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The Man in the Mirror

Cesar Bayona

I was 10 years old when my parents broke up. There had been so many times when my brother and I would be terrified whenever our parents fought, when our father knocked Mom down to the floor and she ended up crying. Our parents were no good together and in time, I came to enjoy this new life without my father in our lives. Although he loved us, his temper terrorized us, hanging over our heads.

Naturally, my mom started dating but it was something I never quite got used to. My mother is an actress and she was now free to immerse herself in her chosen world and discover herself in exciting new ways. Some of the boyfriends were very nice. There was one Indian guy whom I liked, mostly because he knew how to cook spicy food like I'd never tasted before. When my mother began to date one of my father's friends, however, things took a definite turn for the worse. Although he was a friend of the family, things became very intense at home when he was around. Whenever he was annoyed or disappointed, he would get quiet and give a stare that could cut right through you. I never knew what to expect. He seemed menacing but he never hit me.

I could not say the same for my brother. He was one year younger than me and this man's violent rampages would explode out of nowhere. My poor brother would be screaming and I would be standing there, stunned and frozen, crying out No! I wanted to defend my little brother but felt completely helpless. I've gone back to those moments so many times, wondering what I should have done differently. It got worse when this man turned his rage against my mother. He would shove her hard enough to knock her to the ground ... just like my father. She would endure it quietly while I froze, not knowing how to respond. Once when I was 12, he did this to her in public after a performance. I saw my mom fall to the floor on the street in front of her colleagues. There was shame in her face but it seemed like there was nothing she could do to stop this.

Again, I wanted to defend her but I was a scared little boy, nowhere near being a guardian against the men in my mother's life. I had no way of knowing how to fix this mess. I was clueless and helpless - I had nothing. I could not understand why my mother put up with this treatment, with the recklessness and terror her boyfriend brought to our lives. I began to carry a serious grudge against myself - and also her. The guilt I felt over not being able to defend her or my brother from physical abuse became a dark cloud that hovered over my life when I became a man.

Although I was in and out of relationships with women, I could never let myself feel safe and secure in them. I was always prepared for some disappointment, some shock, betrayal, or violence. I built a wall out of shame that was designed to keep people at a distance. It was a stifling way to live but I had no choice. I became one of "those men" myself in time. Fitting into the typical macho role felt like the logical way to behave even though I hated it.

Fitting into the straight man stereotype meant being cold, unfeeling, and invulnerable. Otherwise there would be other men ready to take advantage of my vulnerability. I sometimes envied gay men because it was socially permissible for them to be sensitive, to express themselves openly. It was expected of them to be emotional whereas in the straight world, being a feeling man was looked upon as being weak and impotent. There was too much of a stigma to being labeled this way and I was at a stage in my life where I didn't know how to handle this. I was insecure in my masculine identity and didn't know how to approach other men for help.

One thing I did know: I would not go around womanizing or using women as I saw other men doing. What I didn't realize back then was that this feeling of being overly responsible was also holding me back in my love life. The mix of concern over women's oppression and my own lack of self-esteem became a noose around my neck. I certainly had strong desires for the women I was attracted to. But, I associated any approach and seduction toward them with the cheap come-on lines I'd been hearing since boyhood, as guys strategized about how to conquer their victims and "get over" on the girl they are hitting on. I could not do this. It would not be me. Yet feeling like I had nothing else to offer, I wound up depriving myself of love, frustrated, lonely, and miserable over all the missed opportunities.

Although there were losses, there were also great gains, however. I refused to play the destructive game of oppressing women, and succeeding in breaking the pattern of violence I had grown with. I learned that women are not the only victims of machisimo, either - far from it. Men are victims of sexism, too. We lose out on living in harmony with our sisters in an equal setting. We lose out on being educated about what it means to be a healthy, loving man. I may not have been given these tools as a boy, but I knew instinctively how wrong it was to treat a woman as less than myself. I also have plenty to share with other young men who are struggling with violence in their own households and lack positive, enlightened, male role models. The best thing of all that I can do is to mirror what a healthy relationship with a woman looks like - one that benefits both sexes equally and leaves me my respect as a man. It gives me strength to know this is possible. It also gives me hope for the future.

A native of Brooklyn, Cesar Bayona received his B.S. in Information Systems Management at New York University currently works as a Financial Analyst for a New York based hospital. He is the proud father of a flourishing young woman who embodies his admiration and respect. Cesar is also a musician and political activist who has spent the past two decades working on social issues intended to "genuinely change the world for the better."