When I was twelve, P.E. class was a highlight of the school day. After half an hour of drills and exercises, the teacher would announce it was ‘free sports’ time. All the boys in my class, and some girls, would race outdoors and organise themselves with astonishing efficiency into a loud game of football. I loathed football. Maybe the only reason was its popularity among all the other boys—although, in hindsight, I’m sure the fact that my parents weren’t football fans helped. If I was lucky, two or three boys would peel away from the group and ask for a basketball instead. That game I liked. More often I would have to join the remaining girls, playing badminton, or dodge-ball. The shame.
What I really wanted to play, though, was even more subversive. My favourite playground pastime was skipping the Double Dutch jump ropes. Since I was very young I greatly enjoyed skipping and jump ropes. I was also very good at both. In fact, the only reason I got away with taking a skipping rope to class every day without being called a sissy was my proficiency. I could jump at speed, backwards, and do tricks that even the girls weren’t capable of. This went a long way to deflect derision into respect (or at least quiet puzzlement) from my male peers. It wasn’t enough, however, to fit in. For that I would have had to play football, and play it well. Since I lacked the drive and the brain-to-foot coordination to do those, respectively, the best I could hope for was to quietly join in the other sports. I could not, however, ask the splinter group to play Double Dutch with me. If the suggestion to ask our teacher for the ropes didn’t come from the girls then I would suck it up and play something else. I didn’t realise it then, but what I was doing was subconsciously protecting the brittle shell of masculinity that all adolescent boys and most adult men feel they need when in the company of others.
Cracking open a cold one with the boys
I am a man. Well, a small and young man, maybe a boy? Male, at any rate. He/him. I did not chose any of those labels, but I also found no reason to complain about them. It makes sense: I am cis-gender and men have it better. Of course, I would later in life become aware of feminism, and support the notion that a stronger polarisation of the genders harms and limits women. It is only recently, however, that I have started to think of the ways in which gender harms men. Looking back, I’m surprised that the penny didn’t drop earlier—my whole life has been a subtle but constant struggle with traditional (Western) masculinity.
Small disclaimer: I am no gender scholar. My interest and knowledge of gender comes from personal experience, conversations with friends, popular books and the dark crevices of the Internet. This blog post is heavily inspired by Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man, which I have just finished to a great deal of introspection. He says it best: “What if half the victims of masculinity are men?” (The other half are women, but you know that.)
My identity as ‘male’ is so deeply ingrained in my perception of self that it comes second only to my identity as ‘human’. And yet, growing up among athletes and posh undergraduates, I have become so incredibly allergic to laddishness as to almost want to renounce the title of man. Almost. I am now surer of myself, and comfortable with the idea of performing my own version of masculinity. Comfortable with the idea doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the performance, though. I still struggle to be authentic, because I am so used to attempting to conform to traditional masculinity.
Maleness is genetic, but masculinity is not. It is a shifting cultural convention (a social construct, my humanity graduate friends would say) but conditioned into boys from so early on—from before they are born, actually—as to be considered innate by many. Some boys take well to the conditioning, and become the paragons of machismo that I so dislike; but to me and others, many aspects of traditional masculinity don’t come easily. This is a problem: the male role is heavily policed and transgressions incur social penalties.
When other men (and women) are judging, you learn to watch yourself; to hide any unmanly habits before the gender police spots them and brands you a sissy. In my (modest) maturity, I have now come to realise that if being silently judged is the worst that can come of authenticity, that’s normally a price worth paying. There is worse, of course. There is ostracism, and abuse, but at least I feel safe from those in my own social circles. So it is that, over the last few years, I have been deliberately, painstakingly, trying to undo a lifetime’s worth of subtle behavioural conditioning. It’s easier said than done. You don’t just hit a switch, come out as a sissy, and start acting out in all your fabulous, non-conforming ways.
The worst revolution ever
My most subversive stunt in defiance of traditional masculinity was a common and rather vanilla affair: I started, and later announced, a same-sex relationship. ‘Ah,’ I hear you think, ‘but you’re queer, that explains everything.’ No. It doesn’t. As I said, my identity as male comes first. My sexual orientation is undoubtedly a related subject, but it is tangential to this argument.
I’m not a particularly camp guy, but I do talk a bit gay, and walk a bit gay. A bit. My coming out was unsurprising to some and rather surprising to others. To this date, I feel a stupid sense of accomplishment when someone tells me they are surprised to find out I’m not straight. ‘Yes,’ I think, ‘I pass!’ Pass what? ‘You pass the hetero-normative stoker test, idiot.’ I should be pleased when people are not surprised, as that would mean I’m doing a better job of not repressing my natural, rather moderate, mannerisms in order to conform to traditional masculinity. (Although I could also take issue with people automatically associating manliness with heterosexuality, because that is part of what I am trying to fight here—but that is something for a whole other blog post.)
