Here’s what you need to know about the Rhode Island Rumford Hunting and Fishing Club’s annual meat feast: it’s not for outsiders. This manbash is for swinging dicks. It’s for straight white men with beards and guns and shirts that read "PETA: People for the Equal Treatment of Tasty Animals." It’s for men who wear backward baseball caps with polarized Oakleys resting on the bill, like they’re watching you, and the rest of this country, with the eyes in the backs of their heads.
It’s also not what you think. This particular gun club, which was founded in the 40s, has been doing the game-dinner fundraiser for 30 years. Among other outdoorsy items, they raffle off rifles, guitars, and kayaks. But the main attraction is the feast—for 30 bucks, you can sidle up beside a bearded, suspendered man and dig into 150 pounds of venison, or 120 pounds of goose, shot by one of the fellows themselves (plus 100 pounds of store-bought rabbit, for good measure). The profits go to cancer programs, food banks, and scholarship funds, but most definitely not to PETA, and of course not to anybody interested in infringing on the Second Amendment. They are interested in “lobbying to protect the gun rights of Rhode Island residents,” according to their website, which features plenty of cheery photos of strung-up deer carcasses and animated geese flying serenely over their lifeless bodies.
My friends seemed a little alarmed when I first scored a ticket to the meat dinner, though it was never clear if that’s because I am a slim, bespectacled man or a transsexual one. But as a masculinity expert, I can’t pass up the chance to embed in the dark, hairy, grunting underbelly of the type of man who kills for sport.
I was invited to the dinner by a literature professor with whom I have a mutual friend. “Those guys will probably talk to you,” he told me nerdily, “as long as you agree to hate Obama.” The professor, like the hunters, does not know I am a transsexual man, but it’s pretty safe to assume the entire room would think I was a gay one. Just that morning, I had a confusing encounter with a middle-aged Rhode Island wise guy with a big gut and a cigar outside a coffee shop in Providence. He’d leaned into my car chummily and asked a series of strange questions I tried to field politely, until I realized what he was getting at. “My wife,” I began, and—as if I’d broken a magic gay spell—he disappeared with a wave of his jewel-encrusted pinkie ring.
So I’m a guy with a precise haircut and fitted jeans, a guy who happens to not have a dick to swing. I’d learned long ago that the scarier the stereotype, the more likely the dude would be cool. I’ve spent an eternity in a men’s-room stall at a truckstop in southern Maine, scared shitless by the boots of dudes who seemed to be waiting for me, only to discover that they were patiently standing guard over their children in the stalls on either side. I’ve read about that gang of bikers that escorts children who’ve been abused to and from court hearings, just to help them feel safer.
I’m not easily threatened—not anymore, anyway. I’m a man who wants to believe in other men. The truth is, some of my favorite interactions over the last two years, as I’ve become more comfortable in my squarer, scruffier body, have been with men’s men. I’ve sparred with bros at boxing gyms and sat in comfortable silence with old-school barbers. My pug-like boxing coach calls all of us, very homosexually, “baby,” and does not mean it homosexually.
So, my in was a buddy’s buddy, and it turns out he’s been going to this meat market (I couldn’t help myself) for years. He’s not a hunter, but he worked in a kitchen a while back with one of them, a nice guy who invites the professor and his Game of Thrones friends to the big event every spring. I don’t want to screw up his chance to gorge on deer and goose and rabbit until he can’t shit for days with too many descriptors, but let’s say Professor looks like he’d be way more at home at a cosplay convention than a duck hunt.
I parked my hatchback among the muddied pickups and tried not to pay much mind to the strung-out Easy Rider guys with the hairy eyeballs.
“These are proper men,” the professor’s friend said once we were inside and seated among the utilitarian plastic tables. The point was to eat, to help the kids with cancer, and to enjoy some Budweiser and manly spoils.
The guy looked nervous. I’ve often wondered about the phrase “real men,” the strange, implied binary of it, but I could see its origins here. He realizes he doesn’t pass, I thought. His masculinity is invisible here.
“I couldn't kill anything,” one of the guys at our table said proudly, as if announcing a tribal affiliation. He shoveled steaming venison chili into his mouth. “Not a hornet, not a deer, not a child.”
“I think I should be able to kill whatever I eat,” I offered, though I’m not sure I could, and that niggles at me—not because it’s not masculine, but because it’s cowardly.
The guy leaned forward confidentially. “Sometimes I think I'd kill a deer and get blood lust,” he said. “And maybe I’d never stop.”
As I considered that, Professor’s hunt-club buddy swung by with extra sausages (yes) and told us a long, harrowingly graphic story about chasing a wounded deer for so many hours that when he eventually found it, he was so mad he slit its throat.
A silence descended over the table. The day before, over breakfast, a friend told me he’d killed a rabbit with his BB gun when he was a kid. He’d left it in the woods, shocked at himself but determined to pretend it never happened. At dinner he was too overcome by guilt to eat, and it only took one “What’s wrong?” from him mom to bring him to tears.
His wife said the same thing happened to her little brother. “I wonder if all boys have that moment,” she said.
I didn’t have a boyhood, so I couldn’t say. I know the man who raised me loved a shotgun, knew it was the only memento he had from his childhood hunting game in the backwoods of South Carolina. He was a violent man who felt powerless, a straight, white man who hadn’t inherited the earth.
“Are you afraid of these guys?” one of the nerdy professor's friends asked. She was one of the only women in the room. I’m not, I wasn’t, but I knew what she meant. I knew I didn’t pass as one of them and that I never would. I knew that the crucible of the “sensitive man” is made here, among fathers and brothers and classmates much like these guys, and that the challenge for men like me was to learn to respect them and help hasten their decline simultaneously.
The friendly throat-slitter showed back up with some Styrofoam containers like a mom sending us on our way. We piled in the goose stew and the venison cutlets as he regaled us with a final story, a manly parable.
So there was this rogue cow last summer that escaped a ranch and barreled through backyards and golf courses around our guy’s land. The cow’s rancher gave the town permission to shoot it on sight, so our trigger-happy host went out one mosquito-thick night with his shotgun and got it done. “Perfect shot,” he said, with pleasure, “right between the eyes. But then I’m looking at 1,400 pounds of steer and thinking, What the fuck am I going to do with this?”
So he called his buddy, and they loaded the cow up somehow on the flatbed of a truck. Then the story took a pretty gross turn involving carving knives and a bone saw and so many mosquitoes. His butcher friend finally agreed to help him cut up the cow, but he told him to keep it in a storage fridge for a few days, some sort of safety protocol. So our hero did as he was told, but when he went back to check on the meat a week later, it had gone to rot.
“Imagine that,” he said, “1,400 pounds of steer, wasted!”
“So what happened to the cow?” someone asked.
He ignored us, his mind back to that buggy day. “That was a perfect shot,” he repeated.
We all smiled indulgently at each other, and I got it. His point was that none of us would’ve done that dirty work; we’d not bloody our hands, not bonesaw a corpse; hell, we’d not have the balls to kill that cow in the first place.
The moral, for all of us, was that he was right.
Previously by Thomas Page McBee - I Am a Masculinity Expert