by Fabliha Anbar
For centuries, masculinity has always been synonymous with being powerful and determined. Men have been expected to aspire to fulfill masculinity by being “macho” and robust.
However, over time, the expression “toxic masculinity” has been taking the internet by storm as people are now analyzing masculinity and its relationship to violence and hierarchy.
But is it possible to be both masculine and soft? What does it even mean to be masculine outside of societal structures?
Meet Anjan Alavandar, the founder of MASQ, a discussion-based series that aims to evolve relationships with masculinity! Anjan Alavandar was raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. They’re a community organizer currently based in Brooklyn, doing a lot of work to mobilize masculine communities to partake in conversations and develop strategies to dismantle local patriarchies. Anjan currently sits on the central council of All Kings, an organization that’s working to establish unique healing-based re-entry programs for recently incarcerated men in Harlem and Brooklyn.
MASQ is a re-learning space that intends to destroy the toxic and harmful elements that exist within the identity today through discussions in a safe space.
Fabliha from Sorjo chatted with Anjan to learn more about the powerful collective, MASQ!
1. What is MASQ and what was the initial spark and experiences that led up to the creation of the collective?
Masq is a healing initiative that centers on masculinity. We approach healing through a medium of conversation. Across New York City and North Carolina, we host intimate conversations around different topics related to masculinity.
Masq utilizes the knowledge gained from our shared experiences to collectively investigate Masculinity. We strive to remove the toxic elements that exist within the identity today and embrace its existence beyond the cis-expression.
Masq came out of a commitment I made at the start of 2019. It was a commitment to engage with more men in the same types of dialogue surrounding gender that I was having with my femme and non-binary friends.
This might seem like a simple thing to do, especially when you consider that a lot of these men are some of my closest friends, but whenever faced with the task I would often find myself tense with fear. Initially, I would honor this commitment by asking my masc friends questions like “What is your opinion of the term toxic masculinity”, a dialogue would usually begin from that, but the conversation would end as soon as one of us had the option to change the subject or deflect to humor.
The brevity of these conversations was starting to frustrate me. Eventually, I made plans one day to get dinner with two close masc-friends, and prefaced it by saying ‘We’re going to talk about masculinity’. In that conversation, we would still drift at times, away from the subject matter, but one of us would always bring it back. In that conversation, we still felt a lot of fear, but instead of hiding it, we chose to express that fear to each other. From this conversation so much was learned, in our own experiences, but also in our shared experience as socialized men. This conversation led me to create more intentional spaces for these conversations, and to, what is now, Masq.
2. Tell us about MASQ! What types of topics have been discussed in the past? How is the series facilitated?
Masq manifests as cycles. Each cycle is made up of 5-6 pieces of programming and coordinates with the season. The majority of our programming is made up of open-discussions, each around a new topic related to masculinity, and each facilitated by a different individual. We also are incorporating a bi-monthly radio-show and a few panel discussions.
Just to name a few topics from our most recent cycle: Men Re-Learning Love, TransMasculinty, Masc-Allyship.
3. People might automatically assume that MASQ is a space only for cis men. However, the discussions are open to everyone such as non-binary folks, femme/women and more. Why did you think it was important to have the discussions open to all genders?
Previously masculinity has mainly been understood in its cis-expression. Upon first moving to New York I attended a few men’s support groups, seeking a deeper understanding of this identity. A lot of these groups, although important in their own ways, didn’t resonate with me because of this underlying cis-narrative.
[Read Related: Support and Validating My Masculinity]
Through the lens of Masq, masculine energy (along with feminine and agender energy) exists in all people. If we are to understand and unpack masculinity as a whole we must take into account it’s many embodiments. More specifically, if we are to understand what healthy masculinity is we can not solely rely on the perspectives of those who have historically poisoned its expression.
4. Masculinity has numerous connotations tied to it. Such as the patriarchy, toxicity, violence to even power and leadership. Something I find admirable about MASQ is the reoccurring phrase that is used, “a gentle re-understanding of masculinity”. What does this mean?
It’s funny you ask that. I came up with that copy on the first poster for Masq, when it was literally just me texting it to 6 or 7 friends, and it has just happened to stick.
