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Commentary from Appalachian essayist Skylar Baker-Jordan.

They were Adonises. These gods of the gridiron in their letterman jackets and distressed denim. Seeing them come down the hallway, muscles bulging against a tight blue sweater and flashing a million-watt smile, was like watching John Wayne or a young Ronald Reagan show up. Virile. Chiseled. Strong.

The folk heroes. These modern-day Davey Crocketts would pull up in their gas-guzzling pickups spewing noxious black plumes from phallic tailpipes. With a lip full of Skoal and a chip on their shoulders, they prowled the halls like they would the unyielding forest surrounding our town, on the hunt for their prey. 

"There is no one way to be a man – nor is there one way to be an Appalachian man. Our region contains multitudes, and perhaps in no way is that truer than in the type of men you will find here. "

Then, there were the righteous. These were pious men of God who would make even Carlo Acutis, the beatified Italian teenager, feel the need to confess. Adults loved them. Peers respected them. God blessed them, and – perfectly pressed and immaculately dressed – they made sure we knew they were the elect.

When I was first asked to write an introductory essay for a project about masculinity in Appalachia, I accepted with the understanding that these were the three masculine archetypes that made up my turn-of-the-century Eastern Kentucky high school – and I fit none of them. I was openly gay. I was slightly chubby. I was politically left and religiously agnostic. 

I did not play football for the same reason I did not hunt or particularly enjoy reading the Bible; it’s too violent. I did not pursue girls, though I knew plenty; my friendship circle was exclusively female, and my days were spent in the company of young women. 

I did not spend my days dreaming of glory under the Friday night lights or of Saturday dawns spent in a deer blind. My daydreams were instead about one thing and one thing only: escaping what sociologist Paul Kivel calls the ”act-like-a-man box” but what pop culture would come to call “toxic masculinity” – and with it, Appalachia. To this day, I still get mistaken for a woman because I wear my hair long and enjoy a good pink outfit. What could I possibly have to say about being a boy in Appalachia when I am clearly so bad at it? 

A lot, it turns out. As this project shows, there is no one way to be a man – nor is there one way to be an Appalachian man. Our region contains multitudes, and perhaps in no way is that truer than in the type of men you will find here. There are those I mentioned above – the quarterbacks and the hunters and the Christians – but they are not the only men who call these hills and hollows home. There’s Evan, the young social media star creating comedy trap music. There’s Leo, a transgender boy trying to find his place in a hostile society. There’s Damion, a 12-year-old child who has seen more trauma in his young life than most of us could shoulder. 

As you will see as you meet them and others, these boys have inner lives full of so much more complexity and tumult than we often realize. Resilient and different though they may be, these boys are each trying to make sense of this world and their place in it. They are attempting to reconcile their own beliefs with the society around them, often feeling misunderstood and even maligned in the process.

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Take Travis, a young Evangelical living in West Virginia. “A lot of people get the idea that if I’m a Christian, I’m trying to force my religion on you, which that’s not the case,” he says. “If I do tell you about Jesus, it’s 100 percent because I love you and I care about you.” Growing up in the church, Travis has been told his entire life that the correct social order is preordained and that proselytizing is an act of compassion. Now, in a world rapidly changing and becoming more and more secular – even in Appalachia – he is struggling to make sense of doing exactly what he has been taught to do in a place that does not always react with kindness towards those attempts. The world he was readied for is not necessarily the world he will inhabit, and that cognitive dissonance can be painful and lead our boys to feel misunderstood and even maligned for doing the things we tell them are right.

This is not unlike Kivel’s “act-like-a-man” box, which illustrates the pressures young men face in a society that tells them they must be powerful, dominant and in control. Men in America are told from an early age that they must be providers, that the breadwinning responsibility falls on their shoulders. We expect our boys to “take charge” and “have no emotions” – boys don’t cry and all that – but instead we end up having an entire society of men who are faking it until they make it. 

Take sex. We speak a lot of consent – rightly so, mind you – and of equitable relationships between two partners. This is an important task of not only feminists but any fair-minded individual. Yet at the same time, our boys are still receiving messaging from pop culture that they are meant to be the heroes, the protectors, the providers. We teach them to bury their emotions, to be stoic and strong. 

We live in an era of increased pressures from social media but decreased economic opportunities and no clear pathway forward in life. How can our boys be expected to keep trying to save the princess, who always seems to be in another castle, when he can’t even save himself? It’s no wonder our boys are in crisis or that our region has some of the highest suicide rates in the country. 

The answer seems clear to me: We – men and women, boys and girls, nonbinary too – have to save one another. That starts with having an honest conversation about what the men and boys of our region are going through, the struggles, the confusion, the uncertainty and the raw angst of inheriting the keys to the kingdom only to find out that someone has changed the locks. 

None of this means ignoring misogyny and sexism or refusing to dismantle patriarchy. Just the opposite, in fact. It means understanding that while we dismantle patriarchy, we need a new settlement for our boys and not just our girls. They’ve been hurt by this system too, even if their wounds are not so obvious. You taught them not to show those wounds, after all.

Being a boy is hard. So is being a man. We don’t talk enough about how the expectations we place on our boys, the mixed messages about how men in the 21st century are meant to behave, and the resulting internal confusion is leading to an epidemic of confusion, loneliness and isolation in our sons and brothers. This project is a start to that long-overdue conversation. 

Skylar Baker-Jordan

Contributing Editor for Community Engagement

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