Around Father’s Day, 2013
An ex-girlfriend used to call me her lesbian boyfriend, and this used to please me, flatter me. I felt it gave me the aura of transcending my gender, which, I must say, was, is, much to be desired. Because, after all, who wants to be a “man.” The qualities I associate with manhood I experience in the ways I imagine the descendants of slaveholders feel– shame mixed with disgust. What are these qualities? Condescension, argumentation, arrogance, smugness, entitlement to power, discomfort with powerful feelings. Though gay masculinity has begun to re-define manhood, slowly, in the larger culture, when I hear the word “man,” a kind of monolith with a penis appears in my mind, perhaps with graying temples. I’m Jewish, so the graying temples make sense.
My father was powerful, scary, charming. My mother was warm, accepting, scary. My dog was diffident. I became a kind of gender patchwork: confused, heterosexual, feminized, feminist, inconsistent, wounded, queer. Yes, I know the last is a minefield, fraught, territorial. It evolved out of a sense of strangeness, difference.
When I was a boy, I thought manhood was a prize the Wizard would give me, one of the secret medals he had hidden in his bag. Here is my song: (to be sung to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain”)
When a boy is wracked and worried
He gets so awful hurried
He’s tight as a tin can
Still I’d know life were easy
And I wouldn’t be so queasy
If I only were a man
You know, I need to grow
Right out of the bonds that seem so slow
Life is happening outside of my window
Accelerate! How great!
If you think that boyhood’s pleasant
A charming adolescent
Engagement in the show.
I can’t bear my position
It’s my sole and dear ambition
To stop being young and grow.
But the Wizard didn’t give my manhood medal.
And years passed and I became a man, by default. First I ran towards manhood, and I’ve spent the last few decades running away from it. Because, in my way of thinking: who wants to be a man? I’ll say more about this. First, though, there is there is the stage which we call in which males in our culture are neither men, nor boys, which we call young manhood. I’ve actually never heard this noun form alluded to in anything other than the singular form, but someone must have. This stage of being men with training wheels. It might also be called Late or Old Boyhood, but we don’t do this, because at this stage most American males are yearning to throw off the shackles of adolescence. “Old Boy” also has connotations that make it slightly distasteful.
I think I liked being a young man. “Man” was modified. Man always needs to be modified, in my opinion. One never has the opportunity to say to someone, “I’m a man.” What would the situation, the conversation, the unfortunate event be that led to this circumstance? A hospital admittance? A date? Pulled over by a cop? A cop who was a man, no doubt. And what would be the response of someone to this announcement, to saying, perhaps peremptorily, “I’m a man” (are you in a football stadium? Is the ballet about to begin? Giselle?)?
Here are some possibilities:
A woman: I’m sorry.
A man: Can I have one?
A Transgendered person: Are you sure?
A Dog: Woof.
As a young man, say between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, I felt sophisticated beyond my years thanks to my years of traveling, full of unidentified yearning, compulsive in ways I couldn’t control which scared me constantly, and completely confused about whether or not I was an attractive human being. The cauldron of my early political radicalism and the second wave of feminism, a kind of insistent desire to resist convention, and, and . . . what to call it? An aversion to certain masculine norms that had seeped into me from an early age: aggression, loudness, insensitivity, indifference or antipathy to intense emotion and self-reflection. I identified these, stereotypically, of course, with masculinity. Along with my politics, and what Hazlitt called The Spirit of the Age, while sexually heterosexual, I was spiritually and politically engaged with the (here the writer taps the table impatiently) LGBT movement. My own sense of “maleness” or “man-ness” became diffuse, deconstructed over the years.
I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but my mother won’t admit it
I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but when I say I am I get it.
I run away from “man,” but I could embrace some version of boy, some version of the open, still-evolving biological masculine nomenclature, even if it carried a whiff of Andy Hardy or comic books. Look, I’m not talking about Peter Pan, about clinging to youth. I think of most boys as more emotionally supple than most men. More sensitive. Charles Lamb referred to himself as a “boy-man.” I like that.
The truth is I don’t often think of my gender, except when I’m thinking about gender. That’s probably patriarchal privilege, in disguise. When I do, I think of it as a kind of male-queer construction, painted with feminine outlines. I’d like to define my gender as Fred Astaire, actually, if I were asked. Fluid but focused. Dances alone, however, much of the time.