This masculinity retreat will make you rethink your identity—no matter who you are

This masculinity retreat will make you rethink your identity—no matter who you are
Image: Illustration Bárbara Abbês / Photos Library of Congress, Adobe and Etty Fidele
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“It’s just past 11pm and I’m sitting in a living room, looking around at a sea of men who I’ve never met before. And I’m so glad that I am.” These are the last words I wrote in my journal as day one ends.

There are a group of men in a circle sitting on mismatched chairs. We’ve all come here for a men’s retreat, Junto, a movement founded and led by entrepreneur Andrew Horn. I have immersed myself with 17 other men in New York’s Catskill Mountains to spend three days in a beautifully kitsch home to embrace my past, present, and future.

We all came here to find clarity on who we are. Throughout the weekend, Andrew would ask, “What stories are we telling ourselves?” That was the work we were there to do—to uncover those stories that we’ve held for so long that they have turned into hindrances, freezing ourselves in time. We will sit in groups, write alone, pair off together, and think intentionally about living authentic lives—a passage into redefining ourselves as men.

The wilderness of the mind.
The wilderness of the mind.
Image: Courtesy Marcus Brock

In order for men’s work to exist, women’s work had to come first—they were the bridge. In 1988, nearing the end of second-wave feminism, singer and songwriter Kate Bush wrote, “This Woman’s Work,” well before Maxwell covered it. In 2017, The Crunkistas of the Crunk Feminist Collective penned the letter, “Dear Patriarchy,” a break-up letter, if you will.

It’s time, no?

The words “masculine” or “manhood” have little bearing on how I see myself, but much bearing on how I present myself in the world. I wondered, where are we—culturally, systemically, and inter-personally—in the international conversation around masculinity? Quiet as its kept, true men’s work is an accomplice with feminism. Many men, and surely the men of Junto, have realized that their relationships, professions, and parental roles are not served within the traditions of patriarchy.

Andrew, who was raised in Hawaii, was compelled to start a conversation about modern masculinity in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which was founded by Tarana Burke. “I just wanted to provide a bridge for men that wanted to take action, build an equitable world, and inspire different options for men to help,” he says. By focusing on emotional mastery, modern masculinity, and radical authenticity, we embarked on what Andrew calls, “men’s work as service” to ourselves so that we can better serve our communities, families, each other.

Two nights before I met Andrew, he reminded me to keep an open mind before I embarked on this journey. I could hear in his voice that he took much pride in this trip, the invitation, and what was to come. I also knew I could only experience the weekend, if I too, was all in. And so, I was.

Before meeting up with the rest of the retreat attendees in the West Village, I had an inclination that I’d be the only black man at this retreat, the sixth workshop for Junto thus far. I also wondered if I would be the only self-identified gay man. And I was—on both counts (though I was not the only man of color there). I’ve navigated varied spaces where I am, or others are, hyper-aware of my body. There, my spidey sense tends to go off, because double consciousness. At my inner and outer core, I strive to understand humanity and collective power. But viscerally, I am strangely un-estranged from entering spaces that do not represent me or my totality, where it is easy to feel “out of place” or, even worse, unseen. There have always been places in which queer women and men of color could celebrate our heritage, such as Brooklyn Boihood, Papi Juice, or Native Son Now, where we are “gay, black, and unbothered,” as The Tenth magazine proudly proclaims. But, this was not that. I patiently listened and settled in, but more than one gentleman at the retreat pulled me aside, genuinely concerned to make sure I felt comfortable, as if they’d heard my inner monologue. The authenticity of Andrew and the men of Junto to “hold space” for each other dissipated my spidey sense that first afternoon as we supported each other’s inner monologues and found commonalities in one another.

We paired off for honest and intimate conversations. My first, with attendee Jake Chai, helped me relax as he opened up fully to me. After spending the day getting to know ourselves, I was exhausted, nervous about tomorrow, but excited for what was to come.

Candles lit after a particularly deep conversation during Junto.
Candles lit after a particularly deep conversation during Junto.
Image: Courtesy Andrew Horn

The next morning, after a deep morning meditation, we gathered in the living area to speak about our fathers and their impacts on our relationship to manhood. We all had stories about the impact of our fathers on our own male identity, some through loss. But when we were asked: “Whose father was not in their childhood?” I was the only one who raised his hand. With my head whirling, my voice slightly trembling, and my hands shaking, I stood in front of these men, the last among them to tell the story of my father: that I don’t have one.

