Trey Sumner, lead facilitator for the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan’s Altogether Boys program returns to the Revealing Men podcast to talk about his experience in the armed services and how he developed into a pro-feminist male while serving in the military. Sumner served for 26 years and four deployments. His military duties included Chinook door gunner and Flight Operations for MEDEVAC. In this conversation, he and Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center explore how the concepts of masculinity and masculine identity can include compassion and thoughtfulness while retaining courage and strength. Excerpts from the conversation are below (edited for length and clarity). You can access the entire discussion on the Revealing Men podcast.
This is the last in a series of four podcasts featuring men who reveal their personal experiences with abuse, violence, and bullying. The series provides insight as to how males are often socialized to accept emotional and physical abuse and pain—suck it up—and how that primes them to pass this abuse forward. Each man interviewed identifies how he has experienced abuse and how a new self-awareness allows a revisioning of masculinity where the cycle of abuse is no longer accepted or mindlessly passed down. Sumner spoke earlier in this series about his experience with bullying.
The two additional podcasts in this series are:
- Counseling Changed His Life – an abusive man’s experience with counseling.
- One Man’s Story of Surviving Domestic Abuse – a man finds new life and strength after being abused.
Living up to Macho Stereotypes
Flood: Welcome, Trey!
Sumner: Thank you.
Flood: You and I met after you came out of the gender studies program at Grand Valley [State University] and started working in the Altogether Boys program. But, prior to that, you had this incredible experience of serving in the Army, and finding your pro-feminist wings, shall we say.
Sumner: When I joined the military, I went into combat arms, which is very hyper-aggressive. My whole experience there, I wasn’t always completely comfortable. I was trying to fit a mold. I was trying to make my dad happy: “Look how tough I can be!”
Flood: How old were you when you went in?
Sumner: I was 20. My dad had told me I wasn’t tough enough to join the Army and I should’ve joined the Air Force. So, I was like, “I’m going to go be a tough guy.” That’s what I did.
Flood: Did he serve?
Sumner: Yes. He was in Vietnam. He was in the Air Force.
Flood: Okay. So, you graduated from high school. Did you think about just going into work? Or college?
Sumner: I started to go to college. I just didn’t really have any direction. My sister’s fiancé was in the National Guard. He’s the one that encouraged me to join. I was a door gunner in a Chinook unit for a while and then I switched into MEDEVAC. A transition I thought was going to be easier as an experience. When I got to MEDEVAC that was the first time I’d ever worked with women in the military in a substantial capacity. There aren’t any women in combat arms. We saw women in logistical places. So, there was a very macho, very misogynistic mentality around everything. But I didn’t realize.
Flood: Were you part of it at that point? Were you just immersed in it?
Flood: Were you just like the fish swimming in water? Not knowing where.
Sumner: I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I fit all the roles and I did all the things. It wasn’t until I got into MEDEVAC and I deployed with MEDEVAC that I realized what an incredible Boys Club the military really is and just how difficult it is for women.
Pushing Back Against the Male Code
Sumner: The biggest fear for people when pushing back against the military is you don’t want to make anybody mad because you’re not going to be able to advance in rank. I did not want any more rank than I had, so I had no advancement ambitions. That gave me the freedom to speak honestly—not rudely, but honestly—about things that I saw. What I saw was just a horrific way that women were treated and it struck me. It just really struck me.
Flood: What year was this?
Sumner: It was 2009. It was when the military was talking about repealing “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” and so it was a perfect storm that came together that I fortunately came out on the right side of. I had very strong feelings about “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” I thought that was a ridiculous policy. It was stupid. I strongly encouraged repealing it. And actually, I made an argument with my commander and my chaplain for a long time. I’m like, “We’re saying that we accept gays in the military but the one thing that makes a gay relationship different from mine is still illegal in the Army. How is that open to that?” So, in an attempt to support my fellow soldiers that were not heterosexual, I painted my toenails pink for a year. And that freaked out a whole bunch of people. [Laughs.]
Flood: Say a little bit about this male code. You said there’s also male socialization that’s bigger than the Army or the service, and then there’s something more specific, kind of a microcosm of masculinity, that you were following and others were pressured by.