It makes sense, to some extent. Coming out is a massive blow to the shell of masculinity. It makes the whole thing wobble so much that you have two options: you let it fall and shatter, or you try to compensate by performing orthodox masculinity in other departments, like sports or conversation. I wasn’t prepared to let the first one happen, because there are many ways in which the current definition of masculinity does fit me, and I value them. (Incidentally, I’m sure this is the reason why ‘femme hating’ occurs among some queer men, who reject camp gays because they ‘give them a bad name’; they want to retain the perks of traditional masculinity so don’t want our hetero-normative society to associate them with ‘that type of gay’. But I digress.) So I went for the second option. I am still ‘traditionally masculine’ in the ways that are comfortable and unproblematic for me, but I aim to continue subverting expectations of the role if they don’t suit me, as many braver men have done before me.
But I’m not all that revolutionary; as I said, it’s hard for me to consciously undo two decades of habit. My transgressions will no doubt come in increments that don’t upset the balance of my masculinity to the point of tipping—at least while perception of the male role remains as rigid as it currently is.
Now you’ll understand why I don’t wish to shatter masculinity, but I do want to make it more plastic. Besides the fact that a one-size gender doesn’t fit all, there are also intrinsic problems with adhering to traditional masculinity in our modern world, even for people who conform to it easily. But others have written extensively about that, I just want to tell you about my experience. As a society, I don’t suppose we can do away with gender altogether—at least not yet!—but I hope that we can begin to pin fewer expectations on each gender.
Things, abstract things but especially objects, that are arbitrarily or historically gendered make my blood boil: jobs, colours, toys… for me, this obsession extends as far as clothes. I realise there are practical reasons, namely different body shapes, why clothes may be gendered, but this is not enough to explain the vastly different fashion options and expectations of men and women. And this is coming from a man who hates shopping and routinely aims to put in the minimal possible effort into picking out outfits.
Little victories, little failures
One particular way in which traditional masculinity doesn’t work for me, at all, and which I therefore resist, is in relationships. I’m obviously not straight, I’ve covered that, but that’s not the most important dimension of this problem (that one is particular to me and other queer men). In fact, sexual attraction is the least of it. Seriously. I’m talking about emotional connections: most men seem incapable of identifying or talking about their feelings, which leads to misery for them and to very superficial relationships with fellow humans, of any gender—at least outside of romantic relationships. Grayson Perry writes extensively about this in The Descent of Man. He calls it emotional illiteracy. “[Women] are spending more quality time with female friends,” he says. “They are learning the value of true intimacy and support, and are able to see what a healthy relationship can offer.”
Dudes don’t do that. The bro-code forbids it. I have made an effort to establish and maintain intimate, non-romantic, emotional relationships with my closest friends, and it has brought me great happiness. Overwhelmingly, though, these are with women. I have good male friends who I would love to get to know better, but I find it hard to establish this two-way channel if they won’t give.
And yet, in my crusade to escape the shackles of my well-rehearsed masculinity, I often fail at petty hurdles. At times, the pressure to perform is just too great. For example, the other day I was at a social gathering with a large-ish group of extended friends and acquaintances. We were sitting, in chairs. Now I am a massive fidgeter when seated, blame it on my knobbly knees. The fact is that I often cross and uncross my legs for comfort. Well this was one such occasion in which my legs were crossed. Not ankle on knee, in the breezy, manly way; but knee over knee, elbows on thighs, body leaning in, chin resting on my hand: the effeminate way. A lifetime of self-policing meant I caught myself within seconds of adopting the pose. A quick glance around the room confirmed all other males were manspreading in their seats, and my legs unconsciously resolved themselves into a neutral sitting position.
Here’s another annoying constraint of my conditioned masculinity that I can’t get over: dancing. I enjoy dancing tremendously, but I can’t help feeling that women got the better deal on this one. Sorry guys, they just have much more fun! At least I dance. That is in itself a mild transgression of masculinity. Many men are too manly to do it (even though they secretly want to). But I’ve been learning swing, a partner dance, for about three years, and I’m only now discovering the joys of following (as opposed to leading) the dance! Luckily for me, the swing dancing community is relaxed enough about gender roles that anyone can lead or follow, although there is still the unspoken expectation that you will want to lead if you are male. But let’s take informal, improvised dancing: the sort of wild flailing that goes on at clubs. I enjoy this too. Catch me in my kitchen, making dinner for one in an apron on a Tuesday evening, and you may see me swinging my hips and running my hands through my hair (or, God forbid, singing along to Let it Go). Go clubbing with me, and you will get the fun but less fun me swivelling my torso and tapping my toes, in a semi-conscious effort not to be a dance-floor diva.
I’m on the whole quite comfortable with my performance of masculinity. It is, mostly, mine. But I still glitch and conform on some of the small things—enough to annoy me and make me write a blog post about it. I’m still a bit of a closet sissy.