Masulinity as Memoir

Rachel has recommended a few times that I read Michael Kimmel’s essay “Masculinity as Homophobia,” and was kind a while back enough to send me a link to a copy of it after my own searches yielded little more than abstracts. So, I printed it out and read it during one of Parker’s swimming lessons (his Papa usually goes into the pool with him). Sitting in the middle of lobby of the YMCA, reading the article in that setting was only slightly more surreal than the experience of reading the article itself. It was a bit like reading an abstract of my own biography.

I guess it makes sense. Like I said before, I was not a normal boy.  I remember knowing that as early as kindergarten, even if I didn’t have a name for it. And even if I hadn’t sensed it myself, it was made abundantly clear to me. The Raising Cain documentary refers to tests of masculinity, tests that I pretty much failed right from the start. Sometimes I didn’t even know I was being tested. Those memories aren’t easily forgotten, and reading Kimmel’s essay quickly brought them back to mind.

…the father is the first man who evaluates the boy’s masculine performance, the first pair of male eyes before whom he tries to prove himself. Those eyes will follow him for the rest of his life. Other men’s eyes will join them — the eyes of role models such as teachers, coaches, bosses, or media heroes; the eyes of his peers, his friends, his workmate; and the eyes of millions of other men, living and dead, from whose constant scrutiny his performance will never bee free.

I played with dolls. My sister’s dolls; both baby dolls and Barbie dolls. It wasn’t like I didn’t have toys of my own, but I just preferred the dolls.  My playing with dolls was the catalyst for the  first time I remember getting the message (somewhat indirectly) that I wasn’t measuring up in the masculinity department.

I was sitting in the middle of the family room playing with one of my sister’s dolls, combing and styling its hair. My mom was a few yards away in the kitchen, and my dad was sitting behind me, on the couch, watching the television. He was also watching me, because from behind I heard him ask my mom “Should he be doing that?”; playing with a doll, that is.

The conversation continued as though I weren’t in the room. My mom rationalized that I might have a daughter some day and that I’d have to know how to do her hair. So it was okay. Now that it was safely wrapped in a frame of presumed heterosexuality, I could continue playing with dolls. But the question had been posed, and the seed planted. Normal boys (who grow up to be real men) didn’t play with dolls, as I enjoyed doing. Shortly after that, I was given a Ken doll and a G.I. Joe. I promptly stripped off their clothes was very disappointed with what I found or — more precisely — didn’t find. 

When it comes to masculinity, details matter. At that age, I couldn’t even eat an apple the way a boy — or a man — was supposed to. Another time, my dad pointed it out to me. I would usually slice an apple into wedges before eating it, rather than just biting into it, as he instructed me a guy was supposed to. (I didn’t mention at the time that it hurt my teeth to do so.) If anybody saw me eating an apple like that, I was informed, they might think I was a little “funny.” Details. Details. 

I have a standing bet with a friend that I can walk on to any playground in America … and by asking one question, I can provoke a fight. That question is simple: “Who’s a sissy around here?” … One of two things is likely to happen. One boy will accuse another of being a sissy, to which that boy will respond that he is not a sissy, that the first boy is. They may have to fight it out to see who’s lying. Or a whole group of boys will surround another boy and all shout “He is! He is!” That boy will either burst into tears and run home crying, disgraced, or he will have to take on several boys at once to prove he’s not a sissy. (And what will his father and brothers tell him if he chooses to run home crying?) It will be some time before he regains any sense of self respect.

Guess which boy I was.

Actually, I didn’t have much opportunity to “run home crying.” I learned early on to avoid my male peers because, for me, there was a danger in being near them. Part of that stemmed from an awakening pubescent desire that was often betrayed by the glances I stole. But it was also due to a recognition that if I ventured onto the field of their turf, chances are I wasn’t going to measure up.

So, I wouldn’t have been on the playground Kimmel writes about. Recess usually found me sitting under a tree at the far corner of the playground, reading a book. Actually, being an avid reader saved me in a sense (just as much as it branded me, because among my peers being bookish was the opposite of being boyish). It gave me a refuge when it led to my becoming a library assistant. I got to hang out in the air conditioned library with the librarian and the other library assistants (who were almost all girls), far from the playground, the boys, and their tests of masculinity.

I guess by then I’d already opted out of the club to the degree that I could. Of course, the reality was (and is) that I can’t opt out entirely. I’m still a guy, and I’m probably always going to bump up against the whole gestalt of “masculinity” that pervades the culture I’m living in. Kimmel’s article got me started thinking about it.

In fact, it was on my mind when I walked into a bookstore a few weeks ago and saw Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, a memoir of her own experience passing as  man for 18 months. Last week, after getting a gift certificate for another book store. I picked it up, started reading it this weekend, and have already started mentally writing a review. Because her experiences paralleled many of my own — as a gay wandering around in the world of heterosexual men much of the time — it’ll probably be a continuation of this post, which I can’t figure for the life of me how to properly wrap-up.

Oh well. More to come.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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One Response to Masulinity as Memoir

  1. Rachel S says:

    I thought of that essay so many times when I read your blog.  My own view is that men like yourself are the "sturdy oaks" and the stereotypical "football players" are not.  Given the obssession with hegemonic masculinty (even for boys at a young age), it takes a lot of courage to go against the grain.  I certainly don’t think most young boys who don’t fit "the ideal masculinty" are conciously do this, but the courage to maintain one’s sanity in the face of this harassment has to be very difficult for a kid.

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