I’m still understanding what it means to me. I remember intentionally choosing re-understanding over re-defining, because, I believe, part of the problem lies in constructing definitions. Masculinity exists on a spectrum, and as a result, there is no way one could truly define it.
As far as the verbiage surrounding “gentle” I think that came out from a result of my previous experience in men support groups, where men were still utilizing the same tough guy narrative to communicate. I get why that narrative works, but I wanted to take a different, more gentle approach, one that gives us more options.
5. MASQ hopes to destroy harmful elements that exist within masculinity. But the collective also stands for embracing and celebrating masculinity as well. How do you navigate this?
This is a pretty insightful question. With Masq, it almost feels taboo to say, but we do want to create a space where people can celebrate masculinity, and embrace the aspects of it that we love, but in order to do that we must first identify the aspects of masculinity that are harmful and begin our work to unlearn them from our own expressions.
There’s a time and space to celebrate masculinity, and there’s a time where we need to accept its history and grieve for the harm it’s caused. These realities seem to exist at opposite ends and embracing both in the same space can be complex, but part of what Masq is, which is learning to lean into that complexity. There are ways we can celebrate masculinity while holding it accountable. It requires striking a very particular balance of acknowledgments– finding that balance is the work we’re trying to do.
6. What were people’s reactions like when MASQ was first created? Especially because men are instilled not to discuss their feelings as it is seen as weakness, did you find hesitation from men to talk about their feelings surrounding gender?
Yes. I still have trouble talking about this project in front of a lot of men because of their reactions, particularly the men I grew up around. Some men respond to this work with a sense of disbelief, a non-reaction that implies ”yeah I don’t think it goes that deep man”. Sometimes I feel like, by speaking about my feelings and encouraging other men to do the same, I am betraying other men, and crossing some archaic lines in an unspoken brotherhood. Some men have responded to this work thinking its a sort of feminist punishment that is overly critical. Some men see the value of this work for other men, but not for themselves. Some men are afraid to do this work because it’s exactly what we’ve been taught to fear.
7. What were some difficulties and hardships you’ve come across when organizing these discussions? Did you have internal struggles as well?
Something I’ve learned is that everyone is learning at different levels. Growth looks different for each person and happens at different stages of life, a challenge I have run into with that is navigating how to encourage all forms of growth.
[Read Related: We Need QTPOC Therapists]
People come from different walks of life. Some people who come to Masq studied gender at a liberal arts college for 4 years, some learned what non-binary meant last week, and as a facilitator, I’m happy that both of these people showed up, but as result of their differences, and despite both of their open-ness, tension can arise at times.
8. What is the most memorable moment in a discussion MASQ hosted where you find yourself gleaming when thinking about it?
My favorite moment in Masq was probably in our first volume of Men Re-learning Love. MRL is a recurring subseries within Masq that specifically centers men developing strategies to foster emotional awareness.
On the day of our first gathering, a lot of obstacles arose. Firstly the weather got rough, there was some pretty heavy snowfall and it was somewhere around 25 degrees outside. Then, in classic NY fashion, basically, all the trains to my house were either shut down or having some serious issues. I remember talking with Evan, being worried that people wouldn’t show up. I sent an email saying we were still on, and it just so happened that literally each of the 25 people who RSVP’d showed up.
This was a big moment, because even greater then the physical obstacles were the emotional ones. Men Re-learning Love is a masc-focused circle, and in trying to get a bunch of masc-folk in a room to talk about their emotions I was already concerned people were going to change their minds on their own, but no one did.
The conversation we shared on that snowy day, was probably my favorite conversation to date.
9. What is in store for MASQ’s future?
Thank you for asking!!! We have A LOT in store for the future. No matter where this project goes, the conversation is always going to be the main part of it.
We have 3 more cycles left for 2020, and in them around 17 open-discussions. We’re also going to be unrolling a bi-monthly radio show in the Spring with 8ball Radio. We have a few panel discussions coming up and a few workshops in the works as well.
Follow MASQ on Instagram and if you want to get involved, email them at email@example.com