Pieter Claes: “I can watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and squat with 20 kgs on my shoulders, because—why not?”

dec 20, 2019 | Masculinities, News

Pieter Claes, Editor

Pieter Claes was born in Belgium, but has been living in Finland for the past eleven years. Pieter came to Finland as a native Dutch speaker, but works and lives his life in Swedish speaking Finland. He sees himself as a very international individual, working in the culture field as an editor at The Society for Swedish Literature in Finland. During his spare time, Pieter enjoys working out in the gym where he particularly enjoys the group training sessions.

Pieter joined the RE/defining Masculinities programme collaborating in the Boys will be Boys / #dammenbrister panel discussion in Helsinki 2019, and contributed to our RE/defining Masculinities Monologues with his own perspective on masculinity.

Do you have any experiences that have made you face your sense of masculinity?

“I recently joined a gym, in order to get into better shape. I used to exercise with friends, playing badminton, but found that I needed something more, and therefore decided to join a gym. I started going to the gym to get more control of my own body. This experience has for me been very interesting, especially to get to know the locker room environment of the gym. As a gay man, I am very aware of my own masculinity in the locker room in relation to other men, what it is and what it should not be like. And I constantly worry that somebody would suddenly notice that I am gay, and think that I am somehow inappropriately watching them and challenge me for it, and I simply don’t know how I am supposed to react should a situation like that arise. And really, it’s stupid, because it is only a locker room where you go to get changed in order to exercise.”

“One strange thing I’ve found, is that even though we live in Finland where you would think the stereotypes of the sauna culture would mean that people are comfortable with their nudity, nudity at the gym is experienced differently. It’s surprising how many men get changed in the toilets and shower in their underwear. And these are people who are in great physical shape, yet they still feel a need to cover up among other men. I don’t want to be observing them, but at the same time, I find their behaviour odd enough that it grabs my attention. I just don’t understand why they feel to need to do hide themselves, where does that need come from?”

“I also participate in group training sessions at the gym, and often find myself as the only man in the group. In those situations, I find that women tend to shy away from me, and I’m often left alone with lots of space to move, while the women huddle up together. It is as if they either think I won’t be able to keep up being a man, or that I am there only to peek at them.”

You then feel as if you are constantly in a position where you are seen as a threat to others?

“Exactly. It is very evident as well, because they give up their space to exercise in, in order to get away from me. And it also makes me feel like I have to work hard to prove that I am there to exercise, and not to infringe on their space. I often feel quite isolated during these classes. Some classes are more diverse, but several groups mainly consist of women. ‘Body Pump’ is an exception. In ‘Body Pump’ you have mixed participants, with a lot of men in the room. I have never cared for lifting weights, I always saw it as something quite masculine and boring, but these days I love the fact that I am strong enough to squat with 20 kgs on my shoulders. It’s been extremely empowering for me to discover that I can do it, and it’s been very empowering for me to join a gym, and find that I actually enjoy it.”

What are your views on masculinity as a norm?

“Masculinity to me is something more negative, because I’ve never been able to live up to its so-called standards. I’ve always been singled out as not a “real” man, especially because I am gay. I have always been positioned to think about masculinity from that perspective—what does it mean to be a man when you are gay. Today, through TV-shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has opened drag culture to a wider audience, people are realising that the definition of what makes a man is much broader than what has been originally thought, and not really tied to any specific rules or boundaries.”

“Masculinity to me is something more negative, because I’ve never been able to live up to its so-called standards.”

“I also don’t walk around thinking about the fact that I am a man. I don’t see it as anything important to my identity. I even sometimes say that deep inside, I’m really a woman. So, perhaps it’s really all about a double perspective, this thing that is manhood. On the one hand, I can see what it ‘should’ be — but for me masculinity means something completely different.”

Do you regard gender as fluid?

“I do. It may also have something do with not having that many boys as friends as a child, and that it was usually boys that bullied me. I used to spend most of my time with girls. For the longest time, I was thinking if I actually could have a straight male friend at all, which in retrospect was silly, because today a lot of my friends are straight men, including my best friends. What perhaps is interesting in these friendships is that these friends act differently toward each other than how they act when on one to one with me; we communicate and express ourselves in different ways, and we talk about our feelings. I find that they open themselves up more, and share quite sensitive things in a way they don’t do with each other, at least in my experience. And then, when hanging out in larger groups, they tend to fall back into the same old roles, acting much tougher, and not as sensitive.”