Sumner: There’s a couple of examples. One soldier of mine, she was the “problem child” and they gave her to me because I was supposed to be the tough guy. She, after three months of working with me, came into my office crying and I’m like, “what’s wrong?” And she’s like, “you’re the only leader that’s never tried to have sex with me.” [Flood: “Oh, wow.”] She wasn’t a problem child. She just didn’t want to f**k everybody. And that’s a real thing in the military in a very harsh way.
Another soldier I worked with was in charge of a lot of things. When you’re MEDEVAC it’s like a commune, everybody is on call all the time. Everybody has to stay in this area and you just have to work together. You share responsibilities. And, when he divided up the responsibilities, there were two women on our site, on our team, and guess who got laundry and sweeping? Every time. Because that’s women’s work in this guy’s head. Just so many things that I saw were just weird. You saw that misogyny accentuated, hyper-accentuated and put into place.
Awakening to a Pro-feminist Mentality
Flood: So, it’s that rigid, gender binary that was playing out and everybody had their gender scripts and that’s what you saw. Say more about what kinds of experiences or relationships you had or insights you had or reflections that started your evolution or transformation into thinking in a more, let’s call it “pro-feminist” ideology.
Sumner: Yeah. So, that was my fourth deployment, and having had experience with that, I knew it was important to have something to do besides your military job to keep you going for that year. I always encourage people to learn another language, go to college. And I had decided I was going to go to college. Because I hadn’t been—I was 39 at the time—and I was going to ask my kids to go and I thought I should do it then too.
I started looking into what I wanted to study and I was just going with what was interesting. And what was topical at the time for me were these gender issues that were shining like bright flashy lights in front of me every day. And the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell,” being repealed or being questioned. So, that’s what I found interesting and that was the way I started focusing my attention. There’s a very clear “a-ha” moment I had. I didn’t have the words then to say why I knew it was wrong, but I knew that calling other guys “pussys” was something wrong. I didn’t have the complete understanding that, yes, what I’m doing is associating you with a woman and that’s weak, and so, therefore, by calling you that I’m just lowering women on the totem pole and that’s wrong.
Stepping Outside the Man Box
Flood: This is like the man box. You get forced into a box that’s rigid, that you have to stay in, and if you get outside that box—show some kind of weakness/femininity/something that’s anti-male—then you shame people with names such as “sissy,” “pussy,” to say “stop being a girl,” “stop being a gay man,” “be a real man and get back in the box.”
Sumner: Right. And when I did that, I also made a conscious decision to challenge other guys who did it. And that started the ball rolling. Now all of a sudden, I got labeled. Now I’m the “sissy,” and all the names that came with it and all the associations.
Flood: You were removing yourself or challenging the tribal script.
Sumner: Absolutely. In fact, I remember, there was one pilot one time, … all the men would go, all the tough guys would go play Backgammon. I don’t like Backgammon.
Flood: I didn’t realize Backgammon was a tough guy sport!
Sumner: It’s a pilot thing. I don’t know; it was their thing. I wouldn’t go and they were like, “oh, it’s because you’re gay.” [Laughs.] I was like “sure, that’s what it is.” [Both: Laugh.] I would then go into the rec room and hang out with the female soldiers, and I’m like, “I guess that makes me gay. Instead of going into a room with you!” That just kind of reframed me in everybody else’s mind and I was totally comfortable with that. The irony, I guess, is that the military gave me the self-confidence and the assuredness where I was like, “this is what I think and if you don’t like it, I don’t care.”
Rewriting the Masculinity Script
Flood: What we associate, oftentimes with masculine qualities, like courage, like power, independence, autonomy, a real man takes a stand. You took what was very masculine and used that energy or those traits to be a pro-feminist. It took a lot of courage, a lot of strength to be able to stand away from the pack and deal with the pressure, or deal with the negative feedback you were getting, the harassment, bullying, or whatever occurred.
Sumner: I am pro-feminist, but that’s not what was going on in my head. [Flood: “At the time.”] I was recognizing that the posturing that I was doing, that the presenting I was doing, that all these things I was doing, weren’t making me happy and I didn’t like who I was.
Flood: What do you mean it didn’t make you happy? What did you notice?
