10 min read

Don't Tell Them You're Bigger Than Jesus

Don't Tell Them You're Bigger Than Jesus

On identity, masculinity, and Jason Isbell

I've spent a lot of my life wondering if I am man enough. For what? I don't know. From a very early age, I felt this pressure to embody some sense of masculinity that to this day escapes me. I don't hunt, fish, worship gym life, drink, or love any sport more than life itself. I don't have a group of guy friends that I call my bros, nor have I ever found myself fantasizing about my dream woman reflecting some made-up ideal found in a magazine with a shiny sports car on the cover. I like action movies, but I've never wanted to be an action hero. It's just not who I am, but knowing that and accepting it are two very different things.

Jason Isbell writes about manhood in a way few other musicians can. He's a southern boy raised by hard-working blue-collar people whose vision of masculinity was primarily informed by his surroundings. When he discusses idealized masculinity in his songs, it borrows from timeless ideas of men being emotionless, overworked, frustrated people who are willing to fight or drink at a moment's notice. The kind of men who never complain about working themselves to the bone for their families because they feel that is the primary goal of their life. These men are factory workers, handyman, painters, and outlaws. They are the people that Jason often finds himself getting in trouble by rather than getting in trouble with, and that distinction is what attracts me to his music.

One of the first songs Jason Isbell wrote that addresses this topic is called "Outfit." It's a song written while Jason was still in the band Drive-By Truckers, and it appears on one of their albums. The song details a conversation between father and son to impart a series of rules and guidelines for leading a successful, respectable life. The dad wants his child to be more than he ever was, but you get the sense the son never considered his father to be anything less than a good man worth emulating. It's a series of moments capturing the realities of growing up in the south and the rust belt, the latter of which is where I live. I could share every line here and tell you why they matter, but let's stick to the chorus.

Don't call what you're wearing an outfit
Don't ever say your car is broke
Don't worry about losing your accent
Cause a Southern Man tells better jokes

Have fun but stay clear of the needle
Call home on your sister's birthday
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus
Don't give it away
Don't give it away

The rules outlined in the chorus of "Outfit" are old school by pretty much any measure. They speak to the same outdated ideas of manhood that I have repeatedly tried to adhere to throughout my life. They teach that men should never let people see them suffer, never ask for help, and always be there for their family. Men should also avoid hard drugs, honor the Lord, remain humble, and never under any circumstances relinquish their power. They are strict in a way that feels suffocating, but they also speak to a real mindset that many people still have today. It's the musical equivalent to someone telling you that boys should be boys and girls should be girls and that there is no in-between.

My mother grew up in the south. It was nowhere near as far south as Alabama like Jason Isabell. Still, it was far enough south that every town was a factory town, and every person spoke with that southern drawl that has been turned into some cartoonish trope by decades of films looking for an accent to serve as a punching bag. Her father was a butcher. He was also a drinker for most of his life. He didn't get it together until long after my mother and brother, the two youngest siblings of seven in her family, were born. He lived to see me turn 31, and in all those years, I never saw him cry or complain. I only saw him love his wife, his children, and his freedom. He was a man's man in the truest sense of the word, and I believe, on some level, my mom thought I would embody all his best qualities.

My dad is a different story. He also comes from a large family, but his father was a preacher. His father taught him the value of kindness, patience, and understanding. If he drank, I never saw him do it, and I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He was an old, gentle soul his entire life, and everybody loved him for it.

My dad had to work a lot, which left me with my mom more often than not. I don't remember when it began, but she started to scold me for crossing my legs at some point in my teen years. She didn't think it was very manly to place one knee over the top of the other. "Boys don't sit like that," was a common phrase. I heard similar things at school from the jocks who thought my pants were too tight, my hair too emo, and my mannerisms too gay. The popular girls didn't want anything to do with me because they thought I might be a homosexual trying to use them as a purse. The only group that ever really did accept me openly was the theater nerds, who were also considered too gay, weird, or otherwise different.

My first serious girlfriend started breaking up with me by explaining how she knew if her car broke down on the highway that I would not know how to fix it. "Guys know how to fix things," she told me. "You can't fix anything."

Years later, during an argument that would inevitably kickstart the divorce process, my now ex-wife asked me in all seriousness, "why don't you like more guy stuff? Why can't you be more like a man? You don't hunt or drink. You practice baking and see One Direction in concert."

(I do, and I did. I recommend both.)

For the longest time, I didn't see myself as any different than anyone else. Maybe I had other hobbies than many of the boys I knew, but it never bothered me. Being teased for the things I liked was just part of life. I knew from an early age that not every person you encounter would enjoy the things you enjoy, but that doesn't mean they're any less special or meaningful.

But at some point, that changed. I knew who I was and what I liked, but I began struggling with whether or not the things that made me unique were good. People saw me as "other" more often than I was someone similar to everyone else. In the farming community where I grew up, I was one of maybe three boys in a class of 120 people who could sing both the debut album from Taking Back Sunday and the original cast recording of Rent in full from memory. I had more female friends than male, and I knew more about the arts than any of my classmates. If you were to compare my traits to any sitcom caricature of an effeminate male, it would be a perfect match.