Have you experienced any cultural differences considering masculine behaviours in Finland and Belgium?

“I think it’s the cultural differences that further defines this image of ‘man.’ I find that in Belgium, men tend to talk more, even about emotions, and you tend to have more friends. The Finnish male stereotype pushes men into the role of the silent man, and only speak when you have something to say. In general, the Finns tend also to be more reserved. But these qualities are of course stereotypes and do not necessarily apply to everyone. Another thing that is special with Belgium is that men kiss each other on the cheek — not of course in all places in Belgium, but I think that in general men in Belgium are more physical with other men, than in Finland. In Finland, even the times when men do hug each other, the hugs tend to be short and distant, with a light pat on the back.”

How do you view the development of masculinity in the future?

“I think we’ve generally become more aware of how we talk about women and how we talk about men. For example, in my work as an editor, when you do a project focusing on a cultural person in Swedish speaking Finland, you make sure to present women and men in the same way — such as always referring to them with their last name rather than first, as the practice has been with women before. When talking about Ellen Thesleff in a text, you refer to ‘Thesleff’ as opposed to ‘Ellen.’ We think more about how we express ourselves and say things.”

“I think we’ve generally become more aware of how we talk about women and how we talk about men.”

“A lot has happened with women with the recent raised awareness of women’s rights, with some positive developments. I do believe a lot of men have still fallen behind and not understood the message behind these developments, which causes them to rebel against them. It’s very complicated to be a man, if you consider who and what you should be. There aren’t very many positive role models for men out there. If you consider men in pop-culture, a man is rarely presented as anyone deep, but men rather seem to put on an act of some sorts. I think we are lacking an honest representation of men. Those we commonly hear on social media are those that are shouting the loudest, but they rarely represent a unified view agreed to by all men. Like the incels that claim that they keep losing their rights to do anything anymore. It’s also something you begin to think about—that equality is represented to men, by men, as a loss.”

“There aren’t very many positive role models for men out there.”

“A thing I’ve noticed recently about the ties to masculinity and homosexuality is the discriminatory behaviours you see on dating apps. You would think as a gay person, marching for your rights in Pride and all, that you would be inclusive in your own community. Have you ever heard of the dating preference ‘no femme, no fat, not Asian’? This sentence is commonly seen on gay dating apps such as Grindr. It’s absolutely awful, the racism and homophobic behaviours that grow within the gay community. You’re not allowed to be seen as too feminine, you have to still be this conceptual ‘real man’, and then they completely devalue the Asian community as a whole. This attitude surprises me, that a community that had to fight for where it is today (and still have to fight for equal rights) still subscribe to such shameful prejudices. ‘I’m not one to those gays — that have to carry a purse.’ I think this discriminatory attitude in dating is a real shame. One can have a type they prefer, that’s only natural. But to discriminate other in this way, that is just awful.”

“I’ve also seen a trend of seeking specifically transgendered people on these apps, as if it’s become a new fetish. It’s again problematic, because it is as if people in the trans community become sexualised for being transgender. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to be trans, when in Finland even the law works against you, and out in the dating world you are only seen for your trans qualities. I believe that shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race have done a lot of wonders for the queer community, in terms of giving marginalised people more visibility in the mainstream, but at the same time, I feel as if the mainstream audiences are still confused about what being queer actually means, as they still are not capable of seeing past the outdated binary thinking of male vs female, woman vs man. In one way, I can be understanding of their ignorance, as I don’t think people really understand to think deeper about these things because it’s never something that has impacted them directly. If I was a straight man, I would never have had to think of my manliness in relation to my homosexuality, or in relation to my transition, because my sense of reality would be much more black and white.”

“As soon as you don’t follow the mainstream norm, things become immediately a lot more complicated. In a sense, it’s not always a bad thing, because it challenges you to face yourself in a way you necessarily wouldn’t have done if you would have fitted the mainstream mould. You get to thinking what it is that makes you you, and what it is that makes you happy. And that’s how it has been with me, coming to terms with the fact that I am a gay man, and beginning to think about myself in new and unfamiliar environments, such as the gym, to then find that going to gym actually is something that actually works for me. I can watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and squat with 20 kgs on my shoulders, because — why not?”

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