Sumner: When hyper-aggressive men get together, we extract so many wonderful things of what it means to be human from what it means to be a man. I can be strong. I can be tough. That doesn’t mean I have to be a jerk. I don’t have to be rude. I don’t have to be mean. That’s not what a man is but that’s what we associate [it with]. I didn’t like who I was and I think that has a profound impact on us as individuals. I found that when I made the intentional conscious decision to say “I want to be a complete human,” and therefore, I don’t need to behave in this very narrow script, because these aren’t the behaviors that I wanted to exhibit.
Flood: The process of busting out of the man box was actually freeing and liberating.
Sumner: Yes, absolutely. What I knew was that I was in a lot of pain inside, and it was a lot of pain that had been inflicted upon me, a lot of pain I had inflicted upon myself. And I also had pain from things I had inflicted upon others, perpetuating that cycle. I didn’t like it. And, to be honest, I got lucky. That’s a crossroad and most men, in my experience, at that crossroad, go into an angry, depressed, violent [mode], find a way to exercise your power where you can. You get to that point where you realize that we want to dominate the world and we’re not going to. So, we dominate what we can, which tends to be our partners, our spouses, our children, our animals. I didn’t want to be that. I didn’t like that.
How to Better Train and Support “Tough Guys”
Flood: Do you think that as you became more in touch with your own pain, that gave you the ability to be more empathic to the targets of men’s aggressions? And that helped you then have the courage to speak up or stand up.
Sumner: Absolutely. And that’s a process that’s still painful today because now all of a sudden, I’m going “Wait! We can’t do these things.” And these were things that I was doing that were a part of my learning process. I had to unlearn a lot of things and I still am. So, yeah, it was difficult. But what I have found is—and this is something that I’ve tried very hard to teach the boys that I work with—owning when you’re wrong doesn’t make you weak, it makes you right. There is so much freedom. I’m always like, I know it’s scary, I know it is, it sounds scary but once you really embrace being a complete human being, it’s very freeing and very empowering. It just makes everything easier.
Flood: Right. So, we have the military. We always will, most likely. How do you look at it today? If you went back as a 20-year-old with your current knowledge and insights, how would you serve your country and do what you’re trained to do? While at the same time, trying to be connected to your heart, to empathy, to respect. How do you pull that off? Give me a sense of whether you have a vision of how that can be done, just to project this idea that we can do something that’s traditionally masculine while being human, even though we know the military is, we have some questions about its role and purpose in an imperfect world. I’m wondering how you envision that.
Sumner: That’s a really difficult question to answer because when you say the military—and this happens a lot—people say “the military” and you think it’s just one big thing. The military is so different; it’s as different as people. You couldn’t say “society” and then just come up with one thing we need to do. It’s just too complex. But I think that in the more cerebral parts within the military, I mean when you’re talking with Air Force and Navy people that are working in NASA, I think that that’s a different set of problems than when you’re dealing with the high school dropouts that are all grunts, and infantry soldiers, and bully catchers. I think this is where you find the meat of the problem, in the combat arms.
And there’s a lot of reasons behind that, and it’s a difficult problem, it’s a wicked problem. Because how do you take a group of men and quickly break them down, build them into a team. I mean it’s a very effective tool, to do what they want to do. The real question now is do we need to do this?
Flood: As much as we have done.
Sumner: That’s right. And that’s where I think it is possible to be that tough guy—I mean firemen do it, policemen do it, soldiers—to have that training and the capability to go do violent, dangerous things. It’s important that we have people that can do that. But we also need to take care of those people.
Courage is Not the Absence of Fear
Flood: It’s interesting that you’re talking about firefighters and police officers. I remember working with a firefighter and he said, “You know, it would take more courage for me to tell my fellow firefighters that I’m scared to run into that burning building. It doesn’t mean I don’t run into that burning building! I just do it because it’s the right thing to do, but to acknowledge my fear, would take more courage than actually running in there.” I was thinking of just that idea that courage is really about, it’s not about not having fear, it’s about being able to acknowledge you have it and then you still carry forward with the mission.
Sumner: And I have found, in the last half of my military life, or the last few years of it, where I got to a point in my life where I said yes, I will embrace the complexity of what it is to be human. And that means owning when you’re afraid. And being afraid doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to fail, but you’ve got to acknowledge that. And I found young soldiers need that leadership. I think young people, we all do, we all look for that kind of leadership. I had so many young soldiers that were drawn to me in the end of my career and it’s because they were in an emotional desert. And there are a lot of reasons why I think that’s happened in our military. It’s complex.
