself at a new school. My pretty face and red red lips made me an easy target as the new kid. They called me a girly boy. I didn’t know what I had done, nor what I could do to make it end.”
Rebecca Mao explains that the “male gaze” is how men are expected to territorially mark the distinction between their place and women’s. This distinction has men as subjects and women as objects to be “owned” by the men that mark them as their own through looking at or hitting on them. When a male dares to be beautiful, he unsettles this dynamic. Encountering male prettiness confounds the insecure. Depending on the depth of his anxiety, the bully will respond with varying degrees of hatred in his attempt to scratch that beauty out. Some people hate the light and merely stay away from it; others fling mud at the heavens to blot out the sun.
I see the Project as Olwage’s insistence on subverting the objectification of (wo)men from beneath by offering us the human body at a level that hovers just beyond those of objects and subjects. He dances at the very edge of the grasping exploitation attendant to the roles of both victimizer and victim, which heteronormative society unwittingly prescribes through its demands that all be unvaryingly, traditionally male or female. Against demands that he be someone else, he is simply being who he is.
Through dance, he says “This is my body, which is given for you” and that body given is a way out of the small, dehumanizing world we’ve constructed in which we don’t know how to look at beauty without lusting to objectify it or fearing its effect on our exposed souls. By inviting us to look and just “be”, with him, he makes it ennobling to look, be, and be breath-taken. He makes it wholesome to be moved by aching desire without any way to resolve it or assure the insecurity within of our personal power and masculine invulnerability in relation to the weightless vision being looked at. Like meditating on Michelangelo’s David, watching is humanizing and humbling. A bully is someone who is very, very far from these existential milestones.
Or perhaps too close for his comfort.
Because it happens for reasons largely beyond its survivor’s control, bullying paralyzes children with a sense of helplessness. “I found myself being a social fringe dweller, isolated and alone, a spit ball target, an easy name-calling dartboard.” The bullying victim doesn’t know that he’s a beautiful swan surrounded by smaller, frightened birds; a sun mocked by mud-flingers. His helpless takes on a dimension of guilt when the victim discovers that not only is he defective before the heteronormative hypermasculine system but is its antithesis: “Soon the talk of girlfriends and boyfriends became rife. Boys and girls, girls and boys… the only problem was that I wasn’t fantasizing about the girls. “Girly boy changed to gay boy… and gay boy soon changed to… FAG.”
No two syllables hold more terror for growing boys than “faggot”. And when they already don’t fit in, some boys unconsciously compensate by occupying more physical space. “I sought comfort in food; my ever increasing circumference made me an easier victim. The more afraid I grew the greater the bullying became. I was teased, taunted, threatened, chased and beaten. I cried in the mornings before school for fear of the gauntlet I’d have to run from schoolyard to fence. Tears turned into rivers nightly as I tried to convince myself that tomorrow would not be as bad, but it was, it always was. No one understood me, I no longer trusted anyone, I couldn’t find help. I wanted out.”
W. H. Auden begins the understated poetic masterpiece Musee des Beaux Arts with the words, “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. On a normal day, a boy can be “teased, taunted, threatened, chased and beaten”, forced to run a gauntlet “from schoolyard to fence”. Unable to trust anyone with the details of what’s happening to him, he eventually realizes that he “wants out”.
“Out” means not to have to find another square inch of clean, dry sleeve to wipe the uncontrollable tears and snot on; not to make up another story in response to the question “Is everything all right…?” asked by the well-meaning intruder who stumbles across the secret hiding spot where, still reeling from the latest attack, the bullying victim doubles over to catch his breath, scoop up his scattered schoolbag, or the musical instrument or art equipment that makes him the target of more bullying, along with his dignity.
“Out” makes sense once others, who until then were just “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”, find out not only about the bullying but also the crying, the shame, the powerlessness and the hiding spot, and start wondering just what kind of boy you are. Because it’s proof that your shame has been discovered, even the goodness of curious passers-by becomes torment.
“Out” becomes the gospel promise of imminent salvation.
But not everyone agrees. “Suicide,” my mother used to say, “Is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” But when the bullying is because of who you are, “permanent” and “temporary” become interchangeable. Parents and bystanders get to intervene in bullying. But its victim lives in its crosshairs. His world is an obstacle course – a “gauntlet” – and walking becomes endless running from the same schoolmates with whom one shares a classroom where the teacher is present or the boys’ room where she isn’t. Suicide becomes a matter of “how”, “when” and “where”, but never of “if” or “why”. It is therefore “not a logical choice one makes. It is the only choice we see when we cannot see any others”, explains Olwage.
He survived his first attempt. “And during my second, when I bowed my head, I saw my reflection. I found my inner strength.
“I found my Swan.”
Olwage says he accepted himself for who he was. He forgave himself for his mistakes and forgave others too. “With time the changes I had set into motion had begun to show; with acceptance I was able to learn to love myself. With love I was able to become who I am today.”
“Boys Will Be Boys”
Mark Greene notes that “By the time they are approaching puberty, many boys have learned to touch only in aggressive ways through rough housing or team sports. And if they do seek gentle touch in their lives, it is expected to take place in the exclusive and highly sexualized context of dating. This puts massive amounts of pressure on young girls; young girls who are unlikely to be able to shoulder such a burden.”
What becomes of those young girls? Wikipedia tells of #YesAllWomen, a Twitter hashtag and social media campaign in which users share examples or stories of misogyny and violence against women. It was created partly in response to the Twitter hashtag NotAllMen. “Because of the lack of alternative outlets for touch, the touch depravation faced by young boys who are unable to find a girlfriend is overwhelming,” says Mike Greene. “And what about boys who are gay? In a nutshell, we leave children in their early teens to undo a lifetime of touch aversion and physical isolation. The emotional impact of coming of age in our touch-averse, homophobic culture is terribly damaging. It’s no wonder our young people face a epidemic of sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy, rape, drug and alcohol abuse.”
Samantha Allen is more direct. Proposing that the intimacy between men may save lives, she bluntly says it’s time for men to “quit blaming women for their loneliness and to start finding solace in each other’s company. Women can’t bear the brunt of men’s misogynistic violence while simultaneously providing them with one hundred percent of their physical and emotional needs.” She suggests that one of the best places to start might be cultivating meaningful homosocial friendships. “Men have to learn to take care of each other. We can’t do it anymore.”
So Olwage’s acceptance of himself coincides, I hope, with the vindicating realization that it’s not just okay to be gay: it’s necessary. The world needs more closeted gay people to step out into the light. But they don’t even need to be “gay”. As Olwage says, “I am not perfect, I am not a label, I will probably never be what you expect me to be. But I am me, I am Unique… I AM THE BLACK SWAN.”
The Black Swan Project is the timely, prophetic call for a new kind of humanity. Watch it. Be moved.
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