The Importance of Men's Health Month
Put down that fried egg and bacon sandwich. It’s National Men’s Health Month!
Apparently, June is dedicated to celebrating men’s health and I was today years old when I found out. So I’m asking myself, why is it that I’ve never heard of National Men’s Health Month before?
I did some internetting and found out this has been a thing since 1992 – and though I’ve only been a man for 11 years, post-hormone transition, I think it’s still worth unpacking why I just became aware of this effort to put a much-needed focus on men’s health.
Addressing Intersectionality & Health Care Barriers
I’m sure many folks out there are thinking, “Really? Men are at the top of the food chain and are the most privileged members of society. Why do they need a month dedicated to their health care when they benefit the most from the health care system!?” You’re right. I would also, though, like to call attention to the fact that men are an intersectional group of human beings. And not all of them benefit from the societal privilege given to cisgender white men in the middle and upper classes.
As a man whose identity is intersectional, I hold space for men who rarely have the privilege of putting their health first because of challenges they face in a society that actively and systemically oppresses them. Let’s name them: I’m talking about racialized men, Indigenous men and transgender men.
As a transgender man, I have faced many barriers in the health care system for my very specific needs. It can feel unsafe, and I can feel alienated by the health care system. I have made health care decisions based on these feelings and, honestly, it can lead to a basic lack of respect for my own body. What I mean is, I will at times avoid a health care need I have, based on the very real possibility of being met with hostility and discrimination.
Our physical and mental health are places of immense vulnerability. So, if you ask for help and are met with not only lack of medical knowledge by health care professionals for your intersectional needs but, also, a lack of desire to help you based on your identity, it can feel immensely hopeless, humiliating and dehumanizing.
This is necessary, but the conversations about men’s health need to change.
When I first came out as a trans man, I was “fired” from my doctor’s office. My GP of five years looked me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t know what to do with you. I think you’d be better off somewhere else.” Her office was in an upscale neighbourhood and most of the other patients I saw there were cisgender white women. It quickly became obvious to me that I was being othered and, for her, queering the space too much. Simply, I was making her and her staff deeply uncomfortable with my presence. My doctor demonstrated no desire to: a) educate herself and grow in her practice by taking on the challenge of accepting a transgender patient, b) research my specific health needs and meet them, and c) admonish her staff, who refused to call me by my chosen name because I had not yet “legally” changed it.
This created an immense barrier for me in trying to access health care. For over two years, my GP sent me into the wilds of a health care system that refused to see me as a human being, worthy of my equal right to equal health care. I finally found the Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto, an incredible health care facility that focuses on the health care needs of underserved communities including homeless and under-housed people, the LGBTQ2S+ community and newcomers to Canada – but I only accessed this privilege after a two-year wait, itself due to lack of other resources for trans health care. Further: These health centers are far and few in between and if you don’t live in a city, you might not be able to access any.
My health care changed radically when I found a GP at the center, but the reality was that even as a health center with a focus on trans health, I was still met with barriers because of the lack of research about trans bodies within the health care system as a whole. As well-meaning as my doctor was, I was often faced with “I don’t know” responses when it came to very specific trans health care needs.
Making Space & Addressing Specific Needs
So, as I move through Men’s Health Month, I want to create an awareness here that as well-meaning and necessary as this initiative is, the conversation around the specific needs for racialized, Indigenous or marginalized men is often omitted – and it should be an urgent issue, because these folks have a disproportionately higher rate of unmet health care needs than their cis white male counterparts.
How can marginalized men begin to attend to their physical and mental health when the system they so desperately need does not give them equal access and is even a space of trauma for them? Here, we need conversation about accountability – from a system that creates barriers to those wanting to help themselves. And we need to talk about those kept on the margins of a system that actively discriminates against them.
For instance, how can we justify having a focus on self-care when many Indigenous men, living in the most water-rich nation in the world, have been systemically denied access to their most basic need of clean water for generations? The mental health impact on Indigenous men from generational traumas has contributed to mental and physical health issues in their communities. It is unrealistic and oppressive to ask them to commit to self-care when they are given little to no access to the most basic resources.
When I hear about Men’s Health Month, I think, yes, this is necessary, but the conversations about men’s health need to change. They must become inclusive and transparent about long term systemic discrimination – and who it affects.
Mental Health, Toxic Masculinity & Pervasive Effects
One of the most unspoken issues around men’s health, that ties into why these oppressive systems exist, is the stigma that surrounds discussion of mental health – and this contributes to toxic masculinity. White cis male toxic masculinity is a virus that infects everything around it, including systems of power. To me, this is one of the central issues of systemic inequality, specifically as it pertains to health care resources accessible to marginalized men.
Here is something that we need to come to terms with. Caring for our mental health and unpacking our trauma are the first steps that we, as men, need to take care of in order to create systemic change. There is a trickle-down effect that happens when our mental wellness is intact that will spread to the community around us. Mental health is a very real issue that no one likes to talk about, but the reality is this: if cis white men were not systemically enabled to pay no mind to their emotional needs, the result would be self-awareness of how their multi-generational oppression affects the rest of society. And if they attained that awareness and mental wellness, the result would be systemic change.
Let me put this another way: if white dudes stopped being enabled to be emotionally stunted, oppressive, unaware douchebags, the rest of society would be in a much better place.
It’s that simple. The reality is that you cannot ask marginalized men to take responsibility for their physical and mental health in a system laden with inequality, lack of access – and, in effect, structural violence.
Men's Health is Important To All Of Us
So: while I agree that an initiative to help men become aware of their health needs is necessary and relevant, it seems clear that the focus needs to include the reality that cis white men need to use their privilege to actively help marginalized men get access to health care. They need to become allies. Men’s Health Month could be a month during which men with privilege use it to create systemic change, so that all boys and men can get equal access to meet their needs.
When a man takes care of his mental health, he not only takes care of his own emotional and physical needs – he also creates a conduit of care for an entire community of men. If a man heals the trauma of a toxic, oppressive and dominant culture – if he takes accountability and creates safe inclusive spaces for those who deserve equal access, he also addresses racism, ableism, body shaming, homophobia, transphobia – and so on.
When we, as men, become aware of our privilege and the ways in which we need to heal, we are not only healing ourselves – we are also healing society.