Flood: I remember Shelley Irwin [WGVU Morning Show] interviewing some paratroopers that jumped on D-Day. There were two or three men in their 90s and I remember she asked the question, “were you scared to jump?” The 90-something-year-old man said, “Oh Miss Irwin, we were very scared. But we knew we had to jump because we had these people who needed help down there.” And I thought that was very sweet that these men were able to acknowledge that as 19- or 20-year-old men they were scared as hell to jump, but they did it because it was a mission and it was noble to do it.
What Wholehearted Leadership Looks Like
Flood: You know you see that “No Fear” sign in the back of a big pickup truck to try to prove masculinity: “I don’t have fear.” But real masculinity, full masculinity, is about “yeah, you have fear,” because you’re a human, but how do you carry forward with the mission of pushing through it?
Sumner: I have an example that popped into my head [about] a very high-ranking man in the battalion, a decorated man who has all the tough guy cred that you could imagine. We were sitting outside—it was the smoking area and everybody was standing out there—that’s where everybody hangs out and talks shop, and there was an ant carrying this massive crumb and he looked and he said, “You see that ant? It’s been traveling all day. It got all the way to here to bring this back,” and then he squashed it.
And everybody laughed. And I looked around, and this was at the very tail end of my career so I had no fear of pointing out something and I was just like, “what are you doing?” I pushed back on that. And I’m not saying that to point out that I was courageous. The other men that were there, afterward, were like “thank God you said something.” And I’m like, “Why didn’t you? Jump in there!”
Flood: The pressure from the man pack; you don’t say something to the man in power.
Sumner: Yup. You don’t push back. But I tell you what. That guy respects me more than he does those people. Because I’m not afraid to say that was wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect him; I don’t respect his rank, I do. And I follow orders. But that was just a bad incident and nobody would say anything.
Flood: You reminded me of something. I had a lieutenant colonel in one of my men’s therapy groups. [The] first session he came in, one guy had an expression of sadness and was crying in the group. The guys were supporting him and he [the lieutenant colonel] said to me, “if this shit is contagious, I don’t think I am going to stay in this group.” And then, he stayed and he realized there were different types of courage and he began to honor the type of courage it takes for someone to open up and be honest and real. This man grew to respect men who had the courage to sit down in a circle and share their hearts.
Sumner: That’s awesome. I love that! And it doesn’t make that man weak.
Flood: No. He still served. He was still in the National Guard or something leading as a lieutenant colonel. It didn’t stop him from being able to perform leadership, but it gave him more of a chance to be a complete human being by sitting in a circle with other men and sharing his heart.
Sumner: There was a young soldier who made a pretty big mistake on a training exercise with me; [it] actually hurt me personally. And there was a time gap—I got stranded somewhere—and it took me a couple of hours to get back to the base. And, by the time I did, he, everybody, was terrified. He thought I was going to murder him, I think, literally. This guy only knew my past, he didn’t know who I was. And one of my friends had kind of set him up for failure, and was like, “Sergeant Sumner’s coming? You are smoked!”
And I got there, and we sat down and had a talk for about three minutes about how to do it better, and I got up and left. And he came back to me later. He was like “you have no idea that changed me.” He literally thought I was going to hit him and he was ready for it—and he was like, “but, instead we talked through it.” And I feel like that just opened up something in him. That was a cool opportunity for me.
Flood: It’s a different kind of leadership. He probably had a great level of respect for you and you could get him to do a lot of things for you and for a good mission.
Sumner: And I think that’s a better way.
Flood: I appreciate you coming and sharing.
Sumner: And I appreciate you, Randy, for letting me come in here and talk about these things. This is as good for me as it is for you.
Becoming Fully Human Doesn’t Mean Losing Your Manhood
Trey Sumner helped young men and women in the armed forces grow in strength and confidence, not by being a bully but by showing care and recognizing the full humanity of those around him. He retained his masculine identify while developing his more empathetic traits. At the Men’s Resource Center, we help men find the courage and strength within themselves to become fully human. We provide programs that address PTSD and trauma as well as online support groups and in-person counseling.
If you’re looking for more information about these or other counseling services, please explore our website or give us a call at (616) 456-1178. Also, feel free to contact us on our website if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.