I reminded them that my father, and more broadly, some black men in America, are in direct combat with our fathers and great-forefathers. They carry the inter-generational trauma of being sold on auction blocks in front of their families or their lives behind bars. Black men, like those in the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, exclaimed “I AM a Man.” The mere idea that working class men must declare their humanity is no different than how black lives declare it today. I have fought long, and hard, to not define my life by that pathology. How do I reconcile an absentee father as a son in a land that deemed us 3/5 human in written, expressed law?

Thus, I learned to be an aesthete of a red toolbox from my grandmother. My mother taught me how to practice cleanliness and endurance. My Aunt Sheena bought my first tie for “Dress-Up Day” in the fifth grade. My neighbor, April, taught me to tie it into a Half-Windsor knot. Today, anytime I get my Dapper Dan on, I return to those precious memories. That tie still sits proudly in my closet. The memories I have of my father are blurry, fragmented, and mere fantasy—because he did not sustain them. I can’t touch those memories.

I can touch the absence though. Federico Chiesa, one of the men at the Junto retreat, took the opportunity to reach out to his father back in Italy. He received a vulnerable email in return, beginning a new chapter in their relationship. We all smiled and sat around as he read us the thoughtful and heartfelt message. The mood was heavy, and though I could not do as Federico had done, I still felt light as we all championed one another’s bravery. We then left for a hike into the woods.

There were many opportunities to express gratitude or express longing for estranged relationships—I emailed a friend I hadn’t spoken to in four years. A few us of reached out to estranged parents, friends, and former lovers. Max Hersh, another attendee, had 18 months prior made the labored decision to leave his community in Orthodox Judaism to forge his own path. After attending Junto, he said he felt more rooted in himself.

Andrew encouraged us to stay in our feelings all weekend, existing with an emotion instead of discarding it. It’s hard work, but we accomplished something, individually and collectively. It was not mere fraternity or brotherhood. In Audre Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, she uses Zami, “a Carricou name for women who work together as friends and lovers.” What is the word for men, living, loving, and working together as friends? For Andrew, it’s Junto.

Junto is pushing up against old norms. This is messy work, but it’s necessary to feel free and vulnerable instead of dangerous and alone. In my estimation, freedom and vulnerability are not taught to men outright, though it is something that we most certainly require. As this human work continues, we must recognize the intersections of men that vary by class, gender performance, ethnicity, queer identities, sexual freedom, and cultural differences that will continually push the conversation as long as those men are in the room and also have a seat, and an ear, at the table.

And Junto is doing it well, with genuine thought and feeling, creating a model that others can follow. After returning from the retreat, I found an article that Andrew wrote, “P.S. –  I’m aware that the guys in these photos are a bunch of white guys. The future of modern masculinity does not look like these photos. We will be intentional about how to incorporate diverse voices, perspectives and world views into everything we do moving forward.” With Junto, it’s clear that Andrew and others are moving that way. During a group conversation about love and relationships, Andrew stopped, and turned to me, “These conversations have been a bit heteronormative. Is there anything you would like to add, Marcus?” He was interested in doing “the work.” Junto is building an accessible curriculum online to share this work so that other communities can also use the framework in their own way.

The weekend closed with a rite of passage ceremony, one that reminded me of the tradition of passages and their significance as a conduit for change, defining ourselves, and unity. Andrew notes the rite of passage is a “ceremonial experience that connects men to purpose and service because it has the power to shift the way men think about themselves and who they can be.”

The effects of the retreat lingered. I mulled over how attendee Thomas Martin joined me by my side to help me finish a run after he was already done, holding me high with his words and presence. I mulled over the laughter. I mulled over the bonding. I mulled over the meals we shared and the bread we broke for days after I returned to the city. At our last dinner gathering, a gentleman on my left told an inspiring story about the dedication to his family and himself, “I knew I could be better by yards and not by inches,” he said.

I felt that deeply. As we moved each other over and over again with powerful stories of redemption and becoming, I realized this type of men’s work is responding to rigid customs on gender, our personal values as humans, and the desire to be infinitely more than what society systemically tries to repress—the magic of our individuality. This is what our aspirations to be better men must run contrary to, to be revolutionary.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.