When Leroy Mitchell played football for Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, he could bench press 450 pounds. People admired his athleticism on the field. But as an Afro-Latinx man, police often treated him like a threat. With romantic partners, he felt like he had to perform a kind of sexual prowess.
In many ways, his body had defined him. But it wasn’t until he was sitting on a Zoom meeting with transgender men that Mitchell, who is cisgender, truly considered his relationship with his body.
“Because I was hetero, because I had played football, because I was all these things that socially are what a man should be, I think they thought that I had figured it out,” Mitchell said. “Cis men may act like we know, but underneath it, there was just so much healing that I need to do and so much hurt that I had been holding.”
In the spring of 2020, through his work as the masculinity and mental health training manager at the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, Mitchell found the Healing Masculinity Workshop series. Mitchell started asking himself what he actually wanted physically and sexually — the workshop gave him the space to examine how traditional masculinity had robbed him of those choices.
The workshop centers on discussions around the “Mindful Masculinity Workbook” a primer on unpacking masculinity edited by veteran transgender media-maker Rocco Kayiatos.
For a generation of transgender guys, Kayiatos had been one of few positive role models. Even as transgender issues have become presidential talking points in 2020, transgender men are still largely invisible. Kayiatos and his friend Amos Mac published “Original Plumbing,” a quarterly magazine dedicated to transmasculine culture and lifestyle, for a decade.
But as Kayiatos helped so many trans men learn to love themselves, he had also internalized a shame over his own masculinity. Kayiatos was entrenched in feminist politics and theory. He was reading everything he could about gender.
“I had identified staunchly as a man-hater, proclaiming my man-hating as a way to sort of ingratiate myself and make myself both feel and appear to be a ‘safe man,’ because I’m acknowledging upfront that men are the problem broadly,” he said.
“I hate men,” he’d casually say to friends (disclosure: I was and am one of those friends).
It wasn’t until 2018 that he realized that language was harmful to people like himself, transgender men who had to fight to be who they are. That year, he started hosting Camp Lost Boys, a two-day retreat for trans men, one of the only spaces that exist for trans men to gather together.
“I felt and experienced real brotherhood for the first time,” he said. “I saw all of these beautiful tender men being open and vulnerable and connected with each other in this way that I had never seen or experienced, and I thought, critically, afterward, ‘Do I not see these men as men?’ And I thought, ‘Of course, I see these men as men.’”
While the #MeToo movement left so many men re-evaluating their roles at work, at home and in their communities, transgender and nonbinary people were largely left out of the national conversation. By 2018, the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual assault, had used up the the nation’s patience for what many were labeling “toxic masculinity.”
But for the first time, Kayiatos wasn’t ready to cancel men. He had been taught early on that even in LGBTQ+ spaces, he had privilege as a White man, and that he needed to be careful about taking up space. He saw a place for transgender men not just to heal, but to use their privilege to help cis men trying to do the work for the first time.
“I think that I was exhausted by the constant diagnosis or discourse about toxic or problematic masculinity,” said Kayiatos. “I wanted to think about, ‘How have I found tools to become a more intentional person or a more intentional man, and how can I help others gather their own set of tools through the practices that I’ve experienced in my own life?”
The Intentional Man Project was born in 2019. Since launch, the project has hosted conversations with men and masculine people across the country, mostly across Zoom. It has a podcast co-hosted by Kayiatos and transgender actor Brian Michael Smith. In one episode, Kayiatos dives deep into a conversation about gender with out former NFL player Wade Davis, who quotes author bell hooks at length.
The project’s centerpiece, however, is the Mindful Masculinity Workbook, a slim collection of essays and exercises by Kayiatos, Davis, disability rights icon Andrew Gurza and actor Marquise Vilson. It also features Jay Moton, a meditation teacher and co-facilitator for the workshops, who, two decades ago, when he was in his twenties, transitioned in his home country of Germany.
“I would always see myself as a male and see myself completely different with all of the beautiful vulnerable sides that men can have,” Moton said. “And after transitioning, I would act accordingly.”
Moton felt pained seeing other boys and men forced into stereotypical stoicism at a young age.
“I could tell that there’s so many emotions underneath, and a lot of them only knew how to express it through anger and rage and just these extremes,” he said. “I always had a layered emotional life in me.”
In the Healing Masculinity Workshop, trans and cisgender men find common ground about the ways that the expectations of masculinity have limited them. Moton uses meditation to help the group dismantle some of those guards and dig into those emotions, working with the group to repair that hurt. They also challenge each other to break out of those modes and do better for people in their lives.
For Mitchell, that work is not about checking boxes to satisfy someone else. He also doesn’t feel like LGBTQ+ people should have the burden of teaching him. He wants to do that work for himself.
“For me to be in relationship with and connection with that full self, that’s probably Black masculinity reimagined,” he said. “Because when I reimagine what that world may be like that’s a wonderful world for myself. It’s a wonderful world for the people that I love. It’s a wonderful world for my community. And that’s a world where healing is centered.”