I’ve spent a great deal of the past year writing a book on gender, or more specifically a book on my gender, and why I feel quite ambiguous about being male. I’ve learned that in this area of thought conclusions are very hard to come by, and they’re apt to change as you learn more about yourself, but I think I’ve managed to figure out at least one thing that feels pretty solid. This is it: my interest in being female is as least equally as much a disinterest in being male. Or to put it a different way, what my mind and body experienced as a desire to be female, was at least partially a desire to open up a space outside of the popular perception of masculinity. At the time this was the only way my mind knew how to make that request.
These reflections are occasioned by something I read by Rebecca Solnit today in Lit Hub. As I was reading Solnit’s piece right here, it occurred to me that this sense of alienation from conventional masculinity is probably a very widespread thing, even if I doubt that many men would feel compelled to choose the methods I have for working out that sense of alienation. In her piece, Solnit is writing against a really dumb list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” that appeared in Esquire magazine. But what she’s really writing against is the kind of idea of masculinity promulgated by magazines like Esquire.
Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.
Now I don’t mean to say that Esquire exerts some occult force upon the men of the world, forcing them to live up to idiotic stereotypes about what it takes to be a man, no more than does Cosmopolitan force every woman to live up to its own cheap ideas of femininity. And Solnit isn’t arguing this. What she is arguing, and where I agree with her, is that these types of stereotypes are very prevalent in our culture, so prevalent that there is a very real pressure to live up to them. Not in the sense that every man is going to do exactly what Esquire says, but in a more general sense that there’s a certain burden that needs to be lived up to, and that you receive these messages every single day from a million different points of entry. And of course this goes for women as well.
There are differences between the expectations placed on women and on men, and where I might draw one of the most important differences would be that there are a lot of forces advocating on behalf of women’s rights to not be a Cosmo stereotype of femininity. Nowadays there are lots of people invested in delivering the message telling women to be themselves, and to not be coerced by what the mass culture is telling them to do. There’s a very established set of theory and literature arguing exactly why women should not feel compelled to receive these messages. Which I think is fantastic, and which I wholeheartedly support. And it goes to show you how deep these cultural stereotypes can get into our skulls, as these counter-arguments need to be repeated all the time in a million different ways, just to keep pushing back at what the dominant culture is trying to force into women’s heads. While I think analogous counter-forces exist for men as well, I don’t think they’re nearly as strong, and I think the options allowed for men are much more narrow. I think this is what it boils down to when Solnit writes that, “I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man.”
This, at any rate, is how it has felt for me. What became clear as I wrote this book on gender is that, essentially, I had to create a whole alternative identity for myself, and an alternative system of logic to go with it, in order to give myself some sort of psychological grounding with which to step down from the ranks of the masculine men. To repeat, I don’t think it’s necessarily that every man at odds with the idiotic burdens of masculinity will step back as I have stepped back, and nor do I think many men even want to step back from these burdens. Probably many people don’t even recognize these questions as burdens and are perfectly fine being men and women in the mold that society wishes. I, however, have opted out, and I do think that this choice necessitates a kind of inner struggle to find a way to do so.
And, interestingly, what helped me a lot in this struggle was feminist theory and feminist literature. As I began to read more and more from that school of writing, I began to understand how difficult it had been for the first generations of feminists to step back from the dictates of the culture at large and to simply be the kind of woman that they felt compelled to be. That in a very real sense the writing they did was necessary to them finding the way to rebel against their culture and be as they wished to be. A lot of their arguments and methods and emotions resonated powerfully for me, and these writings were instrumental in showing me my own way forward.
I think that, in general, the matter of determining what one’s own gender is and how one wishes to express it is rather confusing and challenging, and the interference from the dominant culture makes things even more confusing and challenging than they would be already. Writing this book—which entailed going back to Day One of my conception of gender and recounting every important fact I could get a hold of—was a process that showed me just how confusing everything had been, and how difficult it was to even get to a place where I could begin to sort it out. This has perhaps been the most insidious burden of all—that it took so much struggle just to reach a place from which I could begin to systematically unwind these questions. i don’t at all think that I have exhausted these questions for myself by writing this book, but I have reached a very important point of vantage now, where I can really think clearly about these things. I hope that, if they wish it, everyone who reads this website can reach the same point of self-realization and self-understanding.