Painfully sensitive, I cried often. I was thin, with shoulder-length hair and soft features.
Samuel Leighton-Dore

23 Jul 2018 - 1:56 PM  UPDATED 20 Aug 2021 - 10:47 AM

I was never the right kind of boy. Painfully sensitive, I cried often. I was thin, with shoulder-length hair and soft features. I enjoyed flowing fabrics — dresses and skirts and scarves and satin gloves from the sales bin at Salvos. My idea of a really cool superpower was Julie Andrews being able to play Maria von Trapp AND Mary Poppins.

"Are you a boy or a girl?” I’d be asked by fellow students during primary school, tilting their heads to one side as they tallied my masculine/feminine features and mannerisms.

“You look like a girl,” they’d reason — “but you’re wearing a boy’s uniform...”

The problem was never that I was a boy. The problem was that I didn’t do ‘boy’ properly; that I didn’t like, do or say boy things. It was a lesson delivered swiftly with a point, push and punch.

The isolation and confusion I felt during early primary school was unlike anything I'd experienced at home, where I'd always felt free and supported to express my authentic self. Now I was caught in a vicious cycle: being bullied made me upset, but being upset was seen as a weakness and only lead to more bullying.

"He's crying like a girl," they'd say, pointing.

"What a cry baby."

My struggles with mental health culminated when I was 16 years old and overdosed on anti-depressants; medication I'd been taking for years. I remember feeling like the previous decade had all been leading up to this very moment; that I'd finally been broken down to nothing.

Strangely, I also remember pondering the lyrics to Natalie Imbruglia's 1997 bop 'Torn' - wondering whether this was what she'd imagined when she sang, "I'm cold and I'm ashamed, lying naked on the floor".

What a depressing song, I thought, as my mum cried into the phone and requested an ambulance.

As someone who spent their childhood as a boy being beaten up by boys, now living as a man who loves and sleeps with men, my understanding of masculinity is perhaps a confusing one.

However, I do know that masculinity came very close to killing me, and believe that a more inclusive ‘man brand’ — one inspired by a person’s actions and not society’s expectations — is possible.

Here's what you need to know about mental health
Movies and TV series commonly portray people with mental illness as dangerous, scary and unpredictable, promoting stigma and perpetuating myths.

Looking back on the difficult years I spent at school — something I’ve made a habit of doing with various psychologists — it’s often tempting to conclude that the cruel and sustained bullying I experienced was because of my being gay.

But for all those years before I was sexually active, I think it had more to do with the fact that I didn’t fit society’s idea of how a boy or man should be and act: masculine, rough, stoic and strong.

As an adult, I've found catharsis in reconnecting with boys from my youth. Over the years several men who once bullied me have reached out over social media to apologise. It's heartening because I realise that if only fewer angry boys grew into angry young men, the world would be a whole lot safer (and generally more pleasant) for everyone.

The thing is, masculinity is broken.

If you’re a numbers person, there are plenty of numbers to prove it. According to MindFrame, suicide rates are approximately three times higher in males, statistics which are consistent across every state and territory of Australia. Then there’s the epidemic of violence against women. In 2014 and 2015, on average, close to 8 women were hospitalised each day after being assaulted by their spouse or partner.

Whether or not there's a correlation, Australian men are killing women and themselves at alarming rates; facts that some men are no doubt uncomfortable discussing. We might get defensive — argue that not all of us can be lumped into the categories of SAD or BAD. #NotAllMen, we might tweet, pointing to a pink crocheted pussy hat we bought on Etsy as somehow proving our commitment to complex and intersectional feminism.

But we need to talk about what it means to be a man - because masculinity, the toxic kind, will continue to wreak havoc if not confronted and dismantled.

It's exciting to see that young men are already embracing campaigns like #YouCanTalk, while creating initiatives to help break down the stigma attached to mental health for men - allowing Australian men to loosen their grip on what they feel masculinity should look like.

Started by Sydney-based psychologist and PhD student Zac Seidler, Man Island sees a team of mental health researchers "working together to better understand how men access, engage and improve in treatment". According to their website, Man Island will "develop and trial the first ever male-centred mental health treatment, to offer Australian men an option that they want and find engaging".

Then there's Lost Motos, a group which focuses on men’s mental health within the Sydney motorcycling community, and helps to challenge the stigma surrounding it.

"It is amazing being surrounded by friends who build you up and push you to becoming a better version of yourself; be it with your mental health, a hard decision you are dealing with, or to point out and help you with your f### ups," the website reads.

"That's what Lost Motos is and that’s what its about - a friendship group that’s ready and willing to help and support each other with complete kindness and without question or judgement, because we are all walking on similar paths."

If boys were raised and conditioned to feel comfortable dealing with painful or difficult emotions, the cycle of schoolyard bullying would likely grind to a halt - and with it, the lifelong ramifications. If men could expand their definitions of strength to include traits beyond aggression and stoicism, just imagine the kinds of discussions we'd be overhearing between friends down at the local pub.

It's a subject I've been addressing in my 'How to be a big strong man' illustrations and paintings; hijacking the language commonly associated with masculinity and attempting to steer it into a more inclusive space.

With that, here are the things that make me, a man, strong: My open mindedness. The support of women. My close relationship with my father, to whom I regularly cry and seek guidance. Mum's hugs. My anti-depressants, which I’ve found after years of trial-and-error and with the consultation of wonderful, caring doctors. The knowledge that I’ve survived every single panic attack and depressive episode I’ve ever experienced, however impossibly terrifying they felt at the time.

Samuel Leighton-Dore is a writer and visual artist. You can find more of his #Howtobeabigstrongman series here.

If you or someone you know needs support contact Lifeline 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.