It took me years to realize that I was falling victim to a pattern of thinking informed by messaging that I knew wasn't true. I knew that liking to cook rather than fix cars didn't make me less of a man. Crossing my legs didn't make me gay, and even if I were, that's perfectly normal. It didn't matter that I spent more time at the library and the video store than on the football field. Whether I enjoyed 80s hair metal because the messaging channeled male fantasies or because the emphasis on showmanship was captivating didn't matter. Who I am is good enough. It's my perspective that was wrong.

The dad in "Outfit," much like my mom in my life, means well. Their words don't necessarily come from a place of hate. Far more likely is that their understanding of the world is not up to par with what we now know. When our parents and caretaker see us, they remember how the world treated people viewed as others when they either were one or felt like one. Especially in the part of America stretching from Appalachia to the southern coast Between Florida and Texas, being viewed as other has historically been a cultural death sentence. There is a sense in these places that they must preserve a particular way of life, and they feel the only way to ensure its survival is through the fervent opposition to anything different. Even now, when much of the country and world finds itself struggling with generational trauma created by racism and economic divides, many places in this region have the same views that our grandparents raised our parents' generation to believe over half a century ago.

Proof of those good intentions lies in the second verse of "Outfit":

Five years in a St. Florian foundry
They call Industrial Park
I worked hospital maintenance and took classes at Tech School
Just to memorize Frigidaire parts

But I got to missing your mama
And I got to missing you too
So I went back to painting for my old man
And I guess that's what I'll always do

So don't let 'em take who you are boy
And don't try to be who you ain't
And don't let me catch you in Kendale
With a bucket of wealthy man's paint

I remember trips to visit my extended family in the south. My cousins and their friends would refer to me as queer. That was before the day my grandmother told them how I made her watch Spice World, the fictional movie by and about the Spice Girls, six times in a single day on VHS. They probably still laugh about it to this day, but my parents never found it that funny.

Another time, while I was visiting my mom's parents in the south, I took a night off from family to see the touring production of The Full Monty by myself at an old theater in Ashland, Kentucky. I got a last-minute ticket on the cheap and sat third row from the stage alongside recently retired school teachers who kept calling me a "charming and brave young man." I didn't understand what was so brave about seeing a wildly successful musical about blue-collar men who begin a successful business as male dancers. I learned why they felt that way while recounting the show to my family later that night. The look of confusion and disbelief still haunts me. "So, you paid to watch grown men strip and sing with a bunch of old ladies?"

(I did, and I would do it again. You should too.)

Coming from nothing is hard enough. Coming from nothing and being viewed as nothing is another challenge altogether. I don't think my mom or her family has anything against the LGBT community or effeminate men. I do think they remember a time when anyone that wasn't a good ol' boy suffered. She knows a cold world and wants to make sure her son — her only child — never feels its icy touch. Like all parents, she wants to protect me, even when she knows she cannot.

I wish I had similar success processing how other people have made me feel like I don't fit in. What I tell myself, and what I hope to be accurate, is that they come from families that are not that different than mine. We must remember that the speed of personal evolution and understanding varies widely between people. Many come to see the world as I believe young people do now, which is that the things which make us unique are the most beautiful. Others will never get there. They will carry a prejudice or a warped worldview with them until the day they die. Many more exist in the in-between. They are growing and learning every day. With time and exposure, they too will come around to some degree.

I try to make that sound as optimistic as possible because until we reach a point and human evolution where everyone accepts each other, countless billions will suffer because they feel that being different is bad. People will continue to grow up thinking they must act a certain way or enjoy certain things to belong. The ripple effect of that pain will be widespread, and it will burrow deep into the subconscious of many who are on the receiving end. They, like me today, will wrestle with their worthiness and sexual and gender identity not because they do not know themselves but because the world tells them they are built wrong.

I don't know how to make it stop. Frankly, I don't know if we can. But when I hear a song like "Outfit," I am reminded that sometimes love is shown in the form of good intentions. The messaging may sound mean-spirited or outdated, but that's because it comes from the perspective of someone who does not fully understand the world around them. When our parents or whoever raises us tells us how the world is, they most often do so to make us more prepared for the insanity of being. They know life is hard enough as it is, and they want to help you avoid making it any more complicated. What they inevitably learn, and what we must grow to understand, is that it's hard for everyone. You might as well be who you want to be and own that identity with every fiber of your being because, as far as any of us know, we only get one ticket on this ride around the sun. You know it's going to suck in more ways than you can predict, so you might as well go through it being whoever you want to be for as long as possible. If others don't like your outfit, wish them well and move along. You don't have time to get hung up on how other people see you.

Carry on, baby! You are cosmic royalty. The same material that made the universe built your body. You are the dust of stars that burned bright millions or even billions of years before humans came into existence. The atoms that comprise every inch of you have likely traveled countless light years before coming together to create you. You are a one-time phenomenon that will never exist in this form again. Not only do you belong, but you are one with everything. Never let anyone convince you otherwise.

THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON MAY 